Long Exposure Photography

Long Exposure Photography Using a 10 stop Neutral Density Filter

Kimmeridge Bay, England
30 seconds

If the following steps are followed carefully, newcomers to this style of photography will quickly achieve impressive results. Deviation from the procedure will quickly render unexpected and usually undesirable effects and lead to frustration.

The principle to remember is that we are trying to extend the period of time that the shutter needs to remain open by placing a dark filter in front of the lens, and thus recording motion in the image as blur. During the exposure, it is paramount that there is no movement of the camera or light leakage into the camera via an ill-fitting filter or through the camera’s eyepiece.

Of course, we need movement of some elements of the image, usually water or clouds, or a combination of both, as well as static parts of the image such as structures or other immovable objects such as rocks.

Preliminary set-up

  1. Adjust your camera to its lowest ISO setting. This may be 100 or in some cases 50
  2. Make sure “auto ISO” is turned off if this is a setting you sometimes use and forget.
  3. Set your camera to Aperture Priority and a small aperture (big number) say f16 or smaller.
  4. Set your lens to Auto-Focus
  5. Mount the camera on a tripod
  6. Compose the shot and pre-focus
  7. Take a test shot and make a note of the shutter speed.

Now you are ready to progress to the second part of the process.

  1. Calculate the exposure that will be required once the 10-stop filter is attached.  Remember you have to double the time in step 7 above, 10 times. For example, 1/30th second becomes 30 whole seconds. The doubling goes like this starting with your base of 1/30th sec: 1/15th, 1/8th, 1/4th, 1/2, 1 sec, 2 sec, 4 sec, 8 sec, 16 sec, 32 sec. There are phone apps and calculation charts for this that make it easy to do the maths.
  2. If the new exposure is less than 30 seconds, you may remain in aperture priority, otherwise, follow the next step.
  3. Put the camera’s mode dial into manual mode. Aperture priority will only work for 30 seconds or shorter exposures, and you may end up wanting more.
  4. In Manual mode, dial in your desired aperture and shutter speed in seconds up to 30. Longer than 30 seconds requires the BULB setting and a cable or remote release and a watch or some other timing device.
  5. Switch the lens to Manual Focus being careful not to disturb the focus setting in step 6 above.
  6. Switch off image stabilisation if you have it.
  7. Carefully attach the 10 stop filter making sure not to push hard enough on the lens to cause the zoom setting to move or the focus ring to move.
  8. Cover or shield the eyepiece to prevent light from entering and affecting the exposure.
  9. Take the shot and check the image either on the review screen or look at the histogram.

Looking at the following examples, I think you will agree that once you master the technique for long exposure photography, it will open up a whole new dimension to your images.

Jurassic Coast, England
15 seconds
Shelley Beach, Portsea Vic.
30 seconds
Dendy St. Brighton Vic.
90 seconds
Mystic – Cape Schanck Vic.
179 seconds
Buachaille Etive Mor – Scotland
25 seconds
Loch an Eilein Castle Ruins – Scotland
3 seconds
SS Speke Shipwreck – Phillip Island Vic.
2 seconds

Filters and Time Exposures at Cape Schanck

Cape Schanck is a located in the Australian state of Victoria. It is the southernmost tip of the Mornington Peninsula and separates the wild ocean waters of Bass Strait from the slightly calmer waters of Western Port.

A popular spot for photographers, the location provides vistas to the south of rugged ocean beaches as well as the popular historical lighthouse. On an afternoon visit with a workshop conducted by well known landscape photographer Ian Rolfe, the low tide provided a great opportunity to do some long exposure work in the vicinity of Pulpit Rock.

This first image was taken using a Lee Big Stopper, a 10 stop ND filter, which effectively increases the exposure ten fold. For example, in the image below without the filter, a normal exposure would have been 1/30th second. Multiply that by a factor of 10 with the filter attached and the exposure time runs out to 30 seconds.

The effect with such a long exposure is that everything that is stationery remains sharp and anything that moves becomes a blur. Since the only things moving are the sea and clouds the effects can be quite dramatic.

30 seconds f7.1 ISO 64

30 seconds f7.1 ISO 64

As an experiment I then added an FL-W filter more commonly used in the days of film to correct the colour cast of fluorescent lighting. The filter effectively cuts out part of the light spectrum giving a warming colour cast to the image. Combining this with a smaller aperture, the extra loss of light from adding the filter and the setting sun, the exposure has extended to 240 seconds, or 4 minutes. At this point the timer on the mobile phone becomes a handy tool.

You will see in the image below just how much warmer the colours are and with the longer exposure the structure of the clouds has changed to a complete motion blur.

240 second exposure @f16 ISO 64

240 second exposure @f16 ISO 64

Like all photography, composition either makes or breaks the image, so without getting too engrossed with exposures and filter effects another look at the scene and shooting on the vertical gave a better perspective. The image below was shot at 180 seconds.

17mm 180 seconds @ f8 ISO 64

17mm 180 seconds @ f8 ISO 64

In the next image I decided to put the 10 stopper away as the light was now falling off considerably and I could shoot with just the FL-W filter attached. With the strong blue colour cast of the Big Stopper now off the lens, this allowed the warming effects of the FL-W to work to their fullest degree.

While some may not like the artistic effect created, I rather like the drama it brings into the image. At an exposure of 2.5 seconds there is more structure in the movement of the water and thus a much different effect to the longer exposures that run into minutes.

17mm 2.5 seconds f16

17mm 2.5 seconds f16

Finally to complete the session and to capture the last of the suns rays falling on Pulpit Rock I managed a 25 second exposure that caught the movement of the clouds in a rather pleasing way.

25 Seconds @ f16

25 Seconds @ f16

As you can see from the variation between images, the artistic effects of using just a couple of filters can be quite diverse. When you combine that with the unpredictability of mother nature the creative juices start to run wild.