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(Ultra) Long Exposure Photography

What is it? Can I do it? What gear do I need? A free master class ULE

Author: Thushara Verhoeven | Photo & image credits: © TPJ Verhoeven Photography | Published on: 23 October 2020 | Last edited on: 4 February 2021


Since I particularly love long exposure photography I decided to dedicate an article to this great photographical discipline. If you pull everything off correctly, the results will be stunning. There's quite a lot of technique and know-how involved but when you perfect and finally master it, this truly opens up a whole new world and certainly takes your photos to the next level... How? Let me tell you all about it.

BRACK & bridge (Breda, The Netherlands)

BRACK & bridge (Breda, The Netherlands)

BRACK is a beer tasting locale with a brewery and a terrace in the former industrial Belcrum district of the city. Left in the image is the temporary bridge that connects the small peninsula with the rest of the city.


What is (ultra) long exposure photography?

What is it? What does it look like and how do you create it? 

(U)LE

Photography is considered LE if the time the shutter is open (from pressing the shutter button, until the shutter is closing) is at least 1 second, up to 30 seconds. Everything longer than 30 seconds is considered Ultra Long Exposure (ULE).


LIGHTING TRIANGLE

To correctly expose a photo, sufficient light needs to reach the camera sensor for a sufficient amount of time. All that is done by adjusting three settings which form the camera's Lighting Triangle: Shutter speed, ISO and aperture. These are the fundamental basics of correctly exposing an image.

Your camera helps you with an in-camera exposure or lighting meter that tells you how a scene is exposed in real-time while looking throught the viewfinder. Ideally it should be in the middle for correct exposure. You can purposefully under or over expose, for example for creative purposes (silhouettes) or high key photography.


PRO EFFECT

The well-known effect of milky water and skies, waterfalls or the waves at beaches or lakes that look like an exact mirror, is considered to be professional. The technique to reach these effects is not that difficult to explain:

The shutter needs to be open for an extended period of time so that enough light will reach the camera sensor for a properly exposed photo. A lot can happen during that time (clouds passing by, cars headlights draw light stripes) to smooth everything out. Basically this means, the longer the shutter is open, the smoother everything gets. But there's one problem with this though: the longer the shutter is open, the more light the sensor collects and the more light the sensor collects will eventually lead to overexposure of a scene or at least blown out highlights (the over-exposed white areas in a photo). If you prolong this even further, eventually the photo will turn out completely white.


DAY TIME LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHY WITH ND FILTERS

This type of photography isn't just restricted to the hours of the night. It can also be practiced during daytime, but you'll need a little help from so-called Neutral Density filters (ND filters) which are basically 'sunglasses' for your camera lens and camera sensor.

During the day narrowing the aperture can get your exposure close to a needed shutter speed of at least 1 second, but there's probably too much light even at f/18-/f20. You don't want to go to your narrowest aperture either because of the unwanted optical effect called diffraction.

So in order to get that slow shutter we want, we need some external help by darkening the lens with an ND-filter. These filters are available in different strengths (compared to welding goggles or sunglasses). The strongest filters can even block sunlight for 16 stops or more which is plenty to get reach those slow shutter speeds. Even for ULE photography these filters will work for you during the day. They enable you to get that silky waterfall effect also during the day!

Belcrum Harbour (Breda, NL)

Belcrum Harbour (Breda, NL)

Water is being smoothed out with LE photography. The longer the shutter is open, the more this effect is enhanced. This photo is obviously taken during the day, with an exposure of 20s at ISO50 and f/18 but without the use of an ND filter.

How to...

How do you set up your camera? What settings do you use? And what else is important?

BEST GEAR FOR ULE?

Any camera body that is able to use shutter speeds as long as 30 seconds (which is the standard most of the time) is suitable for LE and is considered at least semi professional. On top of that, any camera body that has BULB mode (see BULB MODE) is ULE-ready. Since a while there are camera models out there that have a longer maximum shutter speed limit than 30 seconds.

When it comes to lenses it doesn't really matter what lens you choose. The preference is however a wide angle lens (35mm and wider). What matters more is what aperture you choose. Because this type of photography is mainly used in landscape photography, a narrower aperture is preferrable because that way you'll ensure that subjects in the front as well as in the back of the frame will be sharp and in focus.

You are able to do ULE with essentially any lens, but the longer the focal length the greater the effect of enlarging any camera movement by the camera on a tripod, which is more likely resulting in blurry images.


BULB MODE

But what if you need to expose a scene longer than 30 seconds? Professional cameras can be set to an extended mode after 30 seconds called "BULB mode". Bulb, from light bulb, means that after switched on it won't turn off until you do. With BULB mode enabled it suddenly becomes possible to light scenes in principle indefinitely. Ofcourse you still need to correctly expose the scene to determine exactly how long the shutter needs to be open. But in BULB mode this cannot be measured with the in-camera exposure meter anymore, since it only goes up to 30 seconds. Anything longer than that means the exact shutter time needs to be calculated or it will be essentially a guess. Luckily that time can be calculated using two methods. By trial and error and calculating it yourself or by using a calculation app.


NATIVE ISO

Basic rule to a final totally noise free and clean photo result is to try to completely bring the ISO down to the camera's native (basic) ISO value. This is always your camera's lowest possible ISO value, which most of the time is ISO100. After setting the camera to this ISO value, adjust aperture and shutter speed accordingly.


ISO EXPLAINED

The sensor simply becomes two times more sensitive to light when you raise the ISO from 100 to 200 meaning that the sensor is now able to gather light twice as well as at ISO100. And again it becomse two times more sensitive when going from 200 to 400 and so on. That's great if you need more light but don't want to change the shutter speed at the same time to keep exposing a photo correctly. (For example: an F1 racing car can be frozen in the final image but that probably requires a shutter speed close to 1/8000s or even faster. Extremely fast shutter speeds mean that the camera sensor is only exposed to light for a very short amount of time. To compensate you to increase the camera sensor's light sensitivity by going for rather high ISO values. But bumping up the ISO comes with a downside for the finaly photo quality, since the higher you set your ISO, the more noise there will be introduced in the image. Modern cameras can cope quite well with high ISO values and the noise they produce. Pro cameras can even go to extremely high values (some as high as ISO20.000 or sometimes even higher still!) and still produce workable photos. But... for extremely slow or long shutter speeds we need the ISO value to be as low as possible: the native ISO value. 


EXTENDED ISO

Some camera's also have extended ISO. In the pro camera world ISO50 or ISO32 is sometimes possible. These setting are the so called extreme Lo (or Hi ISO values). They don't do anything more for a noise free result since they are only extensions of the native ISO settings. Technically your images won't improve but your shutter speeds will be again twice as long, meaning twice as much risk at blurry photos.


CALCULATING SHUTTER SPEEDS

How do you measure a shutter speed when trying to correctly expose a scene and it seems to go beyond 30 seconds? The "Trial & Error" method has the major disadvantage that it can be very time consuming method. Since ULE photography sometimes means exposure of 10 minutes or so, it's easy to see that you will be able to produce only three (3!) photos every half hour. (And trust me: no, you won't want to wast time on a cold winter night in an windy, open field). It's better if you do a little bit of math to save you precious time in the field to calculate the correct exposure time. Say, a scene is completely well exposed at ISO1600, f/10 and 30s. If you now LOWER the ISO value by half to ISO800 it means that you'll need twice as much time to properly expose the scene: 60 seconds. ISO400 means 120 seconds. ISO 200, 240 seconds and arriving at ISO100 means that the same scene needs to be exposed for 480 seconds, which is: 8 minutes(!). Luckily there are apps for this to help you calculate the required shutter speed.


CAMERA SHAKE

Because the camera only goes to 30 seconds (BULB mode or not) this means that you need to press the shutter with a stopwatch in your other hand and keep it pressed for 480 seconds after which you release the button to close the shutter. Since no one in the history of humanity has ever been able to completely hold a camera steady for 480 seconds, this means you'll need something sturdy to counteract the unavoidable camera shake. In this case a sturdy tripod will come in very handy. Be sure to mount the camera firmly in place. Check evey single joint on the tripod to make sure it's correctly fastened before you continue. 


TRIPOD

Don't go cheap on a tripod. Yes,a  tripod from metal is cheaper, but also heavier to lug around but not more sturdy. It also feels colder (which is not nice when you're in a windy open field, even with gloves on), all adding up to the fact that it's harder to set up and tear down. A good tripod is not cheap and a cheap tripod is not good. Sturdy but light, almost always means: a tripod made from carbon, it's light, it's fast and it's a joy to set up.


IN-CAMERA NOISE REDUCTION

If provided by your camera and if enabled this feature only kicks in at shutter speeds longer than 2.5 seconds. The camera takes a second shot which will take exactly as long to complete as the first photo. This means that if you have calculated that a scene needs a shutter speed of 5 minutes, this setting results in the process taking twice as long: 10 minutes.

When this function is operational the camera takes another photo which is way darker than the correctly lit scene. It the compares both photos and substracts any deviations and blown out pixels it finds. This way (a part of the) camera noise will be reduced and removed from the final image immediately on the spot by the camera itself. It's a useful feature for sure, but since it will take twice as long for every photo to complete (and thus twice as much battery power too), it's up to you what you do with it. My recommendation: turn it off. The reason: with today's high quality noise reduction in all the various photo editing software out there, it's not necessary and you'll be needing your available battery power for taking the photos.


RAW

Of course all this only makes sense when shooting in M (Full Manual mode) and in RAW. Shooting in RAW ensures that all photographical data is preserved and gives you full control over the final outcome of the image as opposed to shootinging in JPEG. When shooting in JPEG you hand over control over the final outcome to the camera. In JPEG the camera decides what data to keep and discard in the final image. but we want all data when we start editing in Lightroom or Photoshop or whatever photo editing software package you are using, so we need to shoot in RAW. Preferrably the highest settings possible to enable the most control. RAW, 14-bits uncompressed would be great. And be sure to pack large memory cards as well since those files will be pretty huge).


SENSOR DAMAGE?

Back in the early days when doing ULE photography it used to be possible (however slightly) that this technique was capable of damaging your camera sensor. During long exposures heat builds up on the surface of the sensor. Heat and electronics never go well together. Cheaper cameras can't get rid of this heat properly and will shut down to prevent sensor damage. Pro grade cameras are far better equipped against overheating and are able to expell excessive heat more quickly and more efficiently. Lower end cameras mostly lack a BULB mode and most of the time have a maximum exposure time of 30 seconds before the shutter automatically closes. This is also done to shield and protect the sensor from overheating. With today's technology this practically isn't an issue anymore.

River Mark Channel Valley (Breda, The Netherlands)

River Mark Channel Valley (Breda, The Netherlands)

The river Mark Channel valley (Markkanaal) is an area between the city of Breda in the South of The Netherlands and the village of Terheijden.

Workflow

There's quite a checklist to complete before you're ready to press the shutter button.

TRIPOD

You have to set the tripod in a safe and secure place and make sure to lock it tight. You need to make sure that no external factor can introduce camera shake. So the tripod needs to be safely away from humans, animal or a sudden gust of wind or gush of water (when at the beach for example). The tripod needs to hold to camera 100% and uninterruptedly steady during the time the shutter will be open. If this is NOT the case, the photo will be blurry. 


REMOTE TRIGGER

Since the camera needs to be absolutely perfectly still during the time the shutter is open, even the slightest movement will result in disaster. The act of pressing the shutter button alone can be enough to result in a blurry picture which means you'll need a remote trigger. Once connected by wire (or wireless) the remote trigger acts and behaves the same way as the shutter button on your camera. Once you press it the shutter curtain in the camera opens and once you release it the curtain closes and the photo is taken. Since you need to expose scenes for minutes, most remote triggers come with a lock mechanism that keeps the button pressed down during that time. After the countdown is complete, simply release the lock and the shutter finally closes. No camera shake, hence: a sharp and correctly (U)LE photo.


REMOTE TRIGGER AND BULB MODE

After your tripod your remote camera trigger is the single most vital tool to be used in ultra LE photography since ULE won't work with out it. Regular LE can do without a remote, but in order to use BULB mode you have use a remote. It won't work with the camera's timer function either, because that'll still automatically closes the shutter after 30 seconds. This means that in order for BULB mode to be used at all, the shutter has to be pressed down constantly as long as the shutter needs to remain open and to pull that off without introducing camera shake resulting in a blurry image, the remote is truly indispensable. (So, don't forget to pack it!)


DETERMINE COMPOSITION

You need to check the surroundings for a good composition. Find a scene that is worth the time. It would be a shame if you've waited for a ULE photo to complete for over 15 minutes, only to find out afterwards that there's something highly distracting in the image that you could've avoided if you checked the surroundings a bit more thoroughly before. 


CAMERA STRAP

When you walk around town it's a pretty handy thing to leave your camera carelessly hanging. However in this discipline of photography your attached camera strap may work against you when it comes to getting sharp images. Your camera strap might be prone to catching wind, thus making the tripod move. Remove the strap alltogether when you head out to do ULEs.


IMAGE STABILISATION

If your camera and/or lens has built-in image stabilisation, turn it OFF. Stabilisation is really helpful when taking photos, because it counteracts your own movements when shooting handheld, but when mounted on a tripod, there are no movements anymore and the image stabilisation technology may work against you. It'll try to compensate for movement that isn't there anymore and thus it will introduce motion and movement by itself, resulting in a blurry image. We don't want that so we definitely would want to turn that off.


AUTO FOCUS (AF)

The last thing you want after an ultra long exposure is a out-of-focus image. So to ensure a sharp photo you'll have to the be very sure the lens is focussed correctly before you press the shutter button. When doing (U)LE photography at night it's probably too dark for the camera to focus and this means trouble. To focus accurately the camera's AF system measures contrast rich areas in the frame (areas with a big difference between dark and light parts in the scene) but since there's not much contrast at night, the AF system is in trouble. Most of the time you'll need to use your camera's back screen or Live View mode and zoom in on the back screen of your camera to determine if the photo will be in focus. OR you have to manually focus.


HYPERFOCAL DISTANCE

This is a focussing method that helps you reach the largest possible range of sharpness, meaning that everything from a certain precalculated distance from the camera's sensor to infinity will be in focus (sharp) in the final image. If you learn to use this method, the need for focussing will disappear alltogether since it's precalculated for a all apertures and focal lengths where these points exactly are. There are apps for this to help you with these calculations. PhotoPills (Android, iPhone) is such an app.


VIEWFINDER

When a scene is lit for a long period of time it'll gather as much light as possible within that specific time frame. However the lens opening isn't the only way light can enter into the camera. Since the shutter is going to be open for such long time unwanted stray light may also leak into the camera through the viewfinder. You need to block the viewfinder completely before pressing the shutter. Either with a piece of tape or some other solution but most of recent pro camera bodies have a physical valve to block the viewfinder.


LENS HOOD

Since the camera sensor will be exposed to light through the lens opening for a prolonged period of time, all external light sources within your framed area (street lights, building lights, but also the moon and stars) will be recorded. But consider this: light sources from just outside the frame can also cause unwanted artifacts in a photo. The so called "light flares". Flares can be a creative part of the final photo but most of the time this is to be avoided. The proper use of a lens hood shields the lens opening from most of that stray light but in the case of nighttime photography that might not even be enough and you need to stand over the lens to cast your own shadow to block streetlights that way. Always very thoroughly check your surroundings for bright street lights or other bright disruptive light sources before settling for a final composition. To avoid physical back problems, taking an umbrella with you to keep out stray light isn't bad thinking at all.


BATTERY PACKS

Bring a spare battery pack. Or better: bring two! Also, be sure these packs are fully charged before you leave. Since keeping the shutter open costs battery power and because in ULE photography one photo generally takes a long time to complete, the camera will burn through batteries more quickly. There's also the lower outside temperature at night to take into account. Especially during long Winter nights battery packs will drain more quickly. Tip: don't put the spares in your backpack. Tuck them away warm and dry, for example in your pants' or coat's pockets. That way they're relatively close to your body and they will stay warm enough because of your own body heat.

Hollands Diep (Moerdijk, NL)

Hollands Diep (Moerdijk, NL)

At the border between the Dutch provinces of Brabant and South Holland flows the river Hollands Diep. At the town of Moerdijk It's spanned by 3 bridges: The A16 highway on the left and two railroadbridges on the right.

Important things to consider for nighttime ULE

Here are some final tips on things to consider before you head out there.

SEASONS

Yes, ULE photography can be done any time of year. In Western-Europe we have the longest periodes of darkness near the end of Autumn, during Winter all the way up until the beginning of Spring. These seasons will give you the most usefull hours to practice in total darkness. But of course it's also possible to catch awesome Summer scenes (at night or during the day) and practice during dusk or dawn.


TIME OF NIGHT

For a steady ULE shot try to avoid capturing photos during dusk and dawn with such long shutter speeds. The rising or setting sun can cause major lighting issues for the cameras exposure meter since lighting conditions change pretty rapidly during that specific time of day.


CLOTHING

I live in Western Europe where we have warm Summers and colder Winters (not Siberian cold, but still...). Since you're out in the field for extensive periods of time: warm clothes are important. In Winter it's adviceable to wear thermo clothing (i.e. socks, shirts, vests), warm hiking shoes, a warm hat, a good wind tight coat (that's easy to dry and to clean afterwards) and skin tight gloves that are also warm enough (skying gloves won't do since you won't be able to operate small buttons of the camera anymore without taking them off first).


TORCH

Bring a flashlight or torch. when you're setting up the camera you want light to be able to see what you're doing. Be sure to turn it off a while before you're ready to press the shutter button because you'll want to give your eyes the necessary time to adjust to the dark.


SHADOW & SHAKE

DON'T stand close to your tripod while the camera is recoding your image. Even your shoes or booths in the grass can be enough to move the tripod! Be also well away from the tripod in case there's more than one light source around you to avoid that your own shadow will be recorded in the final inage (or it has to be for creative purposes). If it's cold: don't stay in one place to stay warm. Move around, but also away from the tripod.


FOOD & DRINKS

Bring along food and drinks. This type of photography can take up long amounts of time. You might get hungry or thirsty before you get home. I found out the hard way that doing ULE photography in the middle of the night in a field is often tedious work, since it consists most of the time of waiting for the camera to finish. (Your work begins once you get home and start editing!) Also: be sure to collect your trash!


TEMPERATURE

When you take your camera equipment out of the warm car to set it up in the cold night, camera components need time to acclimatise to the temperature difference. This is mainly due to condensation build-up on the lens. Also, don't breathe directly onto the lens.


LENS CLEANING

Bring a lens cleaning kit. This is to clean dust or moisture from the front element of your lens. Moisture can cause major unwanted flaring effects in the final photo's so you want to get rid of that, but you DO NOT want to clean that off with a regular t-shirt or cloth or anything like that. These type of textiles might be damaging the protective coating of your lens when you try to clean it. You might also even rub grains of sand or mud or dust this way unwantedly into the lens coating, resulting in lasting sratches in your lens's front glass. Also DO NOT blow directly on a lens to clean smudges or fingerprints off. Your breath is warm and contains moisture which only adds to the problem. Use a camera lens blower instead to blow off major dust particles and then finally clean off fingerprints and so on with a special microfiber cloth applying light pressure. Be gentle!


MAKE A CHECKLIST / CHECK YOUR LIST OF GEAR

It may seem redundant but this checklist you're currently reading also contains this particular point: "Make a checklist!". Of course you should always do that before such a trip, but you really need one if you venture out there on longer trips (by car or to remote places).

From my own experience I can tell you it's not very spirit-enlifting when you arrive at a hard to get to or far away location, only to notice you have forgotton something you can't do without (remote trigger) and need to turn around to get it.... 


PREPARATIONS

Especially for the longer trips or trips further out there: really look into your intended destinations beforehand on Google Maps, using satellite view. It will pay off if you know at least a little bit of what to expect on location. Do your research before you leave. Can you get close to your intended location? Will there be any obstacles? It certainly won't hurt to already know a bit about your surroundings.


MAINTAIN YOUR VEHICLE

Might be a bit of an open door but still a valuable tip: don't forget to maintain your vehicle especially for the longer trips. You don't want to get stuck out there in the middle of nowhere due to an empty fuel tank or engine problems that could have been avoided.

Also, always remember to bring along a spare tire and tools to change tires.


TOOLS

I already mentioned a few, but it couldn't hurt to have these also packed in your car when heading out: a torch, a lighter, your trigger remote(!), general tools but especially a screwdriver set (for your camera ballhead, tripod), roll of tape, toilet paper... (you never know), phone charger or better: a fully charged power bank.

A16 Highway (Breda, The Netherlands)

A16 Highway (Breda, The Netherlands)

The tunnel below the A16 highway in the far South of the country connects the city of Breda with the town of Prinsenbeek. The highway itself leads to Rotterdam (North) and Antwerp (South) a.o.

Safety & legality

Since you're operating during the dark of night, this may present its own challenges. Common sense goes a long way, but these things are still worthy of your consideration when you're out there.

LEGALITY

DO NOT BREAK THE LAW - It's my most important rule of all. Simply always follow the laws and rules of the location you are taking photos in or photos of. I know us photographers are willing to risk a lot to capture the photos we want, but I would never advice to do something illegal (such as breaking and entering).

However, without breaking the law there might be a reason why you may want to consider dressing in dark clothes when you go out on a nightly photo run. In the first place, you may startle animals that suddenly can pose a threat when startled or secondly, you may disturb other people. Consider being out in the field and well into your LE shot you notice that you're not alone. It might be disturbing for you or your photo being recorded if someone comes over to talk to you. But it might also be scary as hell since you're out there in the dark. Also consider the fact that the other person doesn't know what you are doing. People in general aren't scary but when here in the midst of night you now have two options: 1. calmly explain what you're doing hoping and trusting in their best intentions or 2. be as less of a disturbance to your surroundings as possible.


SECURITY

Always be nice and calm to security personel or police when they come shining a torch in your face asking "What are you doing there, sir/madam?". As long as you're in a public space just calmly explain that you're taking a photo. Remember: as long as you're doing just that and you furthmore don't oppose a threath to yourself or others (standing in dangerous places, like the middle of the road or train tracks), you're not breaking any laws and they can't send you away or arrest you.

If do you find yourself in a place where they can send you away, whether you knew or not beforehand, just be decent and leave calmly.


SAFETY

Consider going with a friend. When there's two of you it's not scary and it's won't be as tedious either. It helps quite a bit if that friend is as much into photography as you are.

Always consider if a shot is worth the risk of getting it. Make sure that you're safe and secure, especially since it's dark and obstacles are easy overlooked. Getting hurt ending up with a twisted ankle or worse is more likely to happen in a pitch black location. 

My long exposure shots

These are some of my best ULE nighttime shots.

  • A16 Highway (Breda, The Netherlands)

    The tunnel below the A16 highway in the far South of the country connects the city of Breda with the town of Prinsenbeek. The highway itself leads to Rotterdam (North) and Antwerp (South) a.o.

  • BRACK & bridge (Breda, The Netherlands)

    BRACK is a beer tasting locale with a brewery and a terrace in the former industrial Belcrum district of the city. Left in the image is the temporary bridge that connects the small peninsula with the rest of the city.

  • BRACK & bridge (Breda, The Netherlands)

    BRACK is a beer tasting locale with a brewery and a terrace in the former industrial Belcrum district of the city. Left in the image is the temporary bridge that connects the small peninsula with the rest of the city.

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