One of my absolute favorite things to do is long-exposure photography. I would be willing to bet at least a few of you have taken photos of water and the photo simply froze the water in place. You’ve looked in envy at the photos others post that show water with a silky smooth look and wondered how they do it. If you have ever wondered how to get that silky smooth look of water when you take photos, then you’ll want to read on to find out how it’s done.
What Is Long Exposure Photography?
Long exposure photography is common in astrophotography. Long exposures help to gather as much light on the digital sensor in your camera as possible. In fact, in astrophotography, we normally shoot a series of tens to hundreds of long exposures and use software to stack and align the images to bring out even more details from a deep space object.
I’m sure at this point, you are asking yourself, what does that have to do with shooting photographs of running water? Well, it has everything to do with it. Other than the need to stack photos, we use the same techniques as we use in astrophotography. The difference is in one of the tools we use to make these photographs possible. Below is a list of things you need to successfully do long-exposure photography. You don’t necessarily need them all, but they will allow you to do this type of photography so much more easily. Let’s look at the tools I suggest. Remember, I am a Canon shooter, so you will have to adjust and buy the tools from this list that are specific for your make and model of camera.
Tools For Long Exposure Photography
First, you will need a DSLR or mirrorless camera so you can control focus and exposure time. You need a detachable lens that has threads on the front to allow you to attach filters to your lens. The DSLR or mirrorless camera should have a bulb mode so that you can control the length of the exposure for your image.
The second tool you will need is a 10x Neutral Density Filter. This tool is imperative to do this type of photography. This type of ND filter cuts down ten stops of light entering the lens of your camera and hitting the sensor. Without this filter, daylight long-exposure photography would be impossible. There would be so much light hitting your camera’s sensor, the image would be simply blown out and completely white. You may be familiar with using an ND filter already to shoot images in bright sunlight. The 10x ND filter is simply a darker filter that lets you control more light. You can read more about ND filters here.
The third tool you will need is called an intervalometer. This allows you to control the amount of time your camera shutter is open and collecting light. This tool also allows you to release the shutter of your camera without touching it. This is important because just the act of you pressing the shutter can cause enough vibration to ruin your shot. When you purchase an intervalometer be sure you buy one with the correct cable that matches your make and model of camera. I have both crop sensor and full-frame Canon bodies. One accepts a 2 mm phone plug and the other has a 3 pin Canon plug. They are not interchangeable, so just be aware of that if you decide to purchase one.
The last tool you will need is a sturdy tripod. Make sure to get the best tripod you can afford. If you purchase a cheap flimsy aluminum tripod, you will be disappointed with the results. As noted, any vibration can ruin your shot. Cheap tripods won’t resist wind and other vibrations, which will ruin all your hard work. Another consideration for tripods is weight. Carbon fiber tripods may be a little more expensive, but they weigh less than a comparable aluminum tripod. Less weight is an important consideration when you are hiking and carrying all your equipment on your back.
Typical Workflow for Long Exposure Photography
The first consideration is the aperture setting. A wide aperture (low f-stop) lets in a lot of light and causes a narrow depth of field. Since we are already decreasing the amount of light reaching our camera sensor, we don’t want to let in even more light, so we should use a higher f-stop number. This in effect does two things: decreases the amount of light hitting the camera sensor and increases the depth of field so that more of our scene is in focus. For ISO settings, you want to use a low ISO setting. Remember, increasing the ISO setting increases the sensitivity of your camera sensor. So using a 100 or 200 ISO setting will help us control the brightness of the photo. The shutter speed is the final setting in the exposure triangle. Shutter speeds are set on the intervalometer for this type of shooting. I use anywhere from 15-30 seconds for most shots. My go-to setting for long exposure photography is 20 seconds. Then I’ll adjust the settings accordingly after taking a test shot.
The photo above is of Twin Falls in north-central Arkansas. On this day, we decided to take a drive and try and shoot some waterfalls. There had been several weeks of rain in the area, so we were hopeful there would be plenty of runoff going over the falls in the area. One of the falls we intended to photograph was Twin Falls. The drive down to Twin Falls is down a steep mountain road that is not paved and is very rocky. Once you navigate the steep terrain, the road ends at a parking lot close to the Buffalo River at the Camp Orr Boy Scout Camp. From the parking area, it’s a short hike down the trail to the falls. The trail is marked with a sign, so it’s easy to find. You can check out our latest trip to Twin Falls including 360° photos on this page.
Once we arrived at the falls, I set up my camera on a tripod. A sturdy tripod is a must for doing long exposure photography. Any vibration will ruin the sharpness of your image. Next, I framed the shot and locked down the camera on the tripod. I focused for the final shot and set the lens to manual focus. Setting to manual focus prevents the camera from seeking to autofocus once you attach the filter. I suggest you do all these steps before attaching the neutral density filter because once you add the neutral density filter it will be extremely hard or impossible to focus through the viewfinder. Next, I screwed on a 3.0-1000x neutral density filter I have for long exposure shooting. This filter decreases your exposure by 10 stops of light.
Finally, I set my camera to the bulb setting and attached my intervalometer. I programmed the intervalometer for 1 shot with a 30-second exposure. I used a Sigma 18-250 lens I use for travel photography to save weight. This lens has served me well when traveling or hiking where weight is a concern. If you want to go out exploring but only want to carry one lens, this is a great option.
The camera settings were f16, 30 sec, ISO 100 at 23 mm. I spent about 15 minutes doing ten different shots to be sure I had a well-exposed and sharp image. I suggest you take the time to shoot multiple images because you don’t want to get home from a trip and find you have a bunch of out-of-focus images. This is especially important when you are out in the field and all you have is the LCD screen on your camera. The shot may look in focus on the LCD screen, but when you get home and look at it at 100% on your computer screen, you may be disappointed. So, if possible, always shoot more than one image, and check your focus each time by zooming in on the LCD screen of your camera.
Another consideration is not to bump your focus while screwing the neutral density filter onto the lens. Use can use a small strip of gaffers tape to lock the focus if you are having issues with the focus. Since this was a shady area already, and the 3.0 neutral density filter blocks 10 stops of light, it became impossible to focus through the viewfinder once the filter was attached.
Other Types of Long Exposure Photography
You can get creative once you figure out long-exposure photography. The photo above was created by placing extra fine steel wool into a kitchen whisk tied to a length of rope. Lighting the steel wool and swinging it at the end of the rope causes the steel wool to burn and throw off sparks, which are captured as long light trails.
You can do some interesting shots using light painting, or using LED lights or laser pointers. The shot below was captured by light painting the hay bale while exposing for the night sky. I was also lucky enough to capture a meteor within the frame during the exposure.
If you want to learn more and take your photography journey to the next level, you might like the Photography Master Class. This video course will definitely help you on your journey to be a better photographer.