Long Exposure Photography 101
For a while now, I’ve been really drawn to long exposure photography. It’s easily one of my favorite methods of shooting. When I first started, this meant switching to bulb mode and trying to hold my camera as steady as possible while braced against a car or railing. There’s only so much you can slow your breathing to reduce camera shake though, and since then, I’ve gotten a little more sophisticated.
The thing I love about long exposure shots, is that it's really not hard to achieve interesting effects. You just need to keep a couple things in mind. Here are a few things have really helped me.
Understanding Aperture/ISO in Low Light
It's counterintuitive, but you want to both bring down your ISO and close your aperture way down for long exposures. Like ISO 100 low and F22 small. Why? Noise reduction. Not only will you get much better colors, but you’ll also be able to take the longest exposure possible allowing for maximum depth-of-field (getting everything in focus), as well as some sweet blurs and starburst effects on lights.
If you’re shooting the night sky though, there are two distinct approaches. Closing down your aperture and bringing down your ISO will allow you to grab long star trails. A typical exposure might be six minutes or maybe even an hour. But! If you want to get the milky way and a lot of stars in the exposure, you’ll want to open up the aperture as wide as possible. This will also require bumping the ISO back up and shooting for less than ten seconds to make sure you don’t get star blurs (yes they actually do move a lot in just a short amount of time).
You don’t need a lot of special gear to take long exposure photos, but there are a couple essentials. A good tripod is of course a necessity. I use this flexible Joby travel tripod a lot. It stuffs easily into a bag and quickly clamps onto railings and such. Something like this will also work well and comes recommended from the team at Wirecutter. A remote shutter release is also critical. Since you can’t touch your camera when taking long exposure photos without shaking it, you have to have a remote shutter. I have a Canon so I've been using this one without complaint. (You can also an app for some cameras, but I don't mess with these as much). With these two pieces of gear in your bad, you’re already most of the way there. I also prefer shooting prime lenses in low light situations. I prefer primes all the time, but especially for long exposure shots. Zooms have a tendency to move and they just make it even harder to get a steady shot, especially if the camera is aimed at the sky.
Time of Day
Dawn and dusk are my favorite times. While the light is usually better at dusk, dawn allows you more time to ease into the the perfect long exposure moment. You’ll literally see the moment coming as it gets darker, when in the morning, you’ll see it get lighter and realize you've already missed it.
In general I’ve found long exposure photos benefit from very light edits. I tend to up the contrast, deepen the blacks, desaturate, and sharpen a bit, but I almost never use pre-sets on long exposure shots. I just haven’t figured out a way where they do anything but seriously muddy the colors.
A long exposure shot could be 2 seconds, or it could be twenty minutes. It all depends on light and the effect you're going for. Taking low light photos, for me at least, is really about trial and error. With my remote shutter in my hand, I'll bang off a few 5 second exposures, then a 10 second, then a 15, etc. After a while, it becomes very intuitive what you'll need to do (how long to keep the shutter open, and how to adjust ISO) to get something great.
Just keep shooting.