Obviously you will need a camera. I recommend any camera that has a bulb mode. Any conventional DSLR with bulb feature will do, as will a mirrorless camera with bulb. Of course analog cameras will also work for long exposure photographs, even better than with digital cameras since the issue with increasing noise with extended long exposures is largely a digital camera issue. Analog cameras are more suitable for extreme long exposures and with that I mean long exposures that are extended up to an hour or even longer at night.
Most camera’s have a maximum exposure time of 30 seconds, which is not long enough most of the time for long exposure photography. The bulb mode allows you to go past that point of 30 seconds. Most models like the Canon 5D Mark III that I use have a dial with the B(ulb) setting that’s easy to find. If you have a brand that doesn’t have this explicit Bulb mode setting on the dials then most of the times it’s hidden somewhere under the Manual setting. Just dial in an exposure time past the 30 seconds and you will see the bulb mode.
RECOMMENDABLE CAMERAS AND THE NOISE ISSUE WITH LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHY
At the time of writing the update on this tutorial there’s an increasing amount of cameras emerging that have 30MP or more. The Nikon line of DSLR cameras were one of the first DSLRs that exceeded 30MP and along with that also the issue of increased noise with long exposure photography became an increasing problem. The high megapixel cameras, and with high megapixel I mean any DSLR or CMOS sensor camera with a resolution of more than 30MP weren’t equipped for long exposure photography. They will do extremely well for normal use of the camera but they perform not as well as the older generation of relatively low megapixel cameras like the Canon 5D mark III, when shooting long exposure photographs. The amount of megapixels packed up on just a small digital CMOS sensor simply approach the limits of such a sensor, especially in extreme conditions as in long exposure photography where sensors will heat faster, the thermal noise issue. However, Nikon now has released a camera, the D810A with 36MP, intended for astrophotography and long exposure photography specifically, but not exclusively, and has far less of an issue with noise. Even more, the Nikon D810A comes with a so-called soft release button so you won’t even need a remote control to take long exposure photographs up to 10 minutes to avoid the inevitable vibration. The new Canon 5Ds/r with 50MP on the other hand doesn’t perform at all for long exposure photography. From the various long exposure testshots I’ve seen taken with this specific camera, here’s a review by renowned long exposure photographer Cole Thompson for example, the noise is already a huge issue with very short long exposures. As long as Canon doesn’t acknowledge and tackle this issue I would simply not recommend this camera if long exposure photography is an important part of your style of photography. In spite of the huge amount of megapixels and great image quality when using this camera under normal conditions. Sony, also recently released the mirrorless Sony A7RII with 42.5 MP and the first reviews, here, indicated that also this camera isn’t performing as expected with long exposure photography but it looks like Sony is actually seriously working on a solution for the noise issue with long exposure photography by releasing a firmware update. Apart from those rumours, and I have to emphasize they’re just rumours or second hand information since I haven’t tested any of those new high megapixel cameras myself, and there are simply just very few actual reviews that I could find specifically targeted at long exposure photography. It’s too early to say anything definitive on the long exposure photography capabilities of these new high megapixel cameras. Please bear in mind that these new cameras are all fantastic high resolution cameras and will perform extraordinarily well as long as you don’t need to take long exposure photographs with these cameras. The exception is, as mentioned earlier, the new Nikon D810A and judging the reviews I’ve seen so far that were focused on astrophotography and not so much on daytime long exposure photography, I’m leaning towards recommending it for daytime long exposure photography as well, if you’re also in need of high megapixel photographs. Note that I’m not talking about the Nikon D810 which also seemed to have noise issues when used for long exposure photography.
IN-CAMERA NOISE REDUCTION (NR) FEATURE: NOT THE SOLUTION FOR NOISE
Some of you may ask: then why not turn on the in-camera noise reduction or NR feature? Let me state that when using the NR feature on a DSLR to get rid of the noise issue, it isn’t a solution for a long exposure photographer as I am, nor should it be the solution in general: turning on the NR feature doesn’t take away the real issue and that is that the sensor cannot handle long exposures. I’m discussing this topic in a bit more detail later in this tutorial but right now I just want to state that I never use in-camera NR simply because the advantages of using in-camera NR don’t weigh up against the disadvantages of using in-camera NR. My most important argument against use of in-camera NR is that it doubles the time of your exposure. That shouldn’t be a problem if you take long exposures of 30 seconds or less, if you’re not into more extreme long exposure photography like I am. On average it takes me 30 minutes to take one long exposure photograph varying in exposure time between 6 and 8 minutes, my preferred long exposure time, because I need to find a good composition and angle first, manually focus the lens and level the camera on my tripod, take a proper meter reading, take a test shot, correct the settings, take another reading, attach the ND filters (trust me, that isn’t always easy and can take some time!) and remote control, cover the viewfinder and any other cracks and holes on your camera with black tape or a hat, and then finally wait for the ideal moment, if that moment didn’t already pass (in bold because this is an important moment) and then take the actual long exposure photo. That’s all in all 30 minutes on average for one photograph. If you have extensive experience in long exposure photography and with actually shooting out in the field then you know that light and weather conditions can change rapidly, so I’m already taking away from my time and photographic opportunities by needing 30 minutes on average for just one photograph: you might just miss out on that fantastic cloud sequence, that fantastic light, while still setting up and taking that one photograph. You would miss out on even more weather and photography opportunities if you use in-camera NR to increase the time that you would need for just one photograph with an additional 6 or 8 minutes. That’s almost 40 minutes for one long exposure photograph. That’s really too much: even though I’m a slow photographer, taking his time for every photograph, I simply don’t like wasting any of my time, not one minute of my time, because I need to wait for the in-camera NR to get rid of sensor noise because the sensor can’t handle it. A problem that should’ve been solved by the manufacturer.