Essential Equipment for Long Exposure Photography
Normally, I say that equipment is not important, at least not for those just getting started with photography. Until you know how to master the camera, equipment shouldn’t be the main focus. You don’t need to worry about having the best equipment or things you don’t actually need. However, to achieve certain techniques or effects, having the right equipment is essential. Long Exposure Photography is one of these techniques where some additional equipment is needed.
Let’s jump straight to it and look at what I consider to be essential equipment for long exposure photography:
Camera with Manual and Bulb Mode
Okay, so this one might be a given. It’s obvious that you’ll need a camera to take an image. However, to be able to use a slow shutter speed (which is what long exposure photography is all about), you need a camera that allows you to manually adjust the ISO, aperture and shutter speed.
Since you are working with different shutter speeds it’s essential that you’re able to adjust these settings yourself, so you can then control the quality of your image. Even though most compact cameras do have this opportunity now, I highly recommend using a DSLR (or mirrorless) camera if you don’t already. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, an entry level camera will do just fine.
Nikon D800 Bulb Mode
Bulb Mode is another option that it’s beneficial for your camera to have. While it’s not essential, it allows you to take exposures that are longer than 30 seconds. Most DSLR cameras have a maximum shutter speed of 30 seconds so if you want to use an exposure longer than that, you need to be in Bulb Mode.
With this mode selected (it’s located different places on different cameras), you can expose an image for as long as you want. Basically, as long as you hold the shutter button triggered, the camera continues to take the image. I’ll come back to a neat trick to avoid pushing the button for several seconds or minutes in a bit.
I consider a tripod to be essential for any type of landscape photography but when dealing with slow shutter speeds, it’s hard to work without one. Some of you might comment that you can just lean the camera on a fence or lay it on a rock but that really limits your flexibility and, of course, the stability of your camera.
The reason I always travel with a tripod is because I normally work with images that have a shutter speed just too slow to capture handheld. Plus even if I’m not, I have the option.
This image wouldn’t be possible without a tripod.
You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on the best tripods available but avoid getting the cheapest aluminum ones from the local electronic shop. Make sure that the tripod you choose is sturdy enough to be used in a river with rushing water, or when the weather is windy.
Exposure times of anywhere between 1/4th of a second to multiple minutes is common with long exposure photography. It goes without saying that you’re not able to get a sharp handheld image when using a shutter speed of 30 seconds. By using a tripod you make it possible to work with such long exposures and capture great, sharp images.
Neutral density filters
I’ve previously explained how to do long exposure photography without filters, so why do I now say they are essential? It’s quite simple – the quality of your images will be much higher.
Before explaining why I consider neutral density filters to be essential for long exposure photography, let’s quickly look at what they are:
- Neutral density filters are darkened filters that are placed in front of the lens, requiring a slower shutter speed for the same amount of light to reach the sensor.
- There are two systems available: screw-in and drop-in or square filters.
- The filters come in different strengths (3-stop, 6-stop, 10-stop, etc.) which describes how much you need to lengthen the exposure time to maintain a well-exposed image.
NiSi 6-Stop ND Filter in front of my Nikkor 14-24mm
There are many filters to choose from on the market and it seems like new brands appear all the time. Personally, I’ve been using LEE Filters, NiSi Filters and B+W. NiSi has become my go-to choice these days as their filters don’t have a visible color cast (which is a common issue with these types of filters). LEE is known for its strong blue color cast and B+W had a very dominant red tone. These are relatively easy to fix in Adobe Lightroom or Camera RAW but I prefer to get as much as possible right in the camera.
Why are ND Filters essential for long exposure photography?
As mentioned, these filters require you to lengthen the exposure time for the same amount of light to reach the camera’s sensor in order to get a well-exposed image. The filters are darkened and their strength dictates how much you need to slow down the shutter speed. Compared to doing this without filters, using an ND filter allows you to use a much longer exposure times while still maintaining optimal quality (the sharpest aperture of your lens).
Nikon D800 w/ Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 @ ISO100 – f/11 – 241 seconds.
It wouldn’t have been possible to capture an image with a 241-second shutter speed, without using an ND filter in the conditions present when I took the image above. You might be able to reach such an exposure time at night but not during a sunset. Without a filter, I might have gotten a 1-second exposure, which would look completely different with an overall lower quality. By placing a dark ND filter in front of my lens (the NiSi 10-stop) I was able to use a very long exposure and capture some of the beautiful motion going on in the sky as well as soften the surface of the lake.
I’ll admit it right away, a remote shutter isn’t essential to achieve a long exposure but it is going to make the process much easier (I feel naked when mine is left behind)!
I’ve previously written an article where I compared using a Delayed Shutter and Remote Shutter, so I won’t go into the details of which is better here. What I will mention, however, is that when doing long exposure photography you often have to work with quickly changing elements (such as rushing waves). In these scenarios, you want to be able to capture the image at the exact moment the moving element is where you want it to be and can’t afford to wait an additional two seconds (for the self-timer to go off).
A remote shutter was used to capture the exact moment the waves went over the rock
The image above represents one of these scenarios. As the tide was rising, the formations of the waves were constantly changing. I knew that I wanted to capture the exact moment the water started running down the left side rock and to be able to do that, I needed a remote shutter. Had I used the built-in delayed shutter (with a delay of two seconds) I would most likely have missed that exact moment, even though I could have tried to predict the moment of impact.
For Bulb Mode
Another benefit of using a remote shutter for long exposure photography is that most of them have a shutter lock function, which is going to save you a lot of hassle when working in Bulb Mode. Rather than manually holding the shutter button (and causing a visible camera shake) for minutes, you can lock up the shutter with a remote release.
Remote Cable Release
You don’t need to purchase the most expensive release out there (they can be surprisingly pricey) just make sure that it’s something that won’t break right away and one that has the opportunity to lock up the shutter. Note: make sure to get one that is compatible with your camera model.
Cardboard to cover the viewfinder
My last recommendation is something that many articles forget to mention. You need something to cover the viewfinder! Many cameras have this as built-in function and have a sort of “curtain” that you can close. But there are still many cameras that don’t have this option. If your camera doesn’t, make sure that you bring a piece of cardboard, or similar, that you can use to block the viewfinder during a long exposure. This is to avoid any unwanted light leaks as you see in the image below.
I forgot to block my viewfinder so my two-minute exposure looked like this.
While there are many other accessories available to make long exposure photography easier, these are the ones I consider to be essential. Do you have any others to add to the list?
If you want to learn more about Long Exposure Photography I’ve shared everything I know in my eBook The Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography. This eBook is for those who are ready to take their images to the next level and expand their creative vision.