4 essentials for creating a long exposure landscape

11 Jan 2014 | Categories: blog | Posted by: Peti Morgan

I think my most favourite type of landscape photographs are coastal long exposures. When I first began shooting these types of landscapes it was a Very Big Deal and it took me quite a long time out in the field, trying to capture what I had imagined. These days it is easier as it is becoming second nature. Perhaps I can boil down a few tips to share, for others interested in making these types of images.

Island Bay

“Island Bay” – 39 seconds, f22, ISO100

So without further adieu, here are my 4 essentials for creating a long exposure landscape:

1. Motion

One of the few reasons you would choose to make a long exposure landscape is to capture the passing of time in a single image. While our eyes can not see more than a single snapshot in time, a camera can capture a longer period in time, painting light across the image in a way we can not do ourselves. When I present to you a long exposure landscape, I’m showing you something that you otherwise could not see yourself. This is part of the magic.  Including motion in your composition can create sometimes otherworldly scenes.

So what moves?

  • > Water
  • > Car/aeroplane lights
  • > Stars
  • > People with handheld lights

I’m big on water.  Water is such a chameleon, having different characteristics depending on the weather, the time of day, the tide – you could photograph the same stretch of beach every day for a year and capture a multitude of different personalities.

2. Low light

Low light is essential for capturing long exposures of any kind. When there is a lot of light, you will be using faster shutter speeds. To be able to shoot with slow shutter speeds and capture motion in an interesting way, there needs to be less light hitting the sensor.

How do you achieve low light?

  • > Shoot at night, or around dawn or dusk
  • > Use a narrow aperture – this lets less light in, and means more of your image will be in focus as there is a much larger depth of field – this is ok for landscapes
  • > Use a neutral density (ND) filter, which reduces the amount of light hitting the sensor
  • > Use a polarising filter (as well as the ND filter if you like) which cuts haze and glare but also some light
  • > Use a graduated ND filter to reduce the brightness of the sky, so that you can better expose the land or foreground.

The less light that is allowed to get through to the sensor, the longer your shutter speed can be, and the more motion you can capture in your exposure.

In the Island Bay image I used an ND8 filter – which reduces the light coming into the sensor by 3 f stops, and I also used the narrowest aperture possible for the lens I was using – f22, to further reduce light coming in.

3. A balanced exposure

The ideal is to have the whole image exposed properly, but this is difficult when the sky is brighter than the ground.  Ordinarily I would use a graduated ND filter to achieve a balanced exposure – I typically use a P121 Cokin filter, which has a soft dark gradient at the top – for the sky, and is clear on the bottom.  This type of filter slides in front of the lens, as opposed to screwing onto it, which  means I can easily adjust focus without changing the angle of the gradient – this can happen when using the screw ons.

However I have a confession… I forgot to bring the grad ND with me!  So I had to think fast, and improvise.  This meant taking one exposure with the sky properly exposed (and the foreground underexposed), and one exposure with the foreground properly exposed (and the sky overexposed).  Later, in Photoshop I blended the two together using a gradient mask. The final image is well exposed all over.

Rollover to view the two images I blended to create the final image.

4. Freeze!

When the shutter is open for longer periods you will be subject to camera blur.  This can happen for a number of reasons – wind, people walking past, you bump the camera (sometimes when you just breathe!).  So yes, it’s very important to keep the camera as still as possible when the shutter is open, so that the static elements in your composition are sharp.

How to reduce blur:

  • > Use a sturdy tripod, on a solid surface. If you are on sand, dig the legs in so that they are less likely to slip.
  • > Use a remote shutter release, so that you don’t need to touch the camera when you click the shutter.
  • > Use your camera’s ‘mirror lock up’ feature. Usually this happens when you click the shutter and it can create blur. Lock it up prior.
  • > Be careful not to bump the camera when the shutter is open.

After exposing the image, be sure to zoom in and check that it is sharp in all the right places – nothing worse than getting home and into processing, and realising all your images are blurry!

So I hope that you found that useful – please leave a comment if you did, or if you have any questions I would be happy to answer them.

Happy shooting, or just admiring beautiful photography 🙂

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