Digital photography has catapulted us into a world in which theoretically (and even in practice) anything is possible. It is precisely this that sometimes makes us forget how using just the basic tools of photography (shutter speed, aperture and ISO values) can give us breathtaking results.
Today, in fact, I want to illustrate a photographic technique that will allow you to capture more than you actually see.. Indeed, we usually associate photography with “capturing a moment”; in reality, however, we can capture several seconds, minutes (and, in theory, even hours) with our cameras: what we are talking about is long exposure.
To less expert eyes, this type of image may seem the result of some strange trickery, but I can assure you that you can obtain similar photos with any camera that allows you to adjust the shutter speed manually.
The aim is to allow as little light as possible to reach the camera sensor, in order to have to increase the shutter speed. How is it done?
You start by working out the length of exposure you want to achieve. To capture the movement of waves, times of less than a second are sufficient; for clouds in motion, you may need a few minutes; whilst capturing the movement of the stars (star-trails) may require an exposure time of hours.
In the example you see above, I was taking pictures of a cold dawn in London, near Tower Bridge.
There was a strong wind and I could see the clouds moving just by looking at them: I wanted to take a picture that captured precisely that movement and, to do so, I needed an exposure time of between 60 and 120 seconds.
In this case, I chose an ISO value of 100 and f/16, which took the shutter speed to 120s.
Here are a few useful tips:
- ISO: start from the lowest sensitivity value your camera has (usually 50, 100 or 200 ISO).
- Aperture (f/): the more you close the aperture, the less light will get in, but be careful not to exaggerate, to avoid ending up with light diffraction. As an approximation, use values between f/8 and f/16.
- Shutter speed: by adjusting the ISO value and f/, you will obtain the shutter speed you wanted from the start. Don’t be afraid to experiment; every situation is different.
You will notice, however, that, during the day, even with “extreme” values, such as ISO 50 and f/22, your shutter speed will still be too fast.
So how did I get a photo like this one?
You can use neutral density (ND) filters to reduce further the amount of light that reaches your camera sensor, which will lead to increased exposure time.
There are various intensities of filter and they are classified according to the number of light stops they remove.
For the shot you see above, which captures the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet) in Istanbul, just before a storm, I chose an exposure of 8 seconds using a filter capable of removing 6 light stops.
If I hadn’t used that filter, the time would have been 1/8s and the photo would have been much less striking.
The reason for choosing a time of 8s and not 120s, as with the photo in London, is because I wanted to keep the three dimensional effect of the clouds, which would have been lost with an excessively long exposure time.
Another pleasing result you can achieve with this technique is the silky effect with waves, waterfalls and rivers.
To capture this 100% Italian sunset, I chose a relatively short exposure time (1/4s) because I wanted to preserve the texture and movement of the water.
To obtain similar exposure times in full daylight, I recommend using light ND filters (1, 2 or 3 stops).
For this shot of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, I again decided to use a long exposure: counterposing static and dynamic subjects will bring your photographs to life.
Be prepared to take a lot of pictures (or to be hit by a few waves, as happened to me in this case): every wave is different and it’s not easy to find the perfect moment in which to open the shutter.
One essential aspect of long exposure photography is, obviously, that of keeping your camera perfectly still: as you will have noticed, all the shutter speeds I have mentioned cannot be managed freehand. So, if you want to try your hand at this technique, you will absolutely have to make use of a stable tripod.
In urban locations, I usually use the Manfrotto BeFree Carbon, as I need to get around without too much weight to carry; the carbon fibre also reduces the vibrations caused by the shutter.
In very windy locations, of where I need to reach a certain height with my camera, I use the heavier and larger Manfrotto 055 XPROB.
Indeed, there are situations in which stability comes before all else, such as with this shot in Dubai of the Burj Khalifa that stands out amongst the already super-tall skyscrapers of the golden city.
It was a shot I had been dreaming about for several years and it required a lot of work, in both the shooting and editing stages.
In fact, when I arrived on the 42nd floor of the skyscraper, there was, as often happens in the Persian Gulf, a very strong wind, and the terrace balustrade was pretty high. So I had to use the Manfrotto 055 XPROB with maximum extension.
My advice: to reduce the wind factor, use your body as a sort of shield.
I used an ultra-wide lens (14mm on Full-Frame) and I took various photos of 10s each, one after another; I then combined them all in post production.
I could have chosen an exposure time of several minutes, using an ND filter, but, in certain situations, especially when the ambient light is changing quickly (dawn or dusk), you don’t have much time available. Therefore, using this technique provides you with a better safety margin.
So, as you have seen, long exposures really do give you great opportunities for expression. The key to taking home a winning shot is always the same: try and try again.
This type of photograph is not easy to obtain, especially if you are just getting started; but over time and with experience, you will learn to amaze even yourself and find yourself exclaiming, “Wow!” at what you have achieved.
Alessandro Carpentiero is a photographer who specialises in Travel and Architecture.
He started sharing his pictures on Instagram whilst working as a designer; his popularity grew and led to him collaborating with internationally famous brands. He is now a full-time photographer and he travels around the world taking pictures of the beauty of our planet and documenting prestigious hotels and resorts.