Be Inspired

9 Ways to Create Dreamy Long Exposures

By Dawn Black

Depending on who you speak to or which forum you frequent, long exposure photography can be defined as anything longer than half a second to more than 30 seconds and into minutes or even hours. The effects that you will achieve with longer exposure times will all depend on the speed of the moving elements within the frame and, like everything in photography, there are no hard and fast rules. When creating a long exposure image all the usual considerations of composition and light apply but we add in the element of time. We will create an image that the eye itself cannot see and this requires some vision. Whether you want to record dynamic moving clouds, swirling waters, to record or even eliminate moving people in a busy place, shoot light trails or go completely minimalistic, the possibilities are there for us. Personally, I use long exposure in my landscape work.

In order to create long exposures you need to practice and perfect your technique. Here are some considerations you should think about:

1. Carry your tripod everywhere

A tripod is a must. In long exposure photography, be it light painting, light trails or long exposure in landscapes, the shutter is open for more than a second so it is imperative that you have the ability to keep the camera absolutely still.

Vortex, Europoort
Fujifilm X-T2 + XF50-140mm @ 74mm | ISO 200, f/5.6, 8 secs with Lee Big Stopper

 

2. Use a cable release or remote release to trigger the shutter

These will help eliminate the risk of moving the camera with pressing the shutter button. (If you do not have one you can set the camera to timer on a 2 or 10 second delay, or use the Fujifilm Camera Remote app). A cable release is also a necessity if your exposure time is longer than 30 seconds with your camera on Bulb mode. Handily, on my FUJIFILM X-T2 you now have the ability to use “T” mode which allows you to dial in exposure times of up to 15 minutes (but only in full stop increments – half or thirds would be a nice addition in a future firmware update!)

Thin Blue Line, Stonehaven
Fujifilm X-T2 + 50-140mm @ 115mm | ISO 200, f/8, 30 secs with Lee Big Stopper

 

3. Invest in Neutral Density (ND) filters

In low light the shutter speed naturally needs to be long but during the day you will need to cut down the amount of light hitting the sensor. To do this you need Neutral Density (ND) filters to block the light. These range from 2 up to 16 stop filters, depending on how long you want to make the exposure. Personally I use the Lee Big Stopper (10 stops), Lee 0.9 ND (3 stops) and the Formatt Hitech Firecrest 16 stop ND.

Splendid Isolation, Loch Turrett
Fujifilm X-T2 + 16-55mm @ 23mm | ISO 200, f/11, 50 secs with Lee Big Stopper

 

4. Pay attention to your focusing

If you use a very dense filter like a 10 or 16 stop ND the camera may not be able to auto focus through it. Luckily, the Fujifilm electronic viewfinder can actually see through my Lee Big Stopper though it sometimes struggles with the 16 stop ND. The easiest thing to do is to compose your image, focus then switch to manual focus so the focus is locked before adding the ND filter carefully onto the front of the lens. Alternatively use the AutoFocus Lock (AF-L) button to lock the focus.

Gentle Dawn, Eendrachtsmolen
Fujifilm X-T1 + XF35mmF1.4 | ISO 200, f/8, 180 secs with Lee Big Stopper

 

5. Perfect your timing

In order to calculate the exposure time needed use a phone app such as Lee Stopper, ND Calc or Photographer’s Tools to work out the exposure time according to your chosen aperture and filter (especially if, like me, maths was never your strong point!).

Reflection, Sir Duncan Rice Library, Uni of Aberdeen
Fujifilm X-T2 + XF10-24mm @ 24mm | ISO 200, f/4, 181 secs with Formatt Hitech 16 stop ND

 

6. Protect your kit

When the shutter is open make sure that you don’t risk any light leaks through the viewfinder by covering the back of the camera with a dark cloth of some kind. I have never had this issue with any of my Fujifilm cameras.

I am a rock, I am an island. Bow Fiddle Rock, Portknockie
Fujifilm X-T2 + 16-55mm @ 24mm | ISO 200, f/8, 120 secs with Formatt Hitech 16 stop ND

 

7. Shoot in RAW

ND filters can cause some colour casts so shooting in RAW is recommended to make it easy to correct any colour shift in post-production.

Brig o’ Dee, Aberdeen
Fujifilm X-T1 + 10-24mm @ 12mm | ISO 200, f/11, 58 secs with Lee Big Stopper

 

8. Reduce noise in post-production

Long exposures can create noise in a digital image. You can set the camera to compensate with Noise Reduction switched on but this will make the camera take another image of equal length with the shutter closed to identify where there is noise. This can waste valuable time when you could be shooting – especially if each exposure runs into minutes! Noise reduction in programmes such as Lightroom is so good I recommend dealing with it in post-production.

Sunset over Stonehaven Bay
Fujifilm X-T2 + 10-24mm @ 21mm | ISO 200, f/5.6, 390 secs with Formatt Hitech 16 stop ND

 

9. Focus on your exposure settings

Use the lowest ISO you can to extend the shutter speed and use apertures of less than f16, dependent on what depth of field you want (it may seem natural to stop down the aperture to extend the time but you can encounter issues with defraction and haloing if you do).

Sea Pool, Plymouth
Fujifilm X-T1 + 50-140mm @ 50mm | ISO 200, f/5.6, 180 secs with Lee Big Stopper

My usual routine is to set the camera up on the tripod, set the ISO to 200, aperture between f/8 and f/14, compose my image then take a test shot. If needed I’ll add a ND graduated filter to hold back the sky and even out the exposure then take another test shot. Once happy with my histogram I use this as the base exposure to calculate the speed I need with the ND filter I am using. Once I have focused the image I also switch to Manual focus so the lens does not hunt once the filter is on the lens. Only then do I add the ND filter, take my shot and wait for the magic to happen!

(All images copyright © Dawn S. Black)


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15 replies »

    • Absolutely not. This is a hold over from shooting with DSLRs. If light is getting into the camera during a long exposure with a mirrorless camera, then it is coming from somewhere else.

    • Hi, As I said in the article this is something I’ve not had a problem with my Fujifilm cameras but just in case DSLR users read it 🙂

  1. I am new to this. How does one correct the color cast from the ND filters in Lightroom? Thanks in advance for your reply.

    • You can usually fix the color casts by using the white balance sliders in Lightroom. For example the Big Stopper produces a strong blueish tint that can be removed by moving the slider to warmer colors. And also adjust the vignette settings since these filters tend to intensify the vignette. Particularly with wide angle lenses.

    • Hi, You can try the Auto white balance (WB) too or use the WB pipette to select a white or neutral sample area of the image to create a custom white balance.

  2. Hi Dawn, your images are really atmospheric. May I ask which software you use for post processing; i.e. Iridient X Transformer or Adobe Lightroom etc?

  3. Thank you for the useful hints. I have tried these techniques, and have used an inexpensive variable ND filter and had some challenges with odd image artifacts that appeared, so I am planning to invest in a better set with standard non-variable ones.

    The photo for Vortex, Europoort is exceptional. I am so accustomed to seeing glassy bodies of water or smooth clouds but a smokestack definitely brings a quality I admire.

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