In my photography I like the act of ‘doing’ something to the scene. Whether it’s adding a flash (or 4) or slowing down the shutter to allow movement to show in the water or clouds, I like the idea that I did more than just point and click. There must be some deep psychological reason for this but let’s not digress!
When I’m in front of a landscape one of the first things I’ll reach for is my 10 Stop Neutral Density filter (ND). I’ve spoken before (in my Rhythm article) about achieveing a state of ‘flow’ while shooting landscapes. I can really get lost in it and time just flys by. The process of composing the shot, locking the camera down on the tripod, adjusting the polarizer, taking test shots, calculating the long exposure time, adding the ND, covering the eyepiece, setting a timer, releasing the shutter, waiting those tantalizing few seconds or minutes to see the result, checking it, refining it and going through it all again and again. I’ve described it before as an unrehearsed dance but you could also call it a ritual.
I’ve taught a workshop called Slowscapes for a couple of years now which looks at long exposures using NDs. In the class (spoilers) I tell people that this technique is simply a 16 step process. 16 Steps?! Ok, you don’t have to do EVERY step every time but, yes, there’s a few things to do. This can be intimidating for the beginner. When I started running a couple of years ago I remember reading somewhere that a good cadence was 180 paces per minute. That’s 3 paces a second! My head!! I just couldn’t fathom my legs moving that quickly. The first few times I tried it, queued by 180bpm music, it was a real struggle but soon I found that my fitness improved and I could achieve this comfortably. It’s the same with long exposures – once you get the knack you can find the rhythm of it and you’re away.
So, what are the 16 steps?
Compose the scene (camera in hand)
Lock the camera on the tripod
Set the camera to M (manual)
Set lowest ISO
Set narrowest Aperture
Focus then turn off Auto Focus
Balance the exposure meter using the shutter speed
Take test shot to find ‘base’ time for long exposure
Check and adjust if necessary
Calculate long exposure and set timer (on your watch or phone)
Set shutter speed to ‘Bulb’
Carefully apply the ND filter
Lock up the mirror
Make the exposure (RAW file)
Start the timer
Simples! As I said, you don’t have to do all the steps for each shot. If the conditions aren’t changing and you’re looking at more or less the same scene then you can stick with the calculated shutter speed.
What’s the point? Why not just take a normal photo? As I said earlier, the process of shooting long exposures is really relaxing so it might be worth it for that alone. But, of course, were looking to make a nice picture at the end of the day and for me, Slowscapes just have some magic. It’s not just a record of where you were, it’s an interpretation of the place, the weather and the mood. The movement in the water, clouds and foliage can say so much in terms of mood. Depending on the scene this movement might convey peace and tranquility. With a shorter (but still longish) exposure of a 1-2 seconds you’ll see a different kind of movement in waves where they’ll hold more energy, more intent. This can have to a more rugged aesthetic than a very long exposure of 30 seconds or more. One scene might ask for one approach while a different scene asks for another. Try to tune in to the moment and really capture the mood.
If you’re new to long exposures then I hope this has caught your interest and made you want to try it out. I will now shamelessly plug my next Slowscapes workshop! Join a small group of photographers in one iconic location and learn the technique with as much guidance as you need. I use different spots around Scotland so check the latest dates in the ‘workshops’ section of the site. I’d love to see you there!