Long exposures have become an increasingly popular form of photography over the last few years. With the right tools and a proper understanding of the techniques, you can create some incredibly surreal and dreamlike portrait and landscape images.
These images can take a lot of time and preparation to capture, so the last thing you want to do is have something go wrong that you could have easily avoided. Here are some common mistakes made in long exposure photography and how to avoid them.
1. Not Properly locking down tripod legs
Let’s start with the simplest thing that often gets overlooked; your tripod or mounting system. When we shoot on tripods normally, we don’t think about how stable the legs are or how tight we’ve locked everything down. With long exposure photography shooting images over the course of several seconds to minutes long, someone walking by you can be enough to shift the tripod a smidge and ruin your image.
You want to be sure to use a good and sturdy tripod with every single point of adjustment locked down as tight as possible to avoid image shake. Some tripods even come with Hooks or a mounting system on their center column so you can attach a sandbag to help add some weight and stability to your system. Make sure to line up your shot and then lock everything down before you click the shutter.
2. Leaving The Viewfinder Open
When you’re dealing with a photograph that takes 30+ seconds, your viewfinder is one of the easiest things to forget. If you leave the viewfinder open, it can lead to light leaks and will often leave strange colored blobs in your shot. I’ve managed to ruin some very painstaking images because of it. Check out my image taken at Havasu Falls after a dozen mile hike that I pretty much ruined because of light leaking in from my viewfinder.
It’s best to cover your viewfinder to avoid any light leaking in from there. Some cameras have a switch built into them to close it up, but if you don’t you can just place some black gaff tape or other handy materials over the camera back.
3. Not Using Mirror Lock Up
When using a DSLR and looking through the viewfinder, you’re actually looking into a mirror that is looking into another mirror that is right over your camera’s sensor. When you take a photo, this mirror flips up and the shutter activates to take the shot and then the mirror flips back down. While this doesn’t seem like much, when shooting long exposures, even this can create some shake to your image. To help avoid this shake, set your camera, (if it has this feature), to “M-Up” and then get ready for the two-step process for your shot.
Once you’ve lined up your shot, click the shutter release button to lift the mirror, then you’ll need to click the button again to activate the shutter to take your photograph. You can also enable “Live-View” mode if your camera supports this to shoot your images with the mirror already lifted.
If you have a mirrorless camera like the Sony A7/A9 series or Fuji, well, you can simply ignore this mistake avoidance step.
4. Not Using A Remote Shutter
We don’t really think about this, especially after dealing with the Mirror Lock Up mode, but the action of simply clicking your shutter release button on your camera can add a little bit of shake. In most situations, it’s not noticeable, but for long exposures you want your camera to be as steady as possible. Connecting a remote shutter cable/trigger will help you avoid this and give you access to a plethora of additional options.
5. Not Switching To Manual Focus
When you’ve set your ND filters on your camera for a proper long exposure, your camera will typically see nothing but a VERY dark setting. Meaning your camera will start searching for focus points when you click the shutter. You’ll want to be sure to set your focus point before you add your ND filter(s) and then switch your camera into Manual Focus mode. This may be a switch on your lens or the camera itself, either way, you’ll want to have this set before you take your shot to avoid making a completely blurry image.
6. Using The Wrong F-Stop
Most every lens you can find on the market today will go all the way up to f/22. The truth here though is, you’ll want to avoid using those “high” f-stop settings because of something called Diffraction. This is something that causes you to actually lose image sharpness at smaller apertures due to the light blurring just a tiny bit as it hits the image sensor.
Most modern lenses have a “sweet spot” that’s somewhere between f/8 and f/11 and if you do some digging you’ll see that the majority of breathtaking landscape images are shot somewhere in this zone. You’ll want to keep your shots somewhere around there and make use of ND filters in brighter situations.
7. Forgetting You’re Not In Your Studio Anymore
While some long exposures are done in the safety and comfort of your studio, most of the time you’ll be shooting out in the elements. Rain, snow, dust, wind, and fog are just a few of the things that can mess up your lens/filters in an outdoor situation.
Even the slightest layer of water on your filter can cause a lot of diffraction and ruin your image. Remember to bring a bunch of cleaning clothes, water protection, and even heating packs to help avoid fogging in cold situations.
8. Leaving The Built-In Image Stabilization On
Most camera systems now have some form of built-in stabilization either in camera or in the lens, (or both). While incredibly useful in most situations, when used when locked down these systems can actually add shake to your images! Kind of ironic isn’t it? Image Stabilization when enabled will pretty much always assume there is going to be some camera shake. So when you’re locked down on a stable tripod, the camera will then add this stabilization and cause the opposite of what it’s intended for. So when shooting long exposures, or even regular images while locked on a tripod, be sure to disable this feature.
9. Placing The ND Filters In The Wrong Order
It was only recently that I realized you should stack your ND filters with the darkest one closest to the lens and move outwards as you get brighter. The reason for this is to avoid banding in your image.
10. Using Cheap Filters
So here’s the deal, every time you add something between your subject and the lens, you’re reducing the quality of your image. Even the most expensive and high-end filters will reduce the quality of your shot a little.
Cheaper filters will add a noticeable color shift or hue to your shots and can even soften them to the point of frustration. If you’re serious about photography and creating stunning long exposures you owe it to yourself to invest in a higher quality filter.
What are your most significant challenges with creating long exposures? Will these tips solve some of your issues? Let us know in the comments!