We live in a world where most things, from computers to cars to food, are sold to us on the basis that they’re fast. Certain things, however, will always need a little extra time to reveal their true splendour. To the ranks of Camembert and fine wine we can add a branch of photography that’s genuine connoisseur territory.
Long exposure photography uses super-slow shutter speeds to smooth the edges of the passage of time. While the shutter remains open, your camera records everything that passes through its field of view. Static objects remain sharp and solid, but anything in motion magically transforms to a soft, silky blur. Making this magic happen is a matter of taking control of your camera. That’s a challenge.
Most cameras will fight tooth and nail to stop you from getting down into the lower shutter speeds. Anything below about 1/30 of a second drops you into the zone of camera shake and the dreaded fuzzy-wuzzies—cue red warning lights, urgent bleeping and desperate bursts of flash. So the first job is to convince the camera’s circuits that you know what you’re doing. Goodbye auto mode. To unlock the joy of long exposures, you’ll be dealing in shutter speeds from 1/15 of a second to several minutes, even hours. At these speeds, there’s no option but to give your machine something solid to sit on.
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Gear tip: Avoid cheap tripod models with brace bars that lock the legs into position near ground level. They’re hopeless in tight or rocky spots (bad news when the time comes to shoot your first waterfall).
Waterfalls are tailor-made for long exposures, as they’re often hidden in dark forest nooks where slow shutter speeds are obligatory. Set your shutter to anything above 1/4 of a second, watch your exposure to avoid blowing out highlights, and you can’t go wrong.
Composition tip: Go vertical and shoot from a low angle, allowing the course of the stream to lead your eye in to the waterfall itself.
Long exposure shots can be just as worthwhile in the urban jungle. Some of the most potent images of Los Angeles use glowing rivers of car lights flowing through the downtown skyscrapers to illustrate the city’s culture of freeway worship. The ideal time to shoot car light trails is at dusk, when the city buildings are outlined against the darkening sky. Find yourself a bridge or a busy road, and open the shutter for anything from 15 seconds to a minute, as long as it takes to capture a solid stream of light.
Exposure tip: Use a combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed to fix under- or overexposure.
The Sky’s the Limit
If you have an SLR with a Bulb setting, you can capture really elemental and ambitious images of lightning storms, firework displays, even stars moving across the sky. In Bulb mode, the shutter opens and closes at your command, opening the door to exposures lasting several hours. In this heady territory, even the subtlest camera movement can ruin a night’s work, so shooting with a remote or cable release is a must, and if your camera has a “mirror lockup” function, enable it.
You can expect to shoot a fair number of deletables in search of a handful of gems.
David Stott is a writer and photographer based in Australia. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org