Long Exposure – A “Rule of Thumb” Challenge!

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I’ve got a back-issue of Popular Photography Magazine sitting here in front of me (February 2009, specifically), which I was idly flipping through while talking on the phone with my husband. The cover title, “Create Magic in 5 Seconds,” caught my eye. I read the article, and decided it would be a fun challenge to post here on BMP for our loyal readers to try out.

The scene: A place with a crowd of people, or a view with moving traffic, or a landscape with running or moving water. Dim lighting, or twilight/dusk, is best.

The equipment: A camera that allows you to manually set the exposure time, a tripod if appropriate for the location (otherwise, a way to hold the camera completely still), and a remote shutter release or timer (hands-off shutter firing).

The goal: Movement painted onto a sharp background.

First, set the camera at a low ISO to allow for a high resolution/low “noise” photo. Shooting in RAW can allow you to further reduce any noise in post-editing. If you have a neutral density filter, use it, otherwise you can mimic that effect in Photoshop (tutorial to follow soon). Set the aperture to between f/8 and f/18, depending on the depth of field you’re looking for, and start with an exposure time of five seconds.

Why the five seconds “rule of thumb”? Exposure of between four and eight seconds produces moving subjects with less blurring and bolder colors. Shorter exposures tend to blur more, and longer exposures tend to wash out color and make moving objects disappear altogether.

Set the camera up, focus on the subject area, use the remote shutter release or set the timer, and tweak the exposure time (4-8 seconds) and aperture (f/8-f/18) as you go, to achieve the effect you’re looking for. Following the “rule of thumb” outlined above produces pictures such as these:

Go forth and conduct your own experiments on long exposure shots, then come back and tell us about it! Did this “rule of thumb” work for you? We’d love to see your results and gain some new expertise based on your experiences.

Photo Credits (In order of appearance):
- “Long exposure shot of a small cascade on the Virgin River, Zion National Park.” Photo by Alaskan Dude on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “Long exposure fun!” Photo by Ben Hanbury on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “Another Sutter Street long exposure.” Photo by Correlation Of Mistress Ching on Flickr Creative Commons.

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