The first in a series of FAQ’s on a variety of topics but always related to Black and White fine art photography. A collection of questions I’ve received over the years and that I’ve always answered to, and still keep responding to. So it’s about time to publish them in a series. If you’d like to see any questions answered that you think might be a great help to others as well, then just write them down in the comment/reply boxes below, I’ll collect them and publish the answers. This is a Long Exposure FAQ. Next will be a FAQ on BW post-processing and a FAQ on post-processing with Silver Efex Pro 2. Followed by even more, depending on your questions.
FAQ – Long Exposures.
– Why would you do long exposures instead of a normal exposure?
Seriously, this is a question people often ask me. And there’s not just one answer but in my case it has everything to do with creating a mysterious, surreal atmosphere. About visualizing the invisible. An extended exposure can reveal to the eye what was visible to the mind’s eye only. That’s why I love long exposure photography: I want to reveal what my mind’s eye sees.
– How do you find great locations for either seascape of architecture images? While living far away from the coast I am forced to take only those opportunities provided during my business travel. Maybe you can point out how you prepare your shootings. I guess you know many great locations already, but how do you prepare shootings at places you do not yet know?
Good question. Careful preparation is an important aspect of my photography since also my time is very limited and the nature of long photography is such that every shot matters. What I usually do is scout a location I find particularly interesting by using Google maps and/or Google Earth and just zoom in and look at it from various view points. At the same time I will search the Internet for photos of the environment and I try to find as many photos of a certain object in the area as I can possibly find. But not only photos, I also try to find other information in Wikipedia or any other source of a certain area or building I want to shoot. I also never forget to check the tides if I go out shooting seascapes. The type of location I find particularly interesting is based on my preference on a certain moment, often triggered by a photo I just saw on the Internet or a story I just read, you name it. This type of scouting and preparation usually takes me a few hours, sometimes even a few days but by the time I actually arrive at the location I just know where to go to, where to stand, what the ideal position is.
Before actually travelling off to the planned location make sure to check the latest weather forecasts!
– Concerning screw-on B+W versus filter holder system of Lee: I use the B+W so far, as it was much easier to get my hands on. Lees filter holder system is quite difficult to purchase. As you use the same system I would like to know if you have some tricks to share about your in-field workflow? I mean screw on and off your filter, re-compose, adjust focus etc. I always struggle here as I am afraid of dropping my filter or inadvertently change any camera/lens setting.
I know the problem and unfortunately I don’t have any special tricks. It’s all a matter of being accurate and disciplined I’m afraid. And I guess I have the same workflow as any other LE photographer:
- Carefully compose the shot – I don’t just shoot but often walk around a building, look at it through the viewfinder, step forward, step backward, look again, take some normal exposure test shots, etc. Often it can take me up to an hour before I really start setting up my tripod and camera.
- Set up the tripod and camera – make sure it’s all levelled first. Then focus with auto-focus, switch to manual focus and do some additional focus correction. I do this with the live-view mode of my camera so I can zoom in to the object.
- Switch to Bulb, check all settings.
- Leave it on manual focus and start screwing on the filter very carefully.
These days however I prefer to shoot with my Hitech IRND Prostop 2 filters that just like the Lee Big stopper are slide-in filters that require a filter holder. If you have a Lee filter holder then this can also be used for the Hitech filters. The Hitech 10 stops filters are my preferred filters at this moment and I often stack them with a 6 stops IRND Prostop 2 filter to achieve 16 stops. While my old and trusty B+W filters have a warm red cast, the Lee and Hitech filters have a blue cast. It’s easy to get rid of this color cast in Post processing.
So you see nothing special, just try to be as meticulous and disciplined as you can be
– I find it quite difficult to judge exposure time while light is changing rapidly, e.g. sunset/sunrise. Is it just experience or any rule on how to extend or reduce exposure time?
That’s a very good question. After you’ve calculated the exposure time I always add 30 to 50% exposure time, even in more stable light conditions. Without getting too technical about this there are some factors you always have to take into account. These are described in one of the tutorials on this website.
But if light is changing rapidly, close to sunset for example, then often I just double the exposure time. My bridge-vanishing-in-the-fog shot for example was calculated at 256 seconds and it was getting dark rapidly and there was a heavy fog. So I just doubled the exposure time during the shot. This is all a matter of experience I guess especially in dynamic light conditions. But for more stable light conditions adding 30 to 50% exposure time is a good rule of thumb.
– I’ve been looking at your photos and I see at the EXIF settings that you sometimes shoot at f/22 and some are shot at f/3.5. What is the best aperture to shoot with?
There’s not one answer to this, it all depends on the situation, the weather conditions, your personal preference, the type of photography you do and what you have available in terms of equipment at the time you’re shooting. In my case all these factors play a role in my aperture choice. But in general if you’re shooting landscapes you don’t want to have a small depth of field so you should choose a smaller aperture, for example anything higher than f/8. And in fact f/8 in general would give you the best sharpness for almost any lens. The thing is that shooting longer exposures will often require shooting with smaller apertures up to f/22 to increase the exposure time and achieve the effect you had in mind. My best shots have been shot between f/8 and f/16 with exposure times up to 4 minutes. So that’s what I prefer to shoot with and I’m always looking for situations and conditions in which I can shoot with my ideal settings. Shooting at f/22 reveals too much sensor dust and besides that the object itself isn’t as sharp as I would like it to be. Shooting at f/13 or f/16 often gives me the perfect balance in sharpness of objects, depth of field and lack of sensor dust and other noise. But this applies mostly to shooting seascapes or landscapes. Long exposure architectural photography is a bit different. The type of clouds you need and you will eventually see in LE architectural photos are usually from a different type than those for LE seascapes since you are usually much closer to the subject and shoot straight up to the sky. This results in different movement and effects in the sky for LE architecture: more dynamic due to the angle.
When I shoot architecture I prefer to shoot with anything wider than f/8 with even longer exposure times and with 16 stops of ND filters stacked.
The thing with architectural long exposure photography is that you need:
1. Clouds and blue skies. Very often the ratio should be 65% blue skies and 35% clouds. This gives me the best possible results. This also means that there will be lots of sunlight and 10 stops won’t be enough most of the times.
2. You often want to shoot with apertures wider than f/8. No need for small apertures for architecture.
3. You also want smooth streaks of clouds that don’t look too thick and hard but look smooth and ethereal and yet very recognizable as sharp streaks of uninterrupted clouds. Architectural photos with LE streaks of clouds that are interrupted due to shorter exposure times look messy and not aesthetical in my view. You need longer exposure times to achieve the best effects in the sky with the smooth, long and uninterrupted ethereal looking streaks of clouds: > 5 min. I prefer 6 minutes minimal. My ideal setting for LE architecture is approx. f/5.6, 16 stops, ISO 100 and 6 or 7 minutes exposure time.
– At what time of day, in what type of weather conditions do you usually shoot your long exposures?
I usually prefer to shoot my long exposure seascapes in poor light conditions with a lot of clouds and cloud movement, never with a blue sunny sky. The light is just too bright and it will show in the photos with contrasts that are just too harsh. Besides that I think that shooting under a sky covered with clouds the light is more diffuse and can be controlled better by the photographer. It’s works like a soft-box in studio photography. Very often I shoot close to or around sunset when light is fading fast and I can shoot longer exposures to achieve a more ethereal effect. I never shoot at sunrise although light conditions are comparable to sunset. Why? Because I’m just too lazy to get up early – I love photography, but I love the warmth of my bed in the early morning maybe even more!
Now, shooting long exposure architecture is a different matter in my opinion. In that case I’d like a blue sky with bits of clouds, thin layers of clouds are even better. They result in more subtle looking cloud movement. I prefer the subtle streak of clouds in my long exposure architecture shots to the ones with the explosive streaks of clouds. It’s all a matter of balance in the end-result. I will discuss this subject in another FAQ elsewhere in this thread.
– How do I know what the correct exposure should be? Okay, I can look into one of the charts with the exposure settings to look it up, but what I mean is: if I can shoot 30 seconds on f/16 or 2.5 minutes on f/22. What should I choose?
This depends on so many things: weather conditions, the type of light, the subject, the angle, the effect you want to achieve, etc. An extreme long exposure of let’s say 3 minutes or longer isn’t necessarily better than a shorter exposure of 45 seconds. But it’s true that a longer exposure, especially when shooting seascapes, will give a more ethereal feel to it. Hard to explain but it just looks and feels more fragile, more surreal. But if you shoot architecture and you want to have those dynamic looking streaks of clouds then very often shorter exposure times varying from 45 seconds to 2 minutes is more than enough and a longer exposure would give a totally different look. And then there’s also the subjective and very personal factor. In my case I prefer to have exposure times of 3 minutes or longer for seascapes or landscapes and exposure times of 45 seconds up to 2 minutes for architecture. You can use my personal preference as a guideline but please do experiment!
– I was doing some long exposures the other day and when I got home there was a strange dark band on the left side of my photo. This Mr. X then showed me the photo, portrait orientation and indeed there was a dark band on the left side. Then he showed me another one, also a dark band on the same side. So Joel, what’s with it?
Well Mr. X. did you perhaps use a gradient filter or CP filter by any chance? Yes I did, replied Mr. X. So Mr. X., when you took the photo after you’ve rotated your camera 90 degrees to shoot in portrait orientation, did you also rotate your filter? Uhmmmm……… thanks Joel! (Real story!)
– Dear Joel, I finally bought myself some ND filters after reading all your wonderful articles (real story!) and went to the beach yesterday after a long drive. When I got back home and looked at my photos on the computer I saw some strange magenta/purple/pink stripes on my photo. I’m worried that I’ve ruined my sensor or maybe the exposure time is too short. Do you have any idea what caused this?
Hi J., to be sure I have to take a look at your photo but my guess for now that this is caused by light leakage, either through the filters or more probable, through your viewfinder. Very often this is the cause of this type of magenta/purple coloured stripes or banding in the photo. Next time you go out shooting make sure to cover the viewfinder especially when the sun is shining on the back of the camera! I also would recommend using a lens hood. After I’ve looked at the photos I could see that this was indeed the cause. J. confirmed he didn’t cover the viewfinder and that it was very sunny that day. If your camera doesn’t come with a built-in cover then simply use a black tape or use your hat to cover your viewfinder!
– When shooting long exposures I’ve noticed that some of my shots have a large amount of noise. Your shots all look so clean and free of noise. How do you handle this?
Unfortunately it’s a basic and physic rule that noise will increase with longer exposures. There’s a lot of literature on this subject available on the Internet but basically noise will increase in poor light conditions combined with longer exposures. There’s however a difference in how noise is handled by modern DSLR’s when compared with older model DSLR’s: modern DSLR’s simply handle noise better. There are many sites discussing this issue with some great examples and I surely can recommend reading Ken Rockwell’s site on this subject.
How do I handle this myself? I think I have a good camera but still in some particular cases (very poor lighting conditions, or shooting with 20 stops) I’d notice increased noise in my photos. I try to avoid that by shooting at the lowest ISO (100) and if there’s still noise I just get rid of it by using noise reduction software. My favourite software for this is NIK Software’s DFine noise reduction tool. It works perfect for me: no noise at all!
– Do you use the in-camera Noise Reduction (NR) when you shoot long exposures?
Short answer: never.
Longer version: I never use it since I think, and with me other respected writers discussing this subject on the Internet, it is much more time effective to remove the noise in post-processing with for example Photoshop or with DFine from NIK software and controlling all parameters yourself instead of the camera. Besides that, and that is the most urgent argument to me: in-camera NR doubles the time of the exposure and since I usually shoot with exposure times of 3 minutes or longer this would increase exposure times for just one shot up to 20 minutes! I’m a patient man, but I don’t like to waste my time. I’m not going to discuss in detail here what in-camera NR does – I’m not a techy but consider myself a fine-art photographer – but basically it takes another shot right after the regular exposure, with the shutter closed. This results in a dark frame with noise or hot pixels from the image sensor, that’s being subtracted from the original shot and thus removing the noise and hot pixels. This is called dark frame subtraction and you can read more on this on Ken Rockwell’s site for example: great explanation with some great examples why removing noise yourself in PP is often just a better option.
– I’ve been looking at your photos and was being inspired to shoot long exposures myself. I’ve been searching for some affordable but good ND filters but don’t know what to buy. I’ve found this ND filter (shows link to website), could you recommend this to me?
There are so many manufacturers of ND filters these days and there’s a lot of bad stuff around. The bad stuff is almost always very cheap. The good filters are almost always without an exception more expensive. I can recommend the following three brands: ND filters made by B+W (from Schneider optics and these are the ones I use), he Hitech IRND Prostop 2 filters or the Lee filters. Singh-Ray also makes some fantastic filters but they are all very expensive. B+W and Lee are great high quality filters and I have shot with both. The difference between B+W and Lee filters is that B+W only have screw-on filters while the Lee filters require a holder that you have to attach to your lens and you basically put the filter into the holder. Some photographers prefer the Lee since you don’t have to screw the filter onto the lens and risk changing the settings. Another difference is that shooting with B+W filters will cause a red cast while shooting with Lee will cause a blue cast. I personally think the blue cast is fantastic, especially when you’re a B&W photographer. At this moment I’ve put my trusty old B+W filters aside and use the new Hitech IRND Prostop 2 filters that just like the Lee filters are slide-in filters that require a filter holder and also have a blue cast. You can use the Lee filter holder for the Hitech filters and vice versa. Personally I think that the Hitech filters are a better buy than the Lee filters, simply because they’re easily available and all 8 stops or more filters from Hitech are resin filters instead of glass: you can’t break them, which is a big plus to me! Please forget all the other brands, they’re just not good enough for me but if you’d like to have a go at it or even use welding glass for your long exposures: feel free to do so, in fact I have seen some great examples shot with welding glass as a filter.
– Just recently I’ve been starting to shoot long exposures to achieve the same effect with the smooth water and dramatic skies as in your images. I’ve bought this 6-stops filter but my exposure times are nowhere close to yours and the result I have with the water and sky are disappointing. What am I doing wrong?
Well, to start off with: 6 stops filters are not strong enough for real long exposures during daylight. With real long exposures I mean anything longer than 1 minute, but for seascapes I prefer to shoot with exposure times of 3 minutes or longer to achieve the smooth effect in the water. You’d need at least 10 stops to shoot at daytime with longer exposures, but even then you’ll notice that 10 stops is not enough especially when shooting on brighter days. So what I do is often stack filters up to 20 stops (although I wouldn’t recommend shooting with 20 stops). Out of my own experience I’ve found out that stacking filters up to 13 or 15 stops give the best results during daytime with exposure times up to 6 minutes. My recommendation would be to buy another set of ND filters: one 10 stops and one 3 stops so you can vary between 10 and 16 stops with the 6 stops you already have. At this moment a 16 stops proto type filter has been created by Hitech and I’ve done some tests with it. Obviously since they’re proto type filters they are not ready for daily use yet, but I have good hopes they will come up with a great final version any time soon.
Still you can achieve great results with the 6 stops only if you shoot in poor light conditions, close before sunset for example with exposure times up to 4 minutes ore even longer if it’s dark enough. It’s what I prefer to do most of the times: shooting in poor light conditions close to sunset (or around sunrise but I’m not an early riser), in heavy fog or in between rainstorms and not using too many stacked filters since vignetting will increase when stacking filters.
– I’m starting to shoot long exposures, so I have bought a set of ND filters, what more do I need now and what would you recommend? Any tips, advice?
You’ll need a good DSLR to start with. Any modern entry level DSLR would do just fine. Make sure it has a Bulb setting to shoot with exposure times longer than 30 seconds, and in the case of any modern DSLR at entry level it will surely have a Bulb setting. A good lens is another important ingredient for shooting good shots. In case you shoot long exposures you will often find you need a good wide-angle lens. Invest in that, it’s worth it. But in general a good photograph is made by a good photographer with a good set of eyes and more importantly with the ability to visualize with the mind’s eye, not by an expensive camera with expensive lenses with a bad photographer behind the viewfinder. Further more you’ll need a remote control with a shutter lock and a good tripod. Now a good tripod is essential if you like to shoot good long exposures in rough weather conditions. Don’t buy a cheap tripod, you will regret it. I like to use a heavy tripod since I often shoot in rough and windy weather conditions. Not ideal for travelling of course but I prefer sharp photos and a sore back and arms to blurry photos and still be in good conditional shape after I shot the blurry photos. Besides that: you don’t want your camera with lens and filter on it to be smacked to the ground and broken in pieces due to a sudden wind gust? It happened to me. Another important item is the ball head. Don’t waste money on cheap ball head, buy yourself a good one. If you look at my gear page you will see some examples of ball heads that I can recommend such like the Arca Swiss ball heads.
– If the suggested metering time is between two stops, should we opt for the longer or shorter of the two?
I always opt for longer since I always add 30 to 50% to the calculated exposure time. So the best option for me would be to go for the longer one.
– What’s the best strategy for shooting on overcast, dreary days? (Getting lots of those here lately.)
In fact I like overcast and dreary days, but it depends on the type of clouds and cloud movement. I guess you’re referring to a very boring looking sky with no variation in clouds. Well my strategy would be to not shoot any skies, but focus on the water, or better yet: don’t shoot any long exposures at all! But that’s my way of working: if weather conditions aren’t co-operating then I prefer not to do any outdoor shooting at all but do some studio work instead like shooting still life work.
– Will your tutorials get into your still life at all? You touch on it at the very end. I’d like to see a paragraph or two about that. The only other question I had I’m guessing ill answer myself, but I’ll put it out there just in case: That soft ethereal look to your photos in your architecture stems from the long exposure correct? I haven’t been shooting long exposure on the streets of Chicago lately, because it requires a tripod and in this day and age I’m concerned security will get freaked out – at least if there’s only one photographer. I can simulate a long exposure in the sky using a radial blur, but I know of no way other than shooting a long exposure to get that soft look on buildings themselves, without resorting to the various nik software filters like Glamour glow (which I’m not a fan of). Is there a technique you use to achieve that beyond a long exposure that your video tutorials will address? If I’m at Lake Michigan I’m comfortable bringing out the tripod and shooting long exposure. I would also be interested to know if you have any special permissions you obtain when shooting architecture in this day and age. Maybe your tutorials will touch on that too? Thanks for the opportunity to get these questions out.
Yes the soft ethereal look is partly Long exposure since it diffuses the light so to speak. And partly it is the way I post process my images. And yes I can obtain that look with my B&W post processing too in the buildings. Without any filters, simply by using basic techniques. As for permissions: I never ask for permission when I go out shooting all by myself. But when we go out with a group for a workshop, then we’ll always make sure if we need any permits. I will try to come up with a tutorial specifically focused on processing B&W still life work and how to create light effects without studio lights in PP.
– Ok, so maybe one stupid question, but I really have no idea: what exactly is the difference between an ND filter and an IRND filter? Does the IR stand for Infrared?
Not a stupid question at all. But I hope I explain it the right way: The ND filters are just Neutral Density filters while the IRND (IR stands for Infrared making it Infra Red Neutral Density filters) doesn’t have a specific infrared cutoff point, but has even attenuation all the way from UV, through visible spectrum, through near infrared and infrared. This results in a reduced color shift in the ND. The biggest result however is that the blacks appear beautifully crisp and (most importantly) black, rather than purple or magenta.
What’s the relationship between long exposures, exposure time and choice of aperture/ND filter. What aperture to choose or exposure time?
In general you would always need 16 stops if you are seriously creating long exposure images. 10 stops simply won’t do.
Shutter speed and choice of aperture/ND filter
- In general with long exposure always go for a shutter speed of more than 3 minutes. I always prefer something around 6 or 7 minutes. Anything longer will result in hot pixels/noise, anything shorter will not give you the smoothness in the sky (and to a lesser extent the smoothness in the water) you need, it would look to contrasty and too hard. This doesn’t mean however that sometimes slow shutter speeds of 1 minute cannot look good! But that’s a matter of luck.
- Always go with an aperture between f/5.6 and f/8.0 –> f/8.0 is the most ideal setting. Don’t go smaller because this results in decreased quality. The critical point is f/13 and smaller. So if you need smaller apertures (see #3) then don’t go smaller than f/13 since you will also see sensor dust!
- Keeping in mind the above you need to vary with filters/stops/ in the following way:
- if the meter reading without the filter says something between roughly 1/25 and 1/150 seconds then this is not usable. You can’t go with 10 stops, this would result in exposure times that are not long enough (< 45 seconds) and you cannot go with 16 stops, since this would result in > 7 minutes exposure time. The solution is:
- add a 3 stops filter to your gear so you can go with 13 stops.
- decrease the aperture up to f/13 max.
- If the meter reading without the filter reads something between roughly 1/20 and 1/2 of a second then you can go with 10 stops. 1/4 would be ideal so you can go with 5 minutes. 1/20 becomes tricky, in that case decrease aperture till it reads 1/4 or 1/8
- If the meter reading without the filter reads something between roughly 1/200 and 1/500 of a second then go with 16 stops. 1/400 would be ideal for an exposure time of 6 minutes approximately.
– between 1/20 and 1/2 is 10 stops –> 1/4 is ideal
– between 1/200 and 1/500 is 16 stops –> 1/400 is ideal.
– between 1/25 and 1/150 is only okay if you decrease aperture up to 13 stops but preferably add a 3 stops filter.