Long Exposure – It’s Just a Matter of Time
Words and Images by Misty Norman
A famous park bench philosopher once said, “Long exposure is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get”. Ok, maybe it wasn’t him, maybe it was his momma, and I’m not even sure she was talking about long exposures… Anyway, if you’re not fazed by uncertain outcomes and have patience in spades, then you might just enjoy experimenting with long exposure photography.
There is no definitive formula as to what constitutes a long exposure photograph. Does there really need to be? Let us just consider it any image where a slow shutter speed has been deliberately chosen as an artistic technique to emphasise movement or convey the passing of time.
Before embarking on your long exposure journey, there are a few key accessories you should consider packing to increase your chance of success. A tripod, the sturdier the better. When the wind blows during your several second (or minute) exposure, a light and flimsy tripod will not be your friend. Next, you’ll find a cable release with lock option extremely handy. And finally, a selection of neutral density filters.
Neutral density filters reduce the amount of light entering your lens, thus allowing you to slow your shutter speed and maintain correct exposure. They come in a range of densities that correlate to an exposure reduction in stops. For example, if you had an exposure of f/8 @ 1/30 second and added a 3 stop ND filter, your new exposure would be f/8 @1/4 second with ¼ being 3 stops slower than 1/30.
I often get asked which is the best ND for doing long exposure, to which I like to respond with the infuriatingly non-committal “It depends”. It does depend. It depends on the time of day you’re shooting and the amount of ambient light in your scene. It depends on the speed of movement in your scene. And it ultimately depends on the degree of motion-blur you wish to capture to create the effect (or mood) you’re after.
Extreme ND filters, such as the Lee Filters stopper range, are a highly effective tool that enable you to shoot with very slow shutter speeds.
The baby in Lee’s stopper family is the Little Stopper. This 6 stop ND filter reduces exposure time enough to capture movement and show the passing of time, while still retaining texture in your scene. I find the Little Stopper particularly useful in the earlier and latter parts of the day when light levels are lower.
Next in the line-up is the Big stopper. This guy will knock a huge 10 stops from your shutter speed and is guaranteed to blur anything in your frame that is moving. In lower light conditions, the Big Stopper will smooth out motion in water and clouds, resulting in an ethereal feel. In brighter light, the Big Stopper will yield a similar result to that of the Little Stopper in lower light – usually some blur but with texture retained.
Earlier this year, a new member joined the family – the Super Stopper. If you lack stamina, then this filter is not for you. At a whopping 15 stops, when you set out to shoot with this filter, pack a decent lunch. Seriously though, the Super Stopper is not intended for use in low light conditions. The purpose of this filter is to make shooting long exposure during the brightest part of the day possible. The blur that results from its use introduces a softness to images that would otherwise feel quite harsh, thus unlocking those middle hours of the day that are typically avoided by photographers.
Long Exposure Tips for Success
It’s not difficult to use light stopping filters to create long exposures but there are several critical steps that can’t be ignored:
1. Compose and focus your image. If you use auto focus, switch your camera to manual focus once you have finished focussing. Your camera will essentially be blind once you slide in the stopper, so if you have left it on autofocus it will attempt to refocus when you press the shutter.
2. Set your camera to Manual and select your chosen aperture and ISO. Meter your scene to find the corresponding shutter speed for your desired exposure. If you are using a grad filter with your stopper, you should have this in place prior to metering (note: leave the inner guides of your filter holder free for the stopper).
3. Take a test shot and check the histogram to make sure you’re happy with the exposure.
4. Slide your chosen stopper into the guides nearest the lens.
5. Reduce your shutter speed by the number of stops corresponding to the stopper you are using. For those who are sleep deprived from rising at 4am to catch the sunrise, or those who just hate math, the good folk at Lee have kindly included a handy little exposure table with each stopper to help you work out the correct exposure. Alternatively, there is a Lee Stopper exposure app that is free and extremely easy to use.
6. If your exposure is longer than 30 seconds then you will need to wind your shutter speed to ‘Bulb’ and connect your cable release if you haven’t already done so.
7. To avoid any excess light spilling onto your sensor (or film), cover your viewfinder before taking your photo.
Top Left: No Stopper (1/40) Top Right: Little Stopper (1.6 sec)
You may experience a slight cool colour cast when using any of the stoppers. This is easy enough to correct for. Either take a test shot and adjust your white balance in camera or shoot in raw (you should be shooting in raw anyway) and simply adjust in post. On more than one occasion I have chosen to leave the colour cast in my final edit because the effect suited the mood I was aiming for.
Experiment, experiment and then experiment some more. Try going out at different times of the day. Try shooting in different weather conditions – bright sun, stormy clouds and everything in between. Try using different strength ND filters. But most of all, let go of steadfast expectations and enjoy the process, because you never know what you’re going to get.
Thanks for reading! You can check out more of my work on my Instagram account – @anomadandhercamera