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Wednesday
May082013

10 Tips and Techniques to help you become a more successful Fine-Art Long Exposure Photographer!

1. Exercise your vision. Be inspired by, and don’t just merely copy, the masters of the medium.

I belief that looking at other photographers work can be a very positive, motivating and inspiring. Your photography may also be influenced by other visual artists, musicians, poetry or even history.

Whatever it might be, I do belief you’ve got to enjoy responsibly. Try to be specific about what you like in someone else’s work, use it to inform and inspire your own craft, but refrain from simply copying ideas and/or techniques as this seldom leads to work that will fulfill and satisfy you.

 
The image above was inspired by photographer Michael Kenna. Rather than trying to imitate, the image I had in mind while composing this was one of Michael’s images of a single tree in the snow. My aim was to use negative space to strengthen the subject, and using color represents a new direction in my vision that I am excite do explore further.

2. Be dedicated, slow down and be patient! It will make you a better photographer.

I love using tripods because they slow me down. And so does long exposure photography. But you have to be careful to take advantage of the process and not let yourself be distracted. Don’t answer emails and get lost on your smartphone. Use the precious time you have while the exposure is ‘forming’ to look around, consider alternate angles, develop an appreciation and concise awareness for your surroundings. I bet it will make you want to move your tripod in no time, and your photographs will improve in the process.

3. Expose to the right. Bracket your exposures. Take several images of the same scene and merge them into a panorama. That should keep the ‘geek in you’ plenty busy!

I freely admit that I enjoy the technical aspects of photography. Sometimes a bit too much. If you are technically minded, and want to get the highest quality long exposure photographs with whatever camera you use, make sure to ‘expose to the right’. Bracketing exposures and merging manually in Photoshop can solve high contrast problems, and panoramic photography can give you an angle of view of a lens you actually don’t own. And it’s surprisingly easy to do.

4. Research. Shoot. Review. Repeat. And think of your photographs as a series.

Whenever I go out to photograph I do my best to do so with a clear purpose and set goals. I belief it is critically important to spend time reviewing and looking at your own work in depth. Make notes on whether you accomplished your goals. Be honest, yet encouraging, with yourself. 

The above 2 images are from my series entitle ‘Canadian Prairies’. It was very important to me to keep the subject matter, but also the format, look and feel of all images very consistent across the series. This includes details like contrast, position of the horizon line, equipment used to photograph, exposure time, going out on cloudy days only etc.


5. Pick a single location and keep returning to shoot there until you are 100% satisfied with your photographs captured there.

This one is big. I belief that once you feel like you’ve accomplished all your goals for a given location you will feel much more empowered to do it again somewhere else. I’d suggest starting with sea-scapes, which tend to be easier to handle, and then ‘move on’ to urban environments.
 
6. Go out shooting on overcast and/ or clouds days, avoid sunny and contrasty light. Sunrise and sunsets are best.


A lot of frustrated students could be much happier with their images if they would refrain from shooting on clear and sunny days. Quality of light makes a huge difference, and early risers/ late bloomers will additionally be rewarded with the ‘golden hour’ which is the most beautiful light of the day. Sure it’s not always possible to wait for specific times to do your photography, especially when traveling, but seeking overcast and/or cloudy conditions will give you a very good opportunity to get high quality images nearly any time of day.

The above image was taken at sunset. I had been at the location for most of the day, and at the end of the day my patience paid off. I got rewarded with beautiful light!

7. Have two (2) ND filters instead of just one. Have only one lens instead of two.

Ok here is one more piece of technical advice. I use a minimum of 2 ND filters, one being a 10 stop and the other a 6 stop. I can combine and stack both filters and get exposures up to an hour (and even longer) no matter what time of day. Or, I can use just one for when I am out at sunrise and sunset. Having both gives me ultimate flexibility. I happily bring multiple filters but leave additional lenses at home. I find that what might seem ‘restrictive’ usually works for my benefit. I photographed all throughout my Iceland trip with a single focal length. Too much gear can paralyze you. I have seen it many times at workshops, and have experienced it myself as well.

8. Understand how exposure length has an influence that is both technical as well as compositionally important.

How long should your exposure be? Well it depends. What is the effect your are looking for? A longer exposure will simplify your composition by removing details such as waves, moving people/traffic, and detail in clouds. But it will do so at the expense of increasing noise, and depending on your location there may be restrictions as to how long you can photograph. The light maybe fading and the security guard had given you only a few more minutes before he promised to come back and ask you to leave. The majority of my images have been taken with exposure time ranging from 2 to 15 minutes.  The average is around 4 minutes. To learn more and see for yourself I’d suggest to try several exposure lengths while in the same location. It won’t take much time and eliminates you second guessing yourself after. 

The images above illustrate how exposure time influences how a viewer ‘reads’ your images. The first image is 60 seconds and the second a 32 minute exposure. The longer exposure blurs the clouds, so the viewer can focus more on the subject which is the lighthouse. The dramatic clouds in the shorter exposure, on the other hand, provide a great visual counterpoint to the lighthouse.

9. Learn post production techniques. Understand how the camera sees versus how you see.

When I switched from film to digital capture to do most of my long exposure photography I noticed my post production work increase dramatically. With film, I was only having to make very minor adjustments. Despite the steep learning curve I now fully embrace the ‘digital revolution’. Rather than considering my digital camera as a replacement for what I used to capture with film, I have learned to appreciate it as its own creative and distinct creative process. I enjoy being able to do things I could only dream about 10 years ago. Post production, in my opinion, is an essential part of the digital photography process, especially with long exposure photography. While photo journalists might be able to ‘get it in camera’, my photography is based on taking the time needed to come away with an image that best illustrates my creative and artistic vision of a given location. The camera usually can only get me part way there. In the end, all that matters to me is the finished photograph. How I got there, and whether I achieved it in-camera or on the computer is of virtually no importance.


RAW file. Underexposed to preserve highlight details.



The above final image looks rather different compared to the RAW file above. I cropped, converted to black and white, and did a lot of local tonal and contrast adjustments using software such as Silver Efex Pro 2 and Photoshop CS6.

10. Make prints! It is one of the most rewarding activities any photographer can practice.

Call me old fashioned but I belief the time I’ve spent making prints in the darkroom gave me a much deeper appreciation and excitement for photography. When I got into photography it was a visual as well as a tactile experience. Images do look good on computer monitors, but there is absolutely no comparison to holding a fine-art print in your hands.

I frequently make a print and then go back to fine-tune the image, I think of it as ‘reverse editing’. Computer screens can be too forgiving and too detailed at the same time, and despite calibration on your own personal machine you can never ensure that your image will look consistent across other computers. I like to hold and touch my photographs. As Ansel Adams once said “...the negative is the score, the print is the performance.”

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Reader Comments (11)

Thank you for this information.
I have a quick question.
What do you mean by "Expose to the right"?

May 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJavier Pantoja

Hello Javier!

Thank you for your comment!

Expose to the right means skewing your histogram to the right, where you're highlights live. Basically, it means overexposing as much as possible without loosing any highlight detail.

If you want the real nerdy, full featured, answer go to this link. Warning, all that technical talk may put you to sleep:

http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/expose-right.shtml

May 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterMarc Koegel

Hi Marc,

Great Blog post. I too like to take my time with LE's. Anywhere from 2 to 15 mins for me on a Canon 1000D any more and i get hot pixels etc.

My wife says "You go out for a an hour or 2 and you come back with only a couple of images". I'm proud of that and try and get 1 or 2 great images instead of 50 bad images (which is what i did when i first started photography)

I pretty much agree with everything you have posted here Marc, well done.

Jason.

May 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJason Beaven

Hi Marc,
Thanks for the informative post. I'm a long time night shooter, and recently started using ND during the daytime. I have both 6 and 10 stop B&W ND filters, and when I use them together, I often get a straight, vertical line thru the image, with one side of the line having a different color cast, and much lower contrast. Any ideas? I'm using larger filters with a step down ring, and putting gaffer's tape over the filter and step down ring joints to prevent light leaks. It's a mystery. I thought the larger filter size would help to avoid vignetting, but perhaps it's causing other problems?
Thanks!

May 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLance keimig

It is so amazing information for me. Thank you.
I just wonder if I use the digital camera for this kind of work, is there any problem to my camera? 30mins seems pretty long time for digital camera and I'm afraid that I ruin my camera.

A passionate reader from S. Korea.

Clark, Yoo

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterClark, Yoo

great post ,do you have any advice on sharpening before print ,i find my self having problems with that ,what is to much and what is ok
thanks for sharing youre knowledge
Valeria

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterValeria

Thank you for your comments, Jason. I totally agree, it's very nice coming home with only a handful, GOOD photographs, rather than entire memory cards full with images that need editing...

Lance, to answer your question what is happening is most likely light 'leaking' in through your viewfinder (or another part on your camera). The light streaks aren't usually caused by ND filters...give it a try and tape your viewfinder using black masking tape, or you can use the plastic cover that is included with many cameras. If all that does not work, use a hat or baseball cap and drape it over your camera while shooting. Should solve it!

Clark, long exposure will never ruin your camera, but you are right that most digital cameras do have trouble going for 30 minutes exposure while maintaining good picture quality. You can give it a try, as you will not be breaking anything, but depending on your camera you will notice better performance and image quality with exposures 10 minutes and under.

Valeria, sharpening is a tough subject, and needs a lot of experience to get right. I personally only use selective sharpening, rather than global adjustments, and I make test prints at 100% scale to determine the correct amount before committing to a full-sized print. I can recommend a plugin for Photoshop, called Nik Sharpener Pro. Website link is here :

http://www.niksoftware.com/nikcollection/usa/sharpenerpro.html

This 'program' does a great job with minimal effort. Can save a lot of time over manually trying to achieve the same result.

Hope all these answers help!

Marc

May 9, 2013 | Registered CommenterMarc Koegel

Thanks Marc, I should have mentioned that I was already putting gaffer's tape over the viewfinder, and a hat over the camera! I thought it might be some kind of refraction between the filters- but it would't be a straight line if it were...

May 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLance keimig

I've experienced similar problem as Lance with my 10-stop ND filter. I was constantly getting a magenta cast on certain part of the image. And thought it must be the filter. So I guess I need to test it again, this time with my viewfinder closed..

Thanks for a tip!

May 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLuka Esenko

In another video you suggested the Cameron Fader ND filter was a good product. In this blog you say you use the B&W 6-stop along with the B&W 10-stop.

I am current using the Hoya 9 stop. Would you suggest I purchase the Fader or a 6-stop ND.

Thanks

September 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Fairman

Hello Bruce,

thanks for your comment.

I don;t recall ever saying that the Cameron Fader ND is a good product. Could you point me to that video? Just asking because I really think variable ND filters are NOT worth the money, and especially not the Cameron product.

I'd suggest for you to buy the B+W 6 stop ND, or you could consider the Tiffen ND + IR 1.8 (6 stop) or 2.1 (7 stop) filter as well. All those filters are available on B+H Photo website.

Hope this helps,

Marc

September 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterMarc Koegel

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