How to take a long exposure photograph

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When we are to take a photograph of a flowing waterfall, the waves of grass on a field or perhaps the dreamy slow flow of a small creek it is easy to end up with an image where all seem frozen. The feeling of the location that was so clear at the site disappear completely when the photo has frozen the motions that was visible. How to counter this to bring a photo back in which we can save the feeling and the look of what we actually saw?

The reason is that cameras often in automatic modes use a short exposure give us a sharp image where motion often is reduced or removed all together. By instead increasing the exposure time we can bring back the motion into these images and end up with a photo which includes what we tried to remember. A night at the beach by a concrete pier can end up with a photo as below.

Nikon D80, Nikon 18-200 VRII @ 28mm, f/25, ISO 100, 18 seconds


Since we will be open up the sensor for quite some time a tripod or something to hold your camera in place is a must. Also, if you are out in daylight or in a setting which is already lit a neutral density filter can prove to be much helpful.

Long exposure photography, a quick guide

  1. Command dialTurn the mode dial of your camera to manual mode. The manual mode is often shown as an ‘M’ on the dial on your D-SLR where you can also find modes for aperture priority, shutter priority or the preset modes. Also place the camera body steady using a tripod or similar, all to reduce the shake which will cause blur when we are using longer exposures (lower shutter speed).
  2. Lower your ISO to the lowest possible setting, often between 80 and 200 depending on your camera. Since the ISO is a measurement of the sensitivity of the sensor in the camera a low value will require more light to enter the camera to sow up in the photo.
  3. Reduce the aperture to the lowest setting you can use, often about f/22 but can go even higher depending on your lens. The aperture is how big or small the opening or iris is in the lens to let through light into the camera. Beware however that on very small apertures the quality of the photo might be reduced.
  4. If you have neutral density filters, apply these to your lens. The neutral density filter is a filter which goes on your lens which then reduce the amount of light which can pass through the lens into the sensor of your camera. By doing this you can open the shutter for a longer time without getting to much light into the camera and by that, get an overexposed image.
  5. Set an exposure time between two and thirty seconds. The exact amount of time you need to open the shutter is depending on the light conditions you are in. If you are taking photos at dawn the light will change for every minute that pass so you can’t even use the same value for two photos to get the same result! Simply start with a value of a couple of seconds to see if you need more or less. A too dark image need a longer time with an open shutter and a to bright image need a shorter shutter time or that you as a photographer wait until the sun has set some more.
  6. Use a remote trigger. To reduce camera shake even further use a cable release or a remote control or if you have none of these use the timer mode in your camera to delay the photo being taken for a few seconds after you press the shutter release.
  7. Good luck!

Additional tips

  • Before you start taking photos, walk for a bit and look for settings which would be a great photo. For long exposure photos of water personally I find locations where items are in the water which the waves can crash against to look most stunning.
  • Always think about photo composition when looking for a location. Foreground and background is just as important as the main subject in shots where you want to show a large area. If you are on a beach, look for stones and drift wood.

Memory cards – does size matter?

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Wheter to use one large memory card or multiple smaller ones is a question most digital photographers have to ask themselfs at one point. The choice is almost as debated as Nikon vs. Cannon but I still would like to give my personal hint about the matter.

For simplicity we start of with a real life example of a photoshoot where a photographer is our for a full day of photographing a forest. When the day is over and the photos is about to be imported to the computer the memory card have become corrupted by moist and no photos can be imported. Using a large card available today perhaps one thousand photos would now be thrown away.

If the photos instead was stored on multiple smaller memorycards there is a great chance that not all cards would have broke at the same time and some photos could be saved. And this is the reason to why I use multiple cards instead of single large ones. It makes the risc of loosing your work a litle bit smaller.

Tip from the Autor » When taking photos on a trip or in places which are very crowded, do not keep all your memorycards in the same place! Buy a couple of small hardcases for your memorycards and keep some in your bag and some in a pocket for example. This will spread the risc even further if you for example loose your bag by mugging or just bad luck.

Black and white photography

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Black and white photos do no have the luxury of using color to catch the viewer. Instead we must capture the other parts of a scene to being able to deliver the feeling we got. There is also of course some photos that have better capabillties to become a great black and white photo then other. Urban photography is very trendy today and most photographers have tried it in some way. Often the objects found for this kind of photos are torn, old and have a high amount of contrast dy rust, old paint and materials and also quite often a less amount of ambient light. The perfect urban photo can be found in a sewer pipe with no direct sunlight or in an abandoned and shut building. Both of the examples with very low light. Low light is not always bad though, by utilizing the low light and beeing able to capture longer exposures we can create beautiful photos of ugly things and areas.

Often black and white photography can seem to be easier then color photography due to its forgiving effect. But in fact it is the complete differece. To being able to capture a great black and white photo the photographer have to see beyond the colors onto the object itself.

Different photos can call for different settings to be used to utilize the most of the situation. A nice blue sky can when desaturated look pale and lifeless instead of varm and beautiful. Using filters can help you to change the feeling of a black and white photo by bringing you more contrast and more details between the different colorscales which you are to remove.

  • If you have a very bright sky you can use a red filter to darken it while keeping the details in the foreground.
  • To bring more life into mist and fog you can go for a blue filter which will help those greys to jump out of the blur.
  • Green filters are great to use to capture the difference in greens while photographing vast landscapes or scenes of nature.

Camera settings
Most cameras today have the option of saving photos directly in black and white, both when using JPG and RAW. As most books and guides will tell you the best way to photograph black and white photos is to do so using RAW but not to use your cameras black and white setting. The main reason for this is so that you keep the colorinformation if you for any chance would change your mind afterwards and feel that the photo look better in color. You can also use the colorinformation to keep a single object in color while the rest of the photo is in black and white. This is an effect that have become very trendy lately and can be seen in many places.

“But if I shoot in color and RAW, how do I get my photos to become black and white?”, you might ask. Well, photoeditors today can create great black and white scales of color photos and the ways of desaturate an image are many. The easiest way that is almost always an option in editors is to change the colormode to black and white. This is a technique that might be a bit rough and you do not have as much control over it as you want but as an amateur photographer it will be enough for you to start getting a grasp on the posibilities.

Noise have an tendency to show even more in a black and white photo which mean that we should always keep the ISO-setting of the camera as low as possible. As soon as we start moving up the ISO we introduce noise which will show in our photos and sometimes this is something we want but most of the time we do not want this. It is due to this better to keep the ISO at the lowest setting possible for the scene and instead add noise in post-production if wanted.

General tips
A bright and sunny day can be great for your regular photos but might create slighly overexposed photos in black and white. To counter this at an early stage try to underexpose a couple of steps to keep the spectrum more balanced.

Great scenes for black and white photographs

  • Urban photography and decay in general have a natural feeling of desaturarion.
  • Architecture and abstract creations can be hard to photograph in black and white due to many areas with plain colors but in an interesting angle they can be great.
  • Landscapes can sometimes loose their grandness due to the strong colors. By removing the colors the observer can focus on the whole picture and not the stray details.
  • Textures exist all around us from macro-photos of a leaf to the patterns of a brick wall, and they all is just made for black and white photos in high contrast.

Reduce camera shake

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If there is one thing that is an issue for all photographers alike it is camera shake. Experience and practice can minimize the shake from the hands but it can still never be completely removed. Due to this there is a couple of small tips you can use to reduce the camera shake.

First of all we can try to identify what factors we have that will introduce shake to your photographs. One might think that all shake is generated by the photographers hands but as we will see this is not always the fact.

Handshake is the form of shake we get from taking photos while holding the camera. To reduce this you can do any of the following:

  • Use a tripod on which the camera is safely mounted. To even further reduce the shake check so that the tripod is firmly on the ground and not in direct wind.
  • Lean against something solid like buildings, trees or a light post. You can even press the camera body firmly against the surface of any of the above to fixate it. Use caution while pressing the camera against a surface though not to harm the camera.
  • Lay the camera on anything you might find like stones, fencepost or cars. Utilize your surroundings and try to find “natural tripods” to fixate the camera. If you take a custom of bringing a small beanbag together with your camera equipment this is a great tool to use while using natural tripods.

Trigger shake is caused by the trigger itself while a photo is taken. By using a remote to shoot you remove the chance of you pressing down the trigger causing any shake. If you do not have a remote you can also use the timed shot if this feature is available in your camera and for example set the timer to a few seconds before the shot is taken. This time will let the camera settle after you stopped touching it.

Apart from these physical changes in your handling you can also use the settings in your camera to reduce shake. The longer time the shutter is open, the more sensitive to shake it become. Because of this try to take photos with as fast shutter-speed as possible while still getting enough light. By using a lower zoom or getting closer to your object you can also reduce some shake. This because shake originating from a single point is experienced greater at a longer distance.

So there you have it, a few tips on reducing camera shake.

Good luck!

Also check out the article about taking photos in low-light using techniques taught to sharpshooters.

Sensor sensitivity (ISO)

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If you are using or have used an analog camera with “real film” you might have seen that film is sold with different ISO-values. This value tells us how sensitive the film is to light and by photograph using film of different ISO we can manage to get photographs in very low light as well as photos in a sunny day. In digital cameras the same value can be set telling the sensor inside the camera how sensitive it should be to light.

The most used span of ISO today is between ISO 100 and ISO 800. At the lowest value we need the most amount of light to get a good photo. When we increase the ISO value it mean that we can take the same photo as before but using less light.

The downside of a higher ISO is that the higher the value we use, the more blur we introduce into the photo. The real pros of using a higher ISO is that we can use a faster shutter even though the light is low. This is very useful if you are to take a photo in low light and have no tripod, by boosting the ISO you can keep the shutter fast and still get a good photo.

A rule of thumb is to keep the ISO at the lowest possible setting for the situation. In other words, start out by trying to take the photo using a low ISO and increase it until you get the outcome you were looking for.