Long exposure photography is great for movement and action, turning a fast waterfall into a steady stream.
Let’s take a look at seven of the most common mistakes photographers make when shooting long exposures and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Not Enough Camera Stabilization
What will ruin your long exposure photo in the first place? Shaking. When you shoot at slow shutter speeds, your camera absorbs more light. And it also means that she will collect a lot more traffic than usual. Even small vibrations can result in fuzzy and blurry images.
To avoid this, do the following:
- Set up your tripod firmly
With regular shooting, there is no need to use a tripod every time. But when shooting with a long exposure, this is important.
First of all, you need to make sure your tripod is strong and secure at every adjustment point.
If you’re shooting in very windy conditions, you may need extra weight to stabilize the tripod. Most tripods have a hook at the bottom of the center column that you can hang extra weight on, like a camera bag with all your gear. This further stabilizes the tripod.
- Set M‑Up Mode
Note. This does not apply to mirrorless cameras.
Most digital SLR cameras have the mirrors between the viewfinder and lens unlocked. This means that they rise when you activate the shutter. However, this can introduce distortion into your long exposure shots. To avoid this, set the camera to M‑Up (Mirror Up) mode. This will block the mirror, but you will need to press the shutter button twice — once to raise the mirror and a second time to take the picture.
- Use a remote shutter
Pressing and releasing the shutter may cause camera shake. To avoid this, purchase a remote shutter that will allow you to activate the shutter without touching the camera. This is a small remote control, the cheapest of which costs about 250–300 rubles.
Mistake #2: Leaving the viewfinder open
When you take a long exposure photo, light can enter your photo in unexpected ways.
One of the most common long exposure mistakes is to leave the viewfinder open and create an additional light source as a result. Leaving the viewfinder open can cause light leaks and strange effects that distort your photo, which can otherwise ruin a perfect shot.
Fortunately, this is easily solved. Sometimes special covers are offered for cameras or they have a button to close the viewfinder. If your camera doesn’t have either, you can cover the viewfinder with black tape.
Mistake #3: Incorrect Settings
Setting up your camera correctly is vital. Sometimes it is difficult to do even for experienced photographers. Here are a few key areas to focus on:
- Use manual mode
This will allow you to control all aspects of your camera. Manual mode is especially important when shooting long exposures because each setting depends on the environment and how you see it.
- Focus on the diaphragm
Most lenses reach f22. Higher values let in less light than lower values. High values are usually best for long exposure shots, as long exposures get a lot of light onto the camera’s sensor.
However, if you choose a value that is too high, it may cause diffraction. Diffraction is a phenomenon in which light is blurred as it hits the camera’s sensor, resulting in an image that is less sharp.
- Use manual focus
When shooting at slow shutter speeds, especially when using ND filters, your camera will see a very dark scene when you press the shutter button.
Focus point search starts automatically. This can cause the main subjects to be out of focus. To avoid this, switch to manual focus and set the focus point yourself.
- Disable Image Stabilization
It may seem counter-intuitive, but if you want a sharp photo, turn off your camera’s image stabilization when shooting at slow shutter speeds.
Image stabilization is designed to be used while holding the camera by hand and may introduce jitter and vibration to images when shooting on a tripod. If your camera is properly mounted on a good tripod, you won’t need image stabilization.
Mistake #4: Don’t Use ND Filters
Neutral density filters are a key part of any landscape photographer’s toolkit.
A Neutral Density (or ND) filter significantly reduces light from all wavelengths that hit the camera’s sensor without distorting colors. This is very useful when shooting long exposures, when a lot of light hits the camera’s sensor for a long period. The Neutral Density filter reduces this effect and helps produce a sharper image.
Neutral density filters come in different strengths and each is suitable for different conditions. It’s best to do a couple of experiments and find what works for you.
Mistake #5: Picking the Wrong Scene
A long exposure photograph can be created in various conditions, but still it does not always give a beautiful effect. Some scenes are not compatible with slow shutter speeds, so you need to be able to determine when you can and when you shouldn’t use it. Here are a few things to watch out for:
- Too many things are moving
When photographing with a long exposure, we want to capture some kind of movement in the picture. But remember that too much movement will result in a blurry and incomprehensible image. It’s best to have one key object move, like a waterfall or cars on a highway, while the rest of the scene remains static. This results in a lot of contrast between blurry smooth motion and harsh environments.
- A few words about lighting
While it’s possible to adjust to the conditions, remember that lighting can make or break your photo.
Shooting in environments where lighting changes rapidly can result in blurry or confusing images, so be sure to test different lighting conditions to see what works and how.
Amazing results can be achieved during the blue and golden hour*. During blue hour, you often don’t even need a ND filter due to low levels of natural light.
*Blue hour is the time of day when the sun has just set or is about to rise, when the sky above takes on a deep blue color and the landscape is flooded with bluish light. The golden hour (or “mode”) is the period of the day shortly after sunrise or before sunset, during which daylight is reddish and soft and silhouettes are black and deep.
- Clear composition
When shooting long exposures, we tend to focus on movement — whether it be water, clouds, stars in the sky, etc. Too much movement in your image or lack of a clear composition can lead to not the most attractive result.
Mistake #6: Forgetting the Basics of Photography
It’s important to keep the details in mind, especially when shooting long exposures: setting up your tripod, getting the right settings, additional equipment, finding the right scene.
However, we still need to keep the basics of photography in mind: light, subject, and composition. Don’t just rely on the interesting long exposure effect to make up for a disappointing shot.
Mistake #7: Only one photo
Even if you are sure that everything turned out perfectly, it is still worth taking a few extra shots. Try different settings to find out what works best for your camera.
Don’t just take long exposure photos. Backing up photos taken at normal exposure can be very helpful if you find random blur or movement in some part of the photo. Having a clear backup photo will help correct mistakes.