Several years ago (okay possibly, more than several - more like a decade) I came across an article by the Canadian nature photographer Darwin Wigget entitled ‘Painting With Time’ (I tried to track the article down but it seems to have been converted into an ebook so is no longer freely available). I had always been interested in long exposure photography, but the images that Darwin Wigget posted were mesmerizing. From then I found myself increasingly trying to slow the world down in a single frame so that a dimension of time played out in the image. Rather than a frozen moment in time - Cartier Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ - a period of time could be seen in an instant. In some ways it’s seemed to invert the way we look at photographs. Rather than a single moment gazed upon for longer than the image took to capture, now we would look at the image for a shorter period of time than it took to create (well in a way; we always hope that our images resonate and that people gaze at them for ages, and if we are extraordinarily lucky they do).
Creative long exposure photography tends to come with some complications however. First is the problem that our cameras usually don’t have shutter speeds that go beyond 30 seconds (a few exceptions to the rule stretch to 60 seconds - good on you Olympus). Then there is the fact that our camera sensors are so sensitive to light that trying to shoot a long exposure during the day usually results in an over-blown white mess of burned out highlights, and that’s if there is even enough detail to see those highlights in the first place. For most photographers then long exposures are confined to periods of the day where there is relatively little available light. So it is relatively easy to shoot a long exposure during dusk and the hours thereafter, and dawn and the hours beforehand. Once the sun is up in the sky though, the amount of light available to us makes it very difficult to drag the shutter effectively.
The first thing to solve then, is to to reduce the amount of light that comes through the camera’s lens and onto the sensor. The easiest way to do this is to put a neutral density filter (ND) onto the front of the lens. These come as either screw on filters or slot in filters for a square filter system. The general idea is that the filter, which is supposed to be colour neutral (i.e. it doesn’t produce a colour caste to the image), is used to reduce the transmission of light through the lens. The strength of these filters is usually measured in stops of light. Putting a 2-stop ND onto the lens means that the shutter speed would therefore be reduced by 2 stops (1/60th of a second would become 1/15th of a second and so on).
The next hurdle is actually controlling the shutter speed. A conventional cable release allows you to lock the shutter open while in Bulb mode, but you still have to time the exposure with your phone or a watch. I usually use a dedicated intervalometer or timed cable release. I have also had a good amount of success with the Triggertrap app on my iPhone. This app in conjunction with a small dongle that connects the camera to the phone allows me to set the duration of the shutter and fire the shutter via the app on the phone. This makes is really simple to set an exposure of over a minute and not worry about when to end it as the app does the work for you.
The Triggertrap really is great (you can read my review here), but sometimes a conventional release is more useful; like when you are working in wet conditions and would rather your phone stays safe in the bag. All the camera manufacturers produce their own dedicated cable releases. Some, like Canon and Nikon, also have dedicated intervalometers that essentially allow you to programme the duration and amount of exposures. The marque intervalometers are extraordinarily expensive for what they are though. I personally use cheaper generic releases and have had no problems with them (admittedly my original Nikon MC-20 cable release - lost to a river in the Drakensberg - was less finicky than the YongNuo MC-20a that I have replaced it with, but the point is the cheaper generic has not held me back in any way). I currently have a Commlite EZa-N1 which itself is a clone of the original Nikon intervalometer. It works fine. My only advice in buying a cheap generic intervalometer though, is to buy it from a brick and mortar store rather than eBay. The reason being that the quality control on the Chinese generics isn’t always phenomenal. So, by buying from an actual person in an actual store means that if you identify a problem with the unit early on, you just take it back and ask for another one (as I did with my current Commlite unit).
Something to bear in mind is that long exposures don’t always play nicely with the camera’s sensor. long exposure noise and hot pixels can occur. It’s a good idea to set the camera so that long exposure noise reduction is switched on (this effectively doubles the length of the exposure as the camera activates the sensor without opening the shutter for the same length of time as the initial exposure; so the 4 minutes effectively becomes an 8 minute exposure). You could also shoot a ‘black frame’ by photographing with your lens cap firmly attached and a cover over the eye-piece. You can use this ‘black frame’ and subtract it in Photoshop or a similar image editor. This can be a faff though, so switching on long exposure noise reduction is really the easiest solution (there will be a follow-up post soon on getting rid of long-exposure noise).
One of the most enjoyable aspects of slowing the world down in the image is that it also forces you, the photographer, to slow down. I find myself taking in the scene far more thoroughly when I am shooting long exposures than when I am trying to capture the decisive moment. Part of it is being forced to slow down by the very fact that the camera takes a seeming eternity between frames. The result is that shooting long exposures starts to take on the same 'feeling' as when I used to occasionally shoot on a large format film camera. The expense isn't in physical money, but in time spent creating the image. So, you end up investing more into the image. You think that much more before committing to the frame. You ponder the composition for longer. The clouds scud by, the waves crash around you and the grass sways lazily in the breeze. This you notice because movement is suddenly everything inside the frame. Without movement the photograph doesn't necessary show the passage of time, so you become that much more in tune to it around you. That in itself, is a reason to see the world in slow time.