Thoughts on Long Exposure Photography
It doesn’t take a lot to realise I really like long exposure photography. I’m sure lots of people once they get hold of a camera have popped down to the beach one evening to try a 10 or 15 second exposure. The resulting images showing a smooth and creamy sea. I however (as always) like to do things a little differently.
I like to think that I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to photography. While I do admit that digital makes the learning curve easier, I sometimes think the instant feedback and the delete button make things too easy. One of the big eye-openers at university was using a 5×4 large-format camera to photograph an object. The amount of time taken to setup the camera’s focus, movements, and shutter, not to mention lighting and metering the object, meant to take one transparency was the best part of an hour. Given the amount of steps we had to go though, the fact there was no immediate visual feedback, meant that more often than not the resulting image was usually pretty much spot on within a couple of attempts. It was this slowing down of the photographic process that meant that the photos often turned out better than when things were rushed.
Since then I’ve tried to take a slower, more approach to my photography. To do this, I employ a few ideas. Unlike many long exposure photographs which are taken in the evening or at night, I prefer taking mine during the day. So to cut the amount of light down to get a decent length exposure I use a 10-stop neutral density filter. Due to the longer exposure times, the camera is always on the tripod so picking and choosing where to place the tripod and then how to frame the subject is another step to slower working. Lastly is the focus – which is set to manual – again helping to slow everything down. Thanks to the longer exposure times, I now have to plan ahead before I trip the shutter and decide if I want to capture something during the exposure or wait, and how this would affect the final photo.
Does this make for better photos? Well, this will always be subjective. Personally I think it does and I do think that using an ND filter has helped me to slow things down and become a lot more considered towards what I’m shooting. I really enjoy having to take the time to make a single exposure. So much so that for certain shots I’ve started to use the ND filter when the movements of the sea aren’t the main focus of the picture, just because of they way that it forces me to think before tripping the shutter. Should I decide not to use the ND, then keeping the process slow does help to take a more considered approach to what I’m photographing.
I admit that having a ten second exposure time may not work for everyone, but this approach from long exposure photography works for me for what I like to photograph. Shooting more documentary photography, I rarely use a tripod, and hardly ever an ND filter, but it’s the same methodological approach to pausing, looking around, and choosing what to photograph first that (I hope) helps me to produce better photos.