Photography Photography Tips

10 Steps to Shooting Long Exposures

Sunset at Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast, Australia

ISO 100 – F11 – 52 seconds – 35mm

Have you ever wondered how to achieve silky smooth water in waterfalls or in the ocean and have the clouds look blurred throughout the sky. After lots of trial and error and forgetting to change my settings repeatedly. I have come up with a list that will help you achieve those beautiful long exposure images.

1. Tripod

I started with a 190XPROB Manfrotto from the beginning with a 804RC2 3 Way Pan/Tilt Head. It has definitely done the job, but for someone starting out I would definitely recommend spending a bit more money and buying a carbon fibre and very sturdy tripod like a Sirui as they are both affordable and of very high quality.

A good solid tripod is needed to shoot long exposures because if there is any movement, it will shake the camera resulting in a blurred image. When out shooting in adverse conditions, you will need to keep your tripod as sturdy as possible. This can be done by adding weight to the tripod hook (your camera bag or sand bag), or on top of the camera to weigh it down.

2. ISO

Shoot on the lowest possible ISO that your camera is capable of, generally this will be ISO 100. The reason for the low ISO is to reduce the amount of digital noise that the camera will produce.

3. Mirror Lock up

If you are shooting on a DSLR then this is an important step in shooting long exposures. When you press the shutter the mirror opens and then closes when the exposure is finished. Mirror lock up allows you to open the mirror prior to starting the exposure and therefore reduces the vibrations that may cause your image to be blurred.

4. Turn image stabilisation off

Not all lenses have image stabilisation (IS on Canon and VR on Nikon), but if your lens does have image stabilisation then it is essential to turn it off. When it is on a tripod the camera tries to override the image stabilisation and will cause the image to be blurred.

Tree at Deception Bay, Brisbane, Australia

ISO 100 – F16 – 30 seconds – 24mm

5. RAW

A RAW file is as it suggests. It is a raw uncompressed unedited file. The RAW file retains all the image data recorded by the sensor and you have to turn the data into the image that you saw by editing it in a RAW editing program (Lightroom, Photoshop) before exporting it as a JPEG file. If you shoot in JPEG on your camera, the image has already been compressed, edited, and sharpened and therefore gives you less options when editing your files.

6. F11 or higher 

Every camera lens has an optimal aperture to shoot at. Most of the time it is F8 and F11. This is when the image is at its sharpest and free from diffraction. At F22 the image may come out softer or not as sharp as if it was shot at its optimal aperture. I normally shoot my landscapes at F11 or F16, although this does depend on what I am shooting as well.

7. Neutral Density Filters 

If you want to be able to achieve smooth water or moving clouds then a filter is essential. A 10 or 16 stop filter will be needed  unless you are shooting before sunrise or after sunset. If your shutter speed without a filter is 1/60, it will then become a 15 second exposure with a 10 stop filter. Essentially stopping 10 stops of light. There are many filters and they range in price. All of the top brands such as Lee, NiSi, B+W, Hitech are also quite expensive but you get what you pay for with filters, research is important as some have colour casts.

Box Log Falls at O'Reilly's National Park on the Gold Coast, Australia

ISO 200 – F11 – 230 seconds – 24mm

8. Bulb Mode

Bulb Mode – “BULB” allows you to shoot any length of exposure. While using Bulb Mode, it is important to use a cable release or wireless remote so you do not cause the camera to shake when pressing the shutter button.

Cable Release – A cable release allows you to trigger the exposure without touching the camera which would cause camera shake. When you want to finish the exposure, press the button again to end.

Long Exposure Calculator – There are many different apps for your phone that will calculate the time required with different Neutral Density filters. I have only used a free one, Long Exposure Calculator, which also has a timer for the settings that are selected.

9. Focus 

If you are using a 10 stop filter. Compose your shot without the filter on if it is a screw on. Once you have set your focal point, then change the focus mode from auto to manual. This will ensure that the camera doesn’t override the focus point when pressing the shutter.

10. Light sealed camera

Depending on how long your exposure is for, use black tape to cover over the view finder, ports on the side of the camera and where the memory cards go. Also cover where the lens attaches so ambient light doesn’t enter. If light enters it will result in light leak spots in your image.


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