EXPERIMENTING WITH LONG EXPOSURES

EXPERIMENTING WITH LONG EXPOSURES

A few weeks ago, one of my photo-buddies suggested I tag along to a landscape workshop/afternoon at Kogel Bay. This beautiful stretch of long and gorgeously scenic beach is close to Gordon’s Bay, about 45 minutes from Cape Town.

Kogel Bay seascape
Taken close to sunset at Kogel Bay f20, 0.8 second, ISO 100.

I have always been a portrait photographer first and foremost. Capturing people’s emotions and connections is what fires me up in the morning (and afternoon, and evening). However, there is something very rewarding about spending hours setting up and waiting for the right landscape shot. It requires a completely different skill set to taking a portrait – I got to put some of this knowledge into practice at Kogel Bay.

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A much longer exposure: f18, 5.0 seconds, at Kogel Bay.

So, how does landscape photography differ to portrait photography? Mainly, in the exposure and techniques required to achieve certain creative effects; and also in the composition. (But, as I learnt: timing is key to both types of photography – this, I wasn’t expecting.)

Exposing for landscapes

ISO is the easy bit. You want maximum image quality, so set your ISO to 100. And, as always, try to shoot RAW.

Ideally, you want an image that is sharp, and in focus, front to back. This means aiming for a good depth of field – no wide apertures here, ordinarily. Your wide-angle lens (anything less than 35mm, roughly) will have certain sweet spots, but a good starting point for landscapes is f16 or f18 and upwards.

So, we have depth of field taken care of, but what about shutter speed? We started shooting quite early in the afternoon, when the sun was still high up, so with an aperture of f18, I still needed a moderately fast shutter speed, at this point unfortunately, to avoid blowing out my image.

Why do I say unfortunately? Because my goal was to creatively capture fluid movement in the water and clouds, as well as detail through the scene. And to capture fluid movement, you need a slow shutter speed. The longer the shutter is open, the more milky and smooth the water looks.

f20, 0.6 seconds.
f20, 0.6 seconds.
So, this is where Neutral Density filters come in….

There are many brands of filters, and undoubtedly, Lee makes the hardiest and most popular filters. I, however, was trying out another brand I had heard good things about – Cokin, which is a French brand.

I had bought the holder, fitting, and a Gradual Neutral Density 0.9 grey filter prior to this trip, so was itching to put the set to the test.

Earlier in the day, there was too much light to allow a long exposure, or slow shutter speed, and the skies were less dramatic.
Earlier in the day, there was too much light to allow a very long exposure, or slow shutter speed, and the skies were less dramatic. f22, 0.3 seconds.

Imagine slipping a reasonably dark sunglasses lens onto the front of your camera. That’s what a filter is like. Because you are preventing some of the light reaching your camera sensor with this filter, you can use a slower shutter speed (because slower shutter speeds let in more light than faster shutter speeds, so you don’t run the risk of overexposing with a slow shutter speed).

For an extra layer of awesomeness, a graduated neutral density filter is darker at the top than the bottom, so it blocks out more light from the sky area, but retains the correct exposure for the water/sand/foreground.

What does this mean? It means you can avoid overexposing (or ‘blowing out’) your skies – when this happens, you lose all the lovely colour, contrast and cloud details, leaving your image looking flat and dull.

Results

My 0.9 filter, which cuts out 3 stops of light, was the darkest one I could find in the Cokin brand at time of purchase – and it still wasn’t enough for me.

The Lee Little Stopper cuts out 6 stops (a BIG difference to 3 stops ) and I really felt at the time that I could’ve done with that little more leeway. In the afternoon, when the sun was high, I cranked close my aperture all the way to f22 at many times (which I don’t like doing), and STILL had a shutter speed of only 1/10th of a second, which is not slow enough to capture the milky water look.

However, as the sun dropped, and the light dimmed, I got to really play. The filter, plus the dropping light levels, allowed me to open my shutter for as long as up to 5 seconds, and that was when I captured some of my favourite frames.

 

 

One of my favourites from the day. Shot at f18 and 1.3 seconds.
One of my favourites from the day. Shot at f18 and 1.3 seconds.
How amazing are these colours? I almost toned them down in post processing, they looked so unreal; but that is how the sky looked. The long exposure makes it easier to capture dramatic skies. Shot at f20, 2.5 seconds.
How amazing are these colours? I almost toned them down in post processing, they looked so unreal; but that is how the sky looked! The long exposure makes it easier to capture dramatic skies. Shot a little after sunset, at f20, 2.5 seconds.

Needless to say, when using slow shutter speeds, a tripod, and a shutter cable release or remote triggers, are essential. You can get away with using self timer instead of a cable release, but there are so many reasonably priced ones on the market, it’s worth getting one. I use them all the time for studio work too, so they’re a good investment.

I like this shot, but if I could shoot it again, I would adjust the composition so that the rocks on the right hand side were not cut off. However, I do love the fluid motion of the water, captured using a long exposure of 8 seconds.
I like this shot, but if I could shoot it again, I would adjust the composition so that the rocks on the right hand side were not cut off. However, I do love the fluid motion of the water, captured using a long exposure of 8 seconds.
What I learnt

Composing for seascapes is harder than it sounds. With landscapes, some standard tenets to work with are:

Use manual focus to focus a third of the way into a scene

Use Live view on your camera if you have it

Aim for both foreground and background interest.

Work with a narrow aperture for plenty of depth of field, adjusting shutter speed accordingly

However, with plenty of photographers on either side of you during a seascape workshop, a mass of rocks clustered around, (some more attractive than others) and constantly shifting water levels, you have to be very patient and observant to find the right composition.

I can see why landscapes photographers return to the same place time after time to get ‘the shot’. Composing a strong image is not always straightforward, especially in the near dark near sunset.

 

 

 

And as I mentioned earlier, timing was key – despite standing in the same place for hours, and leaving my shutter open for seconds at a time.This was a surprise.

In portrait photography, especially children’s photography and gig photography, timing is crucial. You have to nail your exposure, placement, composition and subject movement timing, all at the same time; sometimes holding still until the subject shifts their shoulder fractionally to the right, or tilts the eyes up towards you, or the light changes in your favour.

I had expected landscape photography to be easier on me, timing-wise, given that I was using a tripod and working with long exposures. I knew that when the sun started to descend on the horizon, we would have literally minutes to get the best shots. But what I only realised later in the day was that I had to watch the water carefully and critically to try to capture the perfect flow. The scene before me could change drastically in a matter of seconds, simply with a fresh wave breaking so I had to be ready to push the button at the right moment.

This was a pleasant surprise to me, and added an extra layer of challenge to the session.

You can't put a portrait photographer on a landscape trip and expect them not to find a portrait, somehow...! Shot at f2.8 and 1/2500th second, ISO 100
You can’t put a portrait photographer on a landscape trip and expect them not to find a portrait, somehow…! Shot at f2.8 and 1/2500th second, ISO 100

 

What you need for long exposure seascapes
  • An SLR camera
Cokin ND grad, Canon wide angle, Yongnuo triggers
Pictured from left to right: Yongnuo triggers, Canon 16-35mm lens, Cokin holder, Cokin 0.9 ND gradual filter. The holder screws on to the front of the lens, and the filter slides in to be positioned as needed.
  • Wide angle lens (remember that if you are shooting on a crop sensor or entry-level camera, an 18mm lens will behave like more like a 29mm lens: multiply by 1.6. Advantage is sometimes less vignetting, however.
  • Tripod: a must. Make sure it’s sturdy. AND CLEAN IT WHEN YOU GET HOME. (Not the next day. I wish someone had told me that. Sigh.)
  • Cable release or remote triggers so you don’t have to use your finger to release the shutter. I use Yongnuo and I love them.
  • Filters, if you’re looking for the milky fluid water effect.

(If you can’t get hold of Neutral Density/graduated filters, you could try using a polariser, which still cuts out some light. Alternatively I have seen some YouTube clips on making your own filters, which I’m sure would be fun trying out!)

  • Waterproof clothes/changes of clothes, towels, drinks and snacks, and kit cleaning materials. Sand and spray on your lens doesn’t add much to your image quality, unless you are literally looking for that grainy look!

 

My camera settings are still set to a long exposure for this shot, so you can clearly see how movement is captured in a fluid and smooth way. f18, 1.6 seconds.
My camera settings are still set to a long exposure for this shot, so you can clearly see how movement is captured in a fluid and smooth way. f18, 1.6 seconds.

If you’re interested in attending a landscape workshop, Dewald Kirsten, a very talented landscape and portrait photographer, will be hosting a few more this year, I believe. He’s a great guy: you can find him here.

I am used to coming home from shoots covered in mud and leaves, but I have never come home and had to pull my boots and socks off in the bathtub – being knee-deep in the sea for hours, I was soaking and sandy through and through, but it was worth it! I’m looking forward to building my filter collection up and experimenting further.

As always, please feel free to comment or message me with any questions or comments. I’d love to hear from you.

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