What Are The Prerequisites To Capture Long Exposure Shots?

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Tin (Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam) asked: Your gallery has some really amazing long exposure night shots. I am also interested in taking such photos. How should I prepare myself for the long exposure shots?

If you want to take long exposure shots, there are few requirements in terms of accessories you might need and the camera settings you need to setup. And if you are just starting, you can start with a minimal setup and as you grow more with your experience, you would find out what else you might need to improve your skill. This is what I would suggest to anyone who is starting into any genre of photography; start with the basics, you would make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and keep practicing. This is coming from my personal experience.

Now, to answer your question about the requirements for the long exposure shots, let's talk about the accessories you might need in the first section and then I will go through the camera settings in the following section.

1. Accessories you would need for the Long Exposure shots

- Tripod

Tripod is a must have device when you are taking long exposure shots. The general rule of thumb is: if you are shooting with a shutter speed that is slower than the focal length value, you would need a tripod to get the sharper image. Let’s say you are shooting at the focal length of 80mm, any shutter speed that is less than 1/80th of a second requires a tripod to produce a crisp image. I think it pays to invest in a good tripod (carbon fiber if you can afford) so that you won't have to keep replacing the tripod with every new camera you would buy in the future. I suggest you to get the one that can support heaviest camera-lens combo in the market and have extra features like panning support and easy movement of the camera in all possible directions. I think finding the best tripod requires a little bit of research of your own based on your budget and future plannings.

- Remote shutter release cable

This is a good to have accessory but if you don't have or don’t want to get one, there is a workaround. You can setup a timer for shutter release so that the shutter will only be opened after a few seconds (the time you set on self-timer setting) of pressing the shutter release button. This technique is used to avoid the camera shake during the long exposure shot. If you are using a faster shutter speed to freeze the motion, little camera shake wouldn't make a difference but if you are taking a few seconds or longer shutter speed, camera shake is very important issue to be taken care of to get a sharper image.

- Night filter

This is an optional accessory but would be helpful to cut out night light pollution. Some of it's effect can also be achieved using post-processing tools, but if you want to get one, Ni-Si is one of the popular brand among landscape photographers.

That's pretty much it on the accessories part, at least on the basic level. Now, let's discuss about the camera settings.

2. Camera settings for the Long Exposure shots

- Set the Exposure Mode

I usually set the exposure mode into Aperture Priority (A) mode most of the time unless I would be using more than 30 seconds of shutter speed. And in such cases, I would set the exposure mode into Manual (M) mode so that I can set the shutter speed to the BULB mode. In BULB mode, the shutter remains open while the shutter-release button is held down and only when you let go of the shutter-release button, the shutter will be closed. When you purchase remote shutter release cable, look for the type that comes with the shutter lock feature. That will allow you to lock the shutter once the button is pressed and when you release the lock button, the shutter will be closed (in BULB mode).

- Set the Aperture and the ISO Value

Generally, in landscape photography, it is preferred to have everything from the foreground to the background in focus. Depending on the lens you are using, you would have to find the best Aperture value which produces the sharpest image. My Nikkor 16-35 mm f/4 lens produces the sharpest image at f/9 or f/11 but it might be different for your lens and the only way to find out is to experiment with the different values and compare the results. In case of the ISO value, I would suggest to use the minimum native ISO value possible to avoid any noise that long exposure may produce. Additionally, you can also enable the long exposure NR (noise reduction) in the Custom Setting Menu if your camera has such option.

- Lock the Focus

When you want everything in focus, you can use the two-third of the frame focus technique or calculate the focusing distance using the hyperfocal distance. In two-third focusing method, you would compose the shot and then zoom into a two-third of the frame and adjust the focus to have that area in focus and once the focus is achieved, you can zoom out and take the shot. While focusing with this technique, either you have to use a manual focusing or a back button (AF-ON) auto focusing method. If you autofocus by pressing the shutter release button halfway down and then release the button to recompose the shot, camera will try to focus again when you are trying to take the shot. Alternatively, if you are using a wide angle lens, you can also manually focus by switching the lever on the lens barrel from A or A/M to M and set the focal length to infinity. This is what I have been doing lately and works great every single time. While using the camera on the tripod, I would also suggest to turn the VR off on the lens so that the lens wouldn't move its internal parts trying to stabilize the image, which is unnecessary efforts while shooting on a tripod.

- Take the shot

Once the camera is mounted on the tripod and leveled up properly, you would plug the remote shutter release cable into the camera or set the shutter timer to delay the shutter release once the button is pressed. After that, you would set the exposure mode and set the aperture and the ISO value. If your camera has a shutter on a viewfinder eyepiece, I would suggest you to close it right after composing the shot and before snapping the shutter release button to take the picture. It will prevent the light entering through the viewfinder and interfering with the exposure settings. Once all of the above setup is done, you would press the shutter release button to take the shot. As you advance more, you might be interested shooting in RAW mode, bracket the shots and merge them to create a single HDR photo which would have a high dynamic range, rich color tones and greater details of the scene.

I hope I was able to answer your question and if you have any follow up question, please don’t forget to write them in the comment box below.