Long Exposure – Getting the Shot

Pier Ruins Bandon Oregon

Arriving in Bandon, Oregon a couple of years ago, I was preparing for a workshop that was to begin in a couple of days. As I checked into the hotel, I was contemplating how to spend what remained of a blustery and misty afternoon. Just didn’t seem I would be doing much photography.

Realizing the marina was close by, I thought I would drive by in search of possible photo subjects and grab some great chowder or fish and chips at Tony’s Crab Shack. As I drove along, I noticed it was high tide and then came upon what looked like the remains of an old pier or support pilings for some structure long since seen it’s better days. Then it occurred to me. Wait, I thought. What a perfect spot for some long exposure photography. I retrieved my gear and hurried to the water’s edge and began to work the scene. Okay, I contemplated, what am I going to need? Of course my sturdy tripod. My neutral density filters as well, knowing to achieve the effect I was looking for would need a rather long exposure. And while it was overcast and not a bright afternoon, the ambient light was still too much to allow the exposure I would need for what I had in mind. Lastly, I grabbed my shutter release knowing my exposures would be long and most likely up to several minutes, which would require a rock solid camera absent of shake caused by even the most careful hand touching the camera.

Arriving at water’s edge, I proceeded to work the scene to settle on an optimal composition. Focusing as I would normally, based on a hyperfocal distance method to ensure needed near-far apparent focus, I was now able to calculate my exposure. I would note here that I use a back button focus configuration but if I did not, I would otherwise need to turn my auto focus off to eliminate the possibility of changing focus once I apply my neutral density filter.

Depending on your camera and the density of your ND filter, not only will you not likely be able to focus with the filter attached, neither will you be able to accurately calculate exposure. So what do you do? We’ve already addressed focusing, but for exposure what you may need to do is calculate the correct exposure for the scene without the ND filter attached. Take a couple of test shots. Check your histogram and make adjustments until you have it dialed in. Also at this point make any fine tuning adjustments to your composition. Now, add your ND filter(s). Here comes the tricky part.

You now have to calculate the adjusted exposure based on the factor of the density of the filter applied. If you applied a 10 stop filter for example, you must calculate the adjusted exposure needed for an equivalent exposure given 10 stops of additional time. Trust me, trying to do this quickly in your head can lead to a chance for error. Modern technology comes to the rescue though. There are numerous smart phone apps that can quickly and accurately do this for you. I personally use Exposure Calculator for Android, but there are many out there for both Android and iPhone. After determining your required exposure, quite likely longer than 30 sec, you may need to be sure your camera is set to the bulb mode. Now dial in your exposure time if using an intervalometer or just activate your shutter using your cable release and manually time the exposure. Now push the button and wait.

The image above of the pilings at the Bandon marina was 572 seconds @f/16, ISO 100, 10 stop Lee Big Stopper.

Sea Stacks, Yaquina Head, Newport, Oregon. 179 seconds @f18, ISO 100

In a similar fashion, I happened upon this scene during my scouting. The weather was really ugly. I was the only person in the area, wind blowing, light rain hitting my face feeling like pellets of sleet, an angry churning sea crashing against the sea stacks. By using the techniques described above I was able to turn this into quite an ethereal scene.

Garrapata Morning Surf, Garrapata State Park, Big Sur Coastline, California

Along the Big Sur coast, I was able to turn the early morning scene at Garrapata State Park into almost a painterly impression using an exposure of 6 seconds. The early morning hours and lower ambient light allowed me to capture this image without a need for neutral density filters.

In the example to the left, of tree skeletons on the northeast coast of Florida, I used a long exposure of the clouds to create diagonal leading lines to help draw you into the image.

All in all, long exposure photography allow you to convey a sense of motion or mood. And in some cases, the images are almost surreal, like the image below of sea stacks at night at Bandon, Oregon.

I set out one night for some milky way shots. Weather was predicting clear sky. There was a New Moon, perfect conditions, right? A forecast on the Oregon coast is only good for about 5 min, and as luck would have it, there would be no milky way shot this night. So I just experimented. Ambient light from some of the coastal homes gave enough illumination for the sea stacks and churning surf at high tide to provide a mystical scene

30 sec, @f/2.8, ISO 3200

Important equipment items for successful long exposure photography

  • Good sturdy tripod. I often see workshop students show up with tripods acquired based solely on cost and weight. These are considerations, of course, but making sure you have a sturdy tripod will save you money and frustration in the long run.
  • Neutral density filters. These come in a variety of strengths. Lee filters offer square varieties. A popular one is the Big Stopper, which is 10 stops. They also have introduced a new one that is 15 stops. Circular NDs are now also more readily available in a variety of strengths. My favorites are made by Breakthrough Photography. They are well constructed, high quality optical glass, and a neutral color bias. I do not recommend the variable ND filters, as they are more suitable for video applications and can cause issues in still photography using wide angle and strong densities.
  • A cable release. You simply cannot hold a shutter down with your finger for long exposures. I would actually recommend a intervalometer because this could also come in handy for night photography, which is a whole other genre I’ll talk about in a future post.

Long exposure photography is becoming increasingly popular as a way of expanding our creative vision in ways not possible, or at least more difficult, just a few short years ago. Some applications to consider might also include:

  • Cityscapes with light trails of vehicles
  • Light Painting
  • Star trails and other night sky photography
  • Abstract compositions involving mostly blurred motion
Arch Rock Point, Oregon Coast

With just a few simple additions to your camera bag, you can create compelling photographs or increase the dynamic impact of your images by incorporating a few of these simple techniques while in the field.

During our workshops, we always look for long exposure opportunities. Any scene that has both moving and static elements offers potential for excellent long exposure captures.


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