Landscape Photography: Using Long Exposure To Create Emotion

Landscape photography — it’s all over in the blink of an eye and the press of the shutter button. Mother Nature has set the mood, you’ve captured it with your camera just as you saw it with your eyes and that’s all there is to it, right?

But, have you ever thought about using longer exposures when making your landscape photos? The use of long exposures can completely change the look and feel, the emotion if you will, of the photograph, giving the same scene two completely different looks and eliciting very different emotions from the viewer.

Check out how long exposure can rendered images in totally unexpected ways:

Extend your exposure time and turn dark storm clouds…

Storm clouds over Cherry pond

…into dreamy wisps of smoke in the sky.

Long exposure over Cherry Pond

By using a longer exposure time, I was able to create two photographs, both with identical compositions, while each image has a completely different feel to it. In the first image, with an exposure time of 1/20th of a second, the dark clouds and their reflection on the water are rendered much more distinctly, and because the clouds appear darker the photograph has a slightly more ominous feel to it.

The second photo, on the other hand, has an exposure time of 15 seconds, seeming lighter and more dreamlike to give it a more peaceful feel.

Use a longer exposure and a raging river as it crashes between walls of granite suddenly becomes serene.

Long exposure overlooking Rocky Gorge

When photographing fireworks, using a long exposure allows those bombs bursting in air to convey the patriotic excitement of the Fourth of July.

The North Church steeple and a burst of fireworks rise above the rooftops of Portsmouth, NH

Long exposures are also great for showing the fun and excitement of a night at the fair. You can even turn the slow pace of a carousel into what looks like an adventurous thrill ride.

The exciting carousel, a long exposure at night.

As you can see, by using something as simple as a long exposure when photographing the subjects you are already drawn to, you can completely change the look, feel, and emotion of the captured scene.

Here are a few tips and suggestions for getting the most out of your long exposure photography.

1.The hold your camera still.

First and foremost, the camera needs to be firmly supported if you’re going to be taking longer exposures. Usually this means a tripod, and 90% of the time I don’t leave home without one. In reality, any place you can set your camera down without fear it will fall or be knocked over will work just fine.

In the photo showing the church steeple and the fireworks, I was on the top level of a parking garage, so I set my camera on the top of the concrete wall to frame shot. And since carrying a tripod around the fair would have been rather impractical, a nearby bench provided both a camera support and the great compositional element in the form of leading lines.

2. Select the right camera settings.

Use the lowest ISO setting you can, usually ISO 100, and a small aperture like f/16 will make it possible to get the longer exposures you’re after. Things to consider, most basic point and shoot style cameras are designed to give you an exposure with a fast enough shutter speed to stop motion, so you’re going to need an advanced point and shoot like a Canon G16. (I have no financial incentive for recommending Canon products, it’s just brand loyalty. I’m sure Nikon, Olympus, Sony, and all the others, offer advanced P&S cameras with similar features).

3. Use filters.

I use a circular polarizing filter whenever I’m photographing moving water. Not only because it helps control the glare and reflections, but because it will also reduce the amount of light entering the lens by 1 1/2 – 2 stops of light, requiring a slower shutter speed in order to get a proper exposure.

If you need more than the 1 1/2 – 2 stops of light reduction provided by the circular polarizer, you’re going to need to use a neutral density (ND) filter. ND filters reduce the light entering the camera and come in a variety of styles from filters that screw onto the front of your lens, to rectangular, slip in filters that fit into a holder mounted to the front of your lens. ND filters also come in different darknesses providing anywhere from 1 to as much as 10 stops of light. The latter can enable you to create long exposure photos under even the brightest conditions — conditions that would normally require a very fast shutter speed to maintain a proper exposure.

For added flexibility, there are also variable neutral density filters on the market that, just like the polarizer, screw to the front of your lens. Also like the polarizer, you adjust them, from 2 – 8 stops of light reduction, by turning the ring on the filter.

4. Shoot in low light.

This is probably the easiest, and least expensive way to get your long exposures. When shooting in low light while using a low ISO setting and a small aperture, you’ll have no choice but to use a longer shutter speed to obtain a good exposure. No need for expensive filters, just you, your camera, and some form of steady support.

Reeds on the edge of a pond captured under the moonlight

By putting some of these tips to use, even the grass at the edge of a lake, photographed with a longer exposure, can give a peaceful sense of calm to your photograph.

How do you use long exposure in your photography?

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