the London Eye in Motion
– for this week’s Featured Image of the week I want to combine two of my favorite things, travel photography and long exposure photography, and talk about the delicate balance between getting a shot and enjoying a vacation. The image is of the beautiful London Eye and, as much as I love the shot, it does demonstrate why it’s so hard to capture every shot you might dream up when you go on a trip.
Long Exposure Photography
Before I start talking about why it’s so hard to capture long exposure images when traveling I want to talk about what long exposure photography is. By definition a long exposure shot is an image created over an extended duration of time. Long exposure photography lets you show movement or it can smooth out movement. It can even be used to eliminate people from a shot. A long exposure shot could be 3-5 seconds for a fireworks shot or several minutes for star trail shots like this one I took in the Shenandoah Mountains in 2012:
To capture all that movement of the stars my camera captured more than 20 minutes of time for a single shot. Also, the camera’s long exposure noise reduction was activated so it took another 20 minutes for my camera to process the image. That means it took me more than 40 minutes of waiting to find out if everything went right and I had the shot I envisioned.
Capturing a long exposure shot requires a few things. First you MUST use a tripod. Second, you need a camera that can be manually set for exposure. Third, you have to buy a wired remote with a timer or Bulb functionality. Finally, you need a cool subject.
You need a good tripod because your camera can’t move while the shutter is open. While it’s preferable to use a super sturdy tripod, even a basic tripod will get the job done.
You need a camera with a Manual mode option so you can set the aperture, ISO and shutter speed. This is super important because without Manual mode your camera will choose settings that will result in the shortest shutter speed possible. With Manual Mode you can choose a super low ISO (this reduces noise) and a sharp aperture setting (I use either f5.6 or f8) and then choose a shutter speed that will properly expose the image. Most cameras allow up to 30 seconds of exposure but sometimes that’s just not long enough for the ultimate long exposure shots.
If you want more than 30 seconds you’ll have to choose a shutter speed called: bulb. This setting keeps the shutter open for as long as you have your camera’s shutter release button pressed. If you want to hold the button for a minute or two then you can skip using a wired remote. If you want a super long exposure you’re going to want to get a wired remote with a timer (you can set it to keep the shutter open for as long as you want) or you can use a remote with bulb functionality. This kind of remote will have a slider for the shutter release button that locks the button down. Here’s a look at my Sony RM-VPR1 remote:
Finally, you have to have a subject that works for a long exposure shot. It’s best to have a subject that won’t move in the same shot as a lot of movement. Here’s a long exposure shot of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, I took in Washington, DC:
What I like about the MLK, JR shot is how the clouds have a nice motion blur that a normal shot won’t have. It works here because the memorial isn’t moving so it’s super sharp, unlike the moving clouds. For my London Eye shot the buildings are not moving, so they look super sharp, but Eye is moving so the lights create a cool circular blur of color. Here’s another look at the London Eye shot:
My Gear and Camera Settings
To get my London Eye long exposure shot I used my travel tripod, my Sony a6000, a Sony 16mm f2.8 lens, a 4 stop ND filter (to let me get an even longer shutter speed) and my Sony wired remote. My camera was set to Manual mode with an ISO of 100 and aperture setting of f8. The camera was set to bulb mode and I used my wired remote to capture 306 seconds of time (that’s just over 5 minutes of the shutter being open). The camera captured a RAW file which was processed in Adobe Lightroom and finishing touches were added with Adobe Photoshop.
Long Exposure Photography and Travel
Recently I was exchanging messages with a fellow photographer, Larry Grace, who has been sharing some incredible shots from a trip to Hong Kong (you can see his work here). As I looked at his shots I thought about time lapses and long exposures but quickly remembered how difficult those kinds of photography can be when traveling.
It’s not so much the technique or the gear – it’s all about the time. Because a long exposure shot can take several minutes (and that doubles if you use long exposure noise reduction) getting a few shots can easily take up to an hour. Getting a time lapse can take even longer (and your camera can’t be used for anything else while it’s working). If you’re on a trip then you only have so much time to dedicate to your photography so spending an hour to get a single shot probably isn’t such a good idea. I only had a few days in London, for example, so I couldn’t take all of the long exposure shots I would have liked.
The good news is I fully understood the reality of traveling so I wasn’t disappointed at all. In fact – by not taking as many long exposure shots I had more time to explore the city and really enjoy myself. Unless it’s a trip you’re taking just for photography it’s best to find a good balance between taking pictures and being on vacation. I still take plenty of pictures, but I also make sure to spend plenty of time without my camera. And after you get home you can plan for the long exposure and time lapse shots you’ll get the next time you go.
Practice Makes Perfect
If you love the look of long exposure shots it really helps to get lots of practice before you take your trip. By being familiar with your camera and what settings work best to get cool looking long exposure shots you can spend less time setting up to get your shot and that means capturing less “test” shots (which can take several minutes for shots that you probably won’t like). I’ve been taking long exposure shots for more than a decade so I’m able to quickly set up my gear and use settings I know work great.
If you’re new to long exposure shooting I recommend starting with night time shots. Because there’s less light your camera will automatically choose a long shutter speed if you’re not using manual mode. After you get your shots you can check your camera display to see how long your camera shutter was open and in the future you can manually use the settings your camera chose.
After you master night time long exposure shots you can move on to daytime long exposure shooting. You’ll need to use special lens filters called: Neutral Density filters – but that’s a subject for another article.
And whatever you do don’t forget to use a tripod!
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