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From RAW to FINAL: Long Exposure Photography with a Leica S2 

Hello everyone,

This past week, I have been working one-on-one with a photographer who is looking to get into long exposure photography in a very serious way.

Yesterday, we took out his Leica S2 to see how well it would perform for long exposure photography.

Below you can see the first image I had a chance to process:

Image Details: Leica S2 with 35mm Lens. Exposure was 60 seconds with 16 stops of ND filtration.

There are many reviews of the Leica S2 around on the web, including this one on Luminous Landscape, but I haven't seen many people writing about how well this camera does for long exposures.

So here is a quick 'From RAW to FINAL' report on my first impressions. This coming week, I am hoping to be able and shoot more long exposures with this unique camera.

Working with the Leica S2:

As soon as you hold the camera, you cannot help but be impressed with the quality feel and very minimalist set of controls and buttons. Everything that needs to be there is within easy reach, without any clutter. I wonder why Canon, Nikon, Sony etc cannot make a camera that is this easy to use and has such a logical layout of buttons and controls. All of this 'simplicity' comes with a price of course (so less really is more $$ in this case).

There are a few disappointments, like with any camera system. Trying to read the top OLED display while shooting outdoors in bright sunlight is virtually impossible. And it does take some time to navigate through the menus and camera controls. It took me a few minutes to find the self-timer and mirror-up function, and without a cable release, I had to do some test shots until I was able to use the 'Bulb' mode and control the shutter to achieve exposure times from 8 to 128 seconds (the maximum recommended exposure time).

In the end, I was able to use the 'Bulb' mode similar to a 'T' mode, where you're able to start the exposure by pressing the shutter button once, and then pressing it again to stop the exposure.

Maximum exposure time is 2 minutes: 

Without the optional cable release, the camera is 'limited' to 128 seconds exposure time. This time is also the longest exposure time Leica recommends. In-camera noise reduction is NOT optional, but this is the first camera that shows you a 'preview' of the image (for 2 seconds or so) before the noise reduction begins. This is very handy, as you could use this to quickly identify any 'mishaps' without having to wait additional time until the in-camera noise reduction has finished working.

Looking at the image results, there certainly is some noise that I can see in the 2 minute exposures (but it is still rather well controlled). Elsewhere on the web, people have been reporting to 'get-away' with exposures up to 4 minutes, and I would expect noise levels to become 'unacceptable' if you go much beyond that time.

Some people may find this limiting, but I can think of many examples where even a 2 minute exposure time is more than sufficient.

If you take the image posted above as an example, going any longer than 60 seconds resulted in the clouds blurring so much that the sky looked a lot less dramatic. In this case, I wanted to capture a dramatic sky in front of the silhouette of the bridge, so 1 minute was perfect as it recorded 'enough' movement in the clouds without washing out too much details.

From RAW to FINAL:

So let's look at a 'step-by-step;' of how I created the image above.

I used 16 stops of ND to arrive at the 60 second exposure time.

In Adobe Camera RAW, I adjusted the exposure and used the 'lens correction' functionality to correct the vertical perspective on the bridge (the camera was tilted upward for the capture).

I also cropped the image to 2:1 aspect ratio.

You can see that in this particular case, the adjustments made in RAW do make a significant difference.

Next, I took the image into Photoshop CC, and added several adjustments and layers.

Still, the adjustments are very simple and the entire 'workflow' from start to finish took less than 20 minutes.

Obviously, some more refinements could be applied, but I wanted to show you that a lot can be accomplished without having to sit in front of Photoshop for hours at a time. Yes, we can spend more time shooting outside!!

Below, you can see a screenshot of my 'final' Photoshop file:

I used Silver Efex to make the initial black and white conversion. I added a lot of contrast, and also some heavy grain in an effort to create a moody image.

After working in Silver Efex, I added 3 more layers in Photoshop:

  • Sky Vignette
  • Selective Brightness for the water (using a curve adjustment layer with a mask)
  • Burn and Dodge layer (50% grey layer using 'Soft Light' blend mode)

Most of these layers are used to fine-tune the adjustments that were started in Silver Efex. Photoshop simply offers much more control, and I also like to use 'layers' rather than 'control point' to make selective adjustments to just one (or a few) selected areas of an image.

And there you have it. A first, for me, long exposure using a Leica S2.

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