Long Exposure During the Day

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– by David Snyder

Have you ever seen photographs of flowing streams or waterfalls that look like images from a fantasy land? Wondered how this was done? With a little bit of practice, some equipment and a sturdy tripod, you can do this also!

Long Exposure

What you will need:
Camera with a manual setting capability (manual focus, manual exposure)
Sturdy Tripod
Filter and filter holder (more about this later)
Some patience

The process:
These images are created by taking long exposures. With the right equipment you can do this in broad daylight! (see the image above). The equipment isn’t terribly expensive (I’ll give some suggestions) and the setup is very quick. First, you’ll need to set up your camera on a sturdy tripod. You’ll be taking 10 – 30-second-long images.

  • You’ll need to assure that the tripod is stable. With these long of exposures, wind, moving decks etc.. will all effect the sharpness of your image.
  • I’d start your image planning using Aperture priority on your camera. You’ll need to set the aperture to get the desired depth of field (e.g. what is in focus and what is out of focus). The higher the aperture, the more that is in focus. Most of the time you can check this with a Depth of Field preview button on your DSLR.
  • You will also need to put your camera in manual focus mode. There won’t be enough light for your camera to meter or to focus once you use the filter.
  • Once you have this selected you have a few other settings to consider (these are not required if you don’t know how to adjust them).
    • The first is long exposure noise reduction. When taking longer shots this is often beneficial to turn on. However, this may end up softening your image a bit. If you are used to correcting noise in your photo editing program, I’d recommend ignoring this.
    • The second is Vibration reduction or VR. If it is a little windy, or you are using a telephoto, consider keeping this on. Most modern lenses can sense when they are on a tripod anyway and can turn off the NR. If you are getting vibration, this is reasonable to turn on. If you have an older lens with VR they can often “seek” looking for vibrations that aren’t there. If you have this issue and there is little environmental vibration, you can turn this off
    • Image quality: I always shoot in RAW. It provides the best opportunity for editing after the images are complete. I stay away from JPEG for editing as this is a compressed format. You lose detail, sharpness, and ability to recover details in the shadows when you use jpeg. It is a great format for the web, inclusion in documents etc. Just not for editing.
  • Take some test shots to get your basic shutter speed and depth of field correct. Remember your shutter speed, aperture and ISO setting.
  • Change to Manual exposure and reselect your final settings from before.
  • Now you are ready for the filter holder. You’ve most likely seen screw on filters that attach to the front of your lens. The type I use are a bit different and are often square or rectangular. These filter holders can hold up to three filters at a time and are typically large enough (100mm+) to fit on most of your lenses. I use a Cokin “Z” holder (see below) and an adapter ring (you will need one for each size of lens you have. Prices vary of course but the holder goes for about $55 and an adapter ring was ~$44. Nikon lenses often uses 72mm and I have just one for most of my lenses. There are many other options for filter holders and sizes. Just get one that fits your camera and meets your price range. There are many other types of filters that can be purchased such as colored filters and Graduated ND filters. With today’s post processing capability, I’ve seen most people use the holders for the solid and graduated neutral density filters. When looking for filters, some can create a color cast, typically blue or brown. Though this can be fixed easily in post processing it is good to get a high-quality filter that has a minimal color cast added to your images.

Filter holder
Lens Adapter

Solid 10x ND Filter
  • Next is the filter. I have two. The first is a 100mm Neutral Density 1000 Square filter. It is made of optical glass and provides a 10-stop reduction in light. The second is a ND100 which provides 3 stops of light reduction. My 10x filter cost $60 as it was glass. There are others that are of course cheaper.
  • Attach the filter adapter ring to the front of your camera. Attach the filter holder onto the adapter.
  • Once you put the filter in the holder, you won’t be able to see much at all. Make sure again, you have selected manual focus and manual exposure.
  • You’ll need to calculate the new exposure time with the filter. I recommend that you adjust shutter speed and ISO sensitivity and leave your Aperture alone. This will assure you get the desired depth of field.
  • The table below gives you the conversions for 10x, 6x, and 3x filters. To get beautiful rivers and waterfalls your times should be in the 10 – 30 second range. A typical sunny day is F8 at 1/125th of a second at ISO 100. This will convert to about 8 seconds with a 10x ND filter.
  • Put the filter into place into the holder covering the lens opening. And take a test image. You will need to make some adjustments. Different times provide different effects. Again, I recommend you adjust the times between 10 and 30 seconds and your ISO sensitivity. You will typically be moving this to a lower number 100, 64,etc… to get the maximum time. You can adjust this up however if you find you are taking images in a dim setting.
  • I find I often don’t have enough hands to hold the filter, adjust settings, and move the camera on the tripod. A clean cloth (microfiber) is convenient to have to hold the filter while you make other adjustments.
  • Try multiple angles, multiple exposures, multiple times to get the effect you want. Remember, try to look at your histogram on your display and eliminate how much of your image is clipped in the highlights or right-hand side. You can often recover some shadows in post processing. It is near impossible to recover “blown highlights”
  • Some notes:
    • Filter holders can often create an effect called Vignetting. If you purchase a filter holder that is much larger (e.g. say 165 or 200mm) then you won’t get this effect but everything is more expensive. Vignetting is a darkening of the corners. As the filter holder will stick out in front of the lens, wider angles can often see this darkening or black corners. Make sure you look for this in your images and if you use a zoom, zoom out include a bit of area that you can “sacrifice” during processing.
    • Consider using a “cable release” or “remote release” on your camera to minimize camera shake when you take a picture. These aren’t too expensive. There are many types from the very simple to much more complex intervelometers. Check these out on the web. You’ll need one that fits your specific camera.
Shutter Speed 10 6 3
1/8000 1/8 1/125 1/1000
1/4000 1/4 1/60 1/500
1/2000 1/2 1/30 1/250
1/1000 1 1/15 1/125
1/500 2 1/8 1/60
1/250 4 1/4 1/30
1/125 8 1/2 1/15
1/60 16 1 1/8
1/30 30 2 1/4
1/15 60 4 1/2
1/8 120 8 1
1/4 240 16 2
1/2 30 4
1 60 8
2 120 16
4 240 30
8 60
16 120
30 240
60
120
240

Owner of Mountain West Photography, David Snyder lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. David started photography in the 1980’s focusing on Black and White film and portraiture. However, after spending time in the US Natural Parks such as Yosemite, Zion, Bryce, Sequoya, Yellowstone, and the Grand Tetons National Parks he migrated towards nature photography. David was an early adopter of digital photography and enjoyed the ability to explore a whole new world of post processing that significantly expanded capabilities outside the darkroom. David’s photographs continue to focus on nature specifically, landscapes and wildlife. He is also drawn to water in motion and the reflections of the surrounding nature.