I'd be the first to admit that one of my favorite genres of photography, long exposure, is not for everyone. But I thought I would put down a few words about the hold it has over my creative vision and why I think it might be a fun and useful technique for photographers to have in their "bag".
Maybe a good way to start this off is a list of my "pros" and "cons" of this technique.
Potential Benefits of Using Long Exposures
- Adds Motion - For me, this is the first and best reason to use long exposure photography. By using long, and sometimes very long, exposures you can add a sense of motion that is difficult to capture with a fast shutter speed. I feel that this can often create a more compelling image and one that captures a better sense of the scene.
- Simplifies Composition - Long exposures will cause any moving object in a composition to blur and loose detail. Often times this simplifies a composition by remove details that distract from the overall scene. This is especially true with moving water and clouds but can also be useful to blur foliage.
- Reflections - One of the pleasant side effect of lengthening the exposure time is that water flattens and becomes a much better mirror for reflections. Never quite as perfect as still water but the effect can add a surreal component to an image.
- Leads the Eye - One of the challenges and benefits of capturing movement is the opportunity to use light and lines to create paths within an image from one element to another which can create an image that is more interesting.
- Remove Unwanted Elements - When I was shooting the long exposure sequence of the Lime Kiln Lighthouse shown at the top of this post, a constant paraded of ship traffic was making it's way up Haro Strait. But they were completely invisible since they weren't still long enough to be exposed during the long exposure.
- Saturates Colors - This one is a bit more esoteric and I can't really say this one is for sure. But I feel that sometimes lengthening the shutter subtly enhances the scenes color saturation.
The Potential Downsides of Long Exposure Photography
- Time Consuming - With long exposure lasting 2 - 8 minutes or more, this definitely isn't "run and gun" photography. It's not uncommon for me to search out a compelling composition and leave my tripod in the exact same place for maybe an hour. While I take various length exposures as the light and motion changes.
- A Bit Gear Intensive - A variety of neutral density filters, shutter release and a sturdy tripod are required to capture long exposure images.
- Wind - Wind can be a plus and minus. On one hand it can provide stunning cloud motion. On the other hand it can move and blurs foreground objects, and worse still, cause motion of your tripod and camera. If possible I like to have spot somewhat shielded from the wind to help prevent camera shake.
Below is an example of a short and a long exposure capture of the same scene. The before shot is a 0.4s exposure while the after shot is a 173s exposure.
And before I get too far along here, I'll just say that there isn't anything "wrong" with the short exposure capture. Often times extreme long exposure is the wrong tool. I try to set my exposure to capture the interest the motion presents. And sometimes that is indeed 1/2s to 4s. Like the samples below.
But in the image of Shark Reef above I found the motion of the clouds more interesting than motion of the water so I concentrated on that. The challenge for me is to determine how long is long enough.
One of the reason I usually show up quite a bit before "golden hour" and sunrise / sunset is so I can bracket my long exposures to get a good feel for what the motion is and what type of look I'm after. That way I'm pretty much ready when / if the great light comes along.
Here's one more before and after. The before shot is the same 173s from above. The after image is a 416s capture.
In hindsight I prefer the "silkier" movement of the clouds in the 416s capture. But I found the clouds and the overall composition of the early shot to be better. This highlights one of the challenges of photographing a dynamic and changing scene with long exposure. Your photogenic clouds can blow themselves right out of the picture.
I'll end by including a few more long exposure samples along with my exposure settings.