How You Shot It is a series where you show us how you shot an image. Many who use our presets love to share their special processing recipes. You can join the SLR Lounge Textures and Presets group on Facebook and share your favorite images and recipes as well!
Today’s post comes from Joe Miller.
Spend just a few minutes browsing any photography related social media and it will be quickly evident that long exposure photography is a sure-fire favorite among viewers. I travel frequently to Atlanta for business and having fallen in love with the city. I wanted to showcase it in a manner that allowed it to live up to its most popular nickname “Hotlanta.” What better way to represent the hot vibrant nightlife of Atlanta than with the vibrance and movement of a long exposure night photograph?!
- Nikon D5200
- Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 VR-II kit lens
Wait, that’s it for gear? Yes, that’s it. One of the most wonderful things about long exposure night photography is that you do not have to use expensive gear to make a beautiful image. But aren’t those expensive cameras and lenses supposed to provide better quality of results when shooting in low light? Well, yes, through great quality ultra-high ISO settings and wide open apertures. But for long exposure, we are going the opposite direction with low ISO and narrow aperture settings. So for this type of shot, an entry to mid-level DSLR and kit lens will actually do just fine.
There is one important and likely obvious piece of gear missing from my list that I strongly recommend, and that is a tripod. A stable platform for your camera is absolutely essential for this type of shot. Since I was on a short business trip, it was not feasible to pack my tripod in my overnight bag and I had not planned in advance to either ship the tripod to my hotel or to rent a tripod at my destination. In my case, careful planning and scouting to find a location where I would not need a tripod allowed me to get the shot without one.
How I Shot It
I attribute the success of this shot to the location scouting and planning that preceded it. I wanted both the city skyline and some highway traffic for light trails, so the ideal location would probably be an overpass or a parking deck. Overpasses and parking decks can offer great vantage points, but often come at the risk of your own personal safety or being quickly vacated by police or security.
Scouting your potential locations in the daytime is a great way to minimize these risks and advance preparation will minimize the time you need at the location to get your shot. A quick online search turned up the Jackson Street bridge as a popular location so during lunch break I took a quick drive to check it out.
I found that the Martin Luther King Jr. Center is only blocks away and offers a great parking that is also open into the evening, and the concrete railing of the Jackson Street bridge provides a stable platform for the camera in lieu of a tripod.
The next step was to take advantage of the daylight to compose a shot. Specifically the a) angle or point of view, b) focal length, c) focal point, and d) depth of field. After “chimping” many combinations of these, I settled on the composition seen both here and in the final shot, using a focal length of 35mm and aperture at f/11. I was pleased to note that the bridge was not heavily trafficked, nor was I approached by police or security to vacate.
With business meetings and dinner concluded, I returned to the Jackson Street bridge about an hour after sunset. The sky may not necessarily look like much after the golden hour has passed and the sun has set, but the colors that can still be picked up through long exposure are amazing. But now that it is dark, how do we know how long the exposure will need to be? Well there are a number of ways to approach this challenge, but honestly, I find the most straight-forward is to switch into manual mode and for a night cityscape, 10 seconds at f/8, ISO 100 is a good starting point and from there adjust as needed.
Setting My Exposure
In Manual mode, I dialed in 10 seconds at f/8, confirmed ISO 100, turned off lens vibration reduction, and set white balance to incandescent (tungsten) in order to achieve the cobalt ‘shock-blue’ sky. With the camera solidly stabilized on the concrete railing of the bridge I used the camera’s timer to take the first exposure. The image was acceptably exposed but the light trails from traffic were not fully sweeping through the frame as I had envisioned. And, although the depth of field seemed to look ok in the LCD image preview, I preferred for it to be at f/11 since that was the stop I selected from the daytime shots. Stopping up to f/11 would double the exposure length and I worried that 20 seconds may be a little too much for the light trails, so I took the second exposure a half-stop underexposed than the first shot, 15 seconds at f/11.
As expected the image was slightly underexposed but the histogram showed no clipped shadows and the light trails swept beautifully across the frame. It seemed I had my shot! Nevertheless, I took several more exposures for bracketing and tried other compositions that I had considered earlier in the day. Some of these extra shots were at best “ok,” but since I had the time, it was good to work the shot…you never know…
How I Processed It
Thanks to the SLR Lounge Preset System, post-processing was quite literally two clicks; one click for the Vivid Import preset and a second click to bump up the exposure. That’s really all there was to it. With all the time I now had on my hands, I was free to try out all sorts of different looks and effects with the presets and seriously considered adding the Blue/ Orange split tone preset, but ultimately the Vivid Import preset was all that was needed to attain my vision for the image.
About the “How to Shoot It” Series
This educational series highlights amazing images from our writers as well as our community. The goal is to not only feature inspirational work but to provide valuable education for our photography community. If you would like to submit your work, please click here for more info on writing for SLR Lounge.