Words and images by Karl Taylor
I was once asked what it was that I loved about photography and my answer was;
"I love the ability to be able to freeze a moment in time and then be able to study that moment in great detail in such a way that wouldn’t be possible visually."
I realised later that my words might have been misinterpreted to mean a very brief capture because of the words "freeze" and "moment". However in my mind, my answer encompassed all images regardless of the length of exposure. Although very fast shutter speeds do allow us an incredible insight of the world beyond our natural viewing ability, the same is true for long exposures too.
So where do short exposures stop and long exposure start? Well it’s an interesting question and open to different interpretations. My interpretation is that exposures longer than the effective shutter speed of our brain and eyes should qualify. Our brain and eyes perceive life as one long continuous motion, a bit like video, but like video we are actually seeing a rapid series of still images that our eyes and brain translate into a moving picture. Our brain does this at approximately 50hz so we are seeing the world continually at an effective shutter speed of 1/50th of a second. In photography we can usually hand hold a camera with a wide angle lens safely to 1/30th of a second, so I generally consider any exposure from 1/15th of a second or longer as a long exposure. It is usually at these speeds that we start to notice an intriguing or unusual difference to the movement or motion captured in everyday scenes.
During my years in photography I have used long exposures for a surprising range of images, some to suit commercial requirements and others for purely artistic reasons. These could be anything from 1/10th of second to capture motion in a street scene or as long as several hours to capture the faint light of a distant galaxy for an astronomical image.
One of the most common uses of the long exposure though is in capturing landscape or seascape images, this technique allows you to blur some element of the scene for creative effect such as the movement of waves or a waterfall or even the swaying motion of trees in the wind. The range of exposure times for this type of photography can vary considerably, many years ago I was keen on the very long exposures of 20 or 30 seconds allowing the ocean to disappear into a mist and the clouds to streak across a sky. More recently I have been inclined to capture seascapes in the ¼ to 6 seconds range and thereby still retain detail in certain parts of the motion. Depending on the level of light these exposure times usually require the use of small aperture and low ISO, both of which are favourable for most landscape images. Often though it is also necessary to add Neutral Density filters to the lens to achieve the desired exposure time more easily or in brighter conditions.
Twighlight image: 90 seconds exposure. Photo by Karl Taylor
My usual kit set-up for long exposure landscape shots includes a Neutral Density graduated filter
to darken the sky part of my image and a polarising filter
to saturate the colour. The polariser also cuts out two stops of light in the same way as an ND filter
, which can be useful, but I frequently use 3 stop ND filters too. My preference is for the glass ND filters which don’t give an unnatural colour cast and the images remain neutral.
Louvre Pyramids, Paris: 30 seconds exposure. Photo by Karl Taylor
But it’s not just in landscape images where long exposures can be useful. I have often combined 3 ND filters, the smallest aperture and the lowest ISO to capture a scene that was too busy with people. The resulting exposure could then be up to a minute long, even in bright light, which is fantastic if you want moving people to magically disappear from your scene! This technique can also work superbly for daylight extended exposures
allowing you to capture strange scenes several minutes long that are taken during the middle of the day. In such captures slow moving clouds, or rustling leaves can all form interesting parts of long daylight exposures.
Car trails and Eiffel Tower: 32 seconds exposure. Photo by Karl Taylor.
Eiffel Tower light beam: 2 seconds exposure. Photo by Karl Taylor
More obvious use of the long exposure is in night photography where cityscapes at night can be brought to life without even using any filters. Night city scenes are one of my favourite examples of the long exposure and can be wonderful for capturing those classic car trail images or illuminated buildings and monuments. The technique is so simple too; no filters, no fuss, just your camera and a tripod! If you want to give it a try aim for exposure times of between 20 seconds and a minute as a starting point. It’s worth pointing out that for exposures longer than 30 seconds you may need to switch your camera over to “Bulb” or “B” mode. This mode allows you to lock the shutter open for minutes or hours if necessary but remember to have fresh batteries in the camera as this mode can drain the power whilst the shutter is locked open. I often use the “bulb” mode to capture star trail scenes or do a bit of light painting with high powered torches and basically add my own light to an otherwise dark scene. When using “bulb” mode remember that a cable release that allows you to lock the shutter open without touching the camera is a useful accessory.
Wide angle lens, hand held 1/10th of a second.
Photo by Karl Taylor
Wide angle lens, hand held 1/15th of a second. ND grad and fill in flash.
Photo by Karl Taylor
Of course these very long exposures will always require the use of a sturdy tripod but it is still possible to shoot certain long exposures hand held. I’ll often shoot hand held with a wide-angle lens at shutter speeds of 1/15th down to 1/8th or even ¼ of a second. This can be fantastic for capturing street scenes or photojournalism and adding a bit of life or movement into elements of your image. If you get it right you can get some great shots that would otherwise look a bit static shot at faster shutter speeds.
To perfect the technique practise your stance and the way you hold your camera, bring your body into a relaxed position letting your triceps rest naturally against your chest while you hold the camera against your face and try holding your breath to get the shot. If convenient find a post or something to lean on to further brace yourself, but don’t do this if it will compromise the composition of your image. The wide angle lens is very forgiving with these hand held techniques because many of the distant objects in your scene are de-magnified and will show virtually no motion at all but the foreground areas or closer elements of interest will pickup slight motion blur adding some magic to your shot.
Paris Panorama: 30 seconds exposure. Photo by Karl Taylor
Generally speaking long exposures are very simple to achieve, just switch your camera to manual mode or shutter priority if you’re not yet comfortable in manual. Then simply select the shutter speed you require ensuring you or the camera are suitably static and then press the shutter at the best time to coincide with the action. Remember that low ISOs will be better and you may need ND or Polariser filters to reduce the light down to a sufficient level. The great thing is it’s easy to give it a go; whether it’s a seascape or a night cityscape there are a wealth of opportunities for the long exposure the most important thing is to simply get out there and try it!
Seascape Sunset: 2 seconds exposure, Polariser and ND Graduated filter
Photo by Karl Taylor
All images and text © copyright Karl Taylor.
For more information about Karl’s work and the techniques he teaches for photography visit his website at: www.karltaylorphotography.co.uk
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