Making the Image: Long Exposures

A “long exposure” is made when you leave your camera shutter open for a prolonged period of time — maybe only a quarter of a second, maybe 20 or 30 seconds, or maybe even several minutes!  This is especially fun to do when you’re around water, because you can make it look all silky and magical, like in this photo I took at Barnsley Gardens:

Exposure: f/8, 30 seconds, ISO 100, with a Canon 15mm f/2.8 fisheye lens

When I’m shooting a wedding, I love making long exposure photographs of venues in the evening.  I think the best time to shoot these is just after the sun goes down, before the sky is totally black – but you can do it any time after dark, really.  (The fountain image above was taken an hour or two after sunset, so it was pretty dark outside!)

To make a long exposure image:

Step 1 – mount your camera on a tripod.  Because your camera shutter will be open for a long time, any motion in your photograph will appear really blurry; if YOU are the motion (i.e., if your are moving your camera around, even slightly), then the entire image will be blurry!  This is why a tripod is really important.  I just use a little mini tripod (check out 13 Shoot Day Essentials) — which means I either have to shoot from the ground, or set the tripod on a short wall or a table. But you can also use a regular-sized tripod, of course!

Step 2 – set the timer on your camera.  This way the camera will have time to “settle” after you press the shutter button.  You’d be surprised at how even that little bit of motion can mess up your image!

Step 3 – Set your exposure.  My preferred exposure is:

  • between ISO 100 and 400 (for the cleanest image)
  • between f/11 and f/22 (for a sharp image from front to back – this also helps with any little focusing discrepancies from shooting at dark)
  • anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds

You may have to take a couple of test shots to get it exactly right!

Here’s me, making a long-exposure image with my mini tripod on the ground at Cindy & John’s wedding (thanks for taking my picture, Tim Harman!):

And here’s that image:

Exposure: f/16, 10 seconds, ISO 100 with a Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM lens

Notice how the motion of the flags is captured by the slow exposure?  I love that!

Exposure: f/16, 20 seconds, ISO 100 with a Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM lens

The above two photos also would have looked cool if I’d popped a flash in a couple of places. I’ll talk more about that on the last photo in this post!

Sometimes I like it when there are people walking through the photo.  Because the exposure is so long, they look all blurry and ghostly!

Exposure: f/8, 30 seconds, ISO 1000 with a Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM lens

Exposure: f/5.6, 6 seconds, ISO 400 with a Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM lens

In the below photo, I didn’t use a tripod; I just set my camera on a low brick wall in front of the home.  Because my camera wasn’t quite as stable, I chose to shoot at a higher ISO (my Canon 5D Mark II makes still makes clean images at ISO 2000) and a slightly faster shutter speed.

Exposure: f/2.8, 1/4 second, ISO 2000 with a Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM lens

If you don’t have a tripod, you can hand-hold your camera.  I’ve found that I can hand-hold fairly well at as slow as 1/20th of a second in most cases.  For the next two photos, I chose a higher ISO, a bigger aperture (which does mean shallower depth of field, unfortunately), and a hand-holdable shutter speed.

Exposure: f/2.0, 1/30th second, ISO 2000 with a Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM lens

Exposure: f/2.0, 1/25th second, ISO 2000 with a Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM lens

When you do your long exposure just seconds after sunset, you can get more detail in your sky, like in this photo from Cassie & Ben’s wedding. I love how bright the moon looks in this photo, too!

Exposure: f/16, 25 seconds, ISO 400 with a Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM lens

If you wanna get fancy, you can help fill in dark shadows by adding some of your own light!  In the photo below, from Jenny & Sean’s wedding, I had Dan run through the frame and fire a flash in several place at about 1/16th power.

You can see where he popped the flash: the starbursts on the far left and on either side of the columns (which occur when you fire the flash TOWARD the camera lens), then the highlighted areas on the sides and top of the arch (which occur when you fire the flash onto the subject itself).

If you don’t have a flash, you can do the same thing with a strong flashlight, “painting” your subject (or the camera lens!) with light.  As long as it’s dark outside and you (or your assistant) don’t stand in one place for too long, you shouldn’t show up in the photos.

Exposure: f/20, 30 seconds, ISO 400 with a Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM lens

What tricks do you use for making long exposures?  I’d love to see some light-painting photos!  Share your long exposure images on my Facebook Page, here!

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1 Comment

  1. What is the venue in the photo third from the bottom!?! I’m in love!

    (Great information on this, by the way… night time shooting is my beau’s weakness!)

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