Are you using long exposure with artistic intent?
Long exposure is a technique that is used by almost every landscape photographer; in fact, some would argue that it is part of the fundamentals of the craft. Exposing for a few seconds to a few minutes offers a lot of advantages in capturing outdoor scenes both in attaining optimal image quality and in rendering certain visual effects in the image. If you’re a landscape photographer, especially someone who has only begun their journey, how often do you use it for the latter?
An Expanded Definition of Composition
Most basic photography resources and courses would often give a very superficial definition of composition, a version that applies to every genre at every level and that is one that deals with cropping and placement. While they are indeed cornerstones of the discipline of composition and visual design, it is definitely arguable that there is more to composition than merely placing your subject on certain parts of the frame. Each genre would have its own version of expanded definitions and specifics of composition but for the context of this article, let’s talk about those relevant in landscape photography and how long exposure can enhance your overall visual design.
Compared to shooting portraits, products, or other singular subjects, landscape photography tends to deal with detail-rich scenes and a busy canvas. This is precisely why achieving a certain level of isolation is definitely crucial in shooting outdoors. The very essence of composition and visual design in any two-dimensional art form is to lead the eyes of the viewers around and through the image. With a very busy scene full of details and textures, the importance of this is amplified.
Shooting long exposures is one of the ways to achieve such isolation specifically in a scene where lots of movement happens. Most often, moving elements in the scene can be found in the foreground such as flowing water or grass being blown by the wind, or in the sky in the form of fast-moving clouds. Capturing really long exposures that allow for smooth scudding of the clouds or silky flow of the water can help cancel out some of the rough textures in the foreground or background that may have been unintended distractions from the main visual design of the scene.
In the same way that they enhance isolation, long exposures can also give more emphasis on more prominent parts of the scene, specifically those that are intentionally part of the image’s overall visual design. By shooting long exposures to smoothen out surfaces, both on the ground and in the sky, the still and prominent elements on those portions are brought to stand out and given emphasis. If placed in a spot that visually supports the overall scene, the said element can play a role in guiding the viewer’s eyes. Of course, achieving natural contrast of these textures also generally enhances the image by giving it some depth.
Context of Movement
Long exposures are best known for being able to illustrate movement through the trails that bright moving objects make against a relatively darker background. In a natural/rural scene, this is commonly seen in flowing water or fast-moving clouds, while in cities, this is best done with movement of traffic (though all these can exist in either setting). These movements generally seem to contribute to the context of movement in a still image but in the overall visual design, these elements of movement symbolize the life of the place and generally give the image a more dynamic feel. When such moving elements are shot from an angle wherein the movement flows in the same direction that the overall visual design of the image goes, this can greatly contribute to the cohesiveness of an image which overall leads to a pleasurable visual experience for the viewers.
In any photograph that is created in the context of producing art, clutter is poison. In shooting wide vistas and busy cityscapes, there's just so much room for either a large or particularly bright unwanted element to come into the frame and take away attention from the flow of the image. This can be in the form of people, cars, bright-colored structures, or even literal trash.
There are two ways to generally approach the task of removing the distracting element. One is to remove the element in post-processing. However, if the visual element is one that moves, shooting long enough exposures can virtually erase them out of the frame altogether.
Perhaps the most impactful way that shooting long exposures can affect an image is by creating visual paths. In addition to infusing the context of movement in a scene or location, motion blur of such bright moving objects can definitely render an additional dynamic aspect in the frame. If properly placed and anticipated to create a movement that would flow with the visual design of the image, these moving elements can literally flow through and into the frame and lead the eyes of the viewer towards the direction of the image.
Essential Tools for Long Exposure
1. A Stable Tripod
Tripods are customary in shooting long exposures. Though some alternatives may apply in certain scenarios (clamps, arms, or fortunately placed flat surfaces), having a sturdy and stable tripod is most important especially when dealing closely with dynamically moving elements. Often, scenes with much movement in the frame also mean having to dip in flowing water or shoot against relatively stronger winds. If your tripod fails to keep the camera still, it can ruin your image or even lead to untoward accidents.
2. Reliable Filters
Long exposures are easiest to do at night when shooting for a clear night sky or photographing bright cityscapes. In the daytime, of course, it is impossible to do significant long exposures because of the abundance of light. Reliable filters are very crucial. Optically, they have to have very little to no color cast/shift, and to do really long exposures, invest in a system that has a good design that prevents light leaks.
I personally use the H&Y K-100 magnetic filters precisely for the above-mentioned reasons. First, the glass quality casts no unwanted tint and no significant reduction in clarity. Second, the drop-in ND + CPL filter combination design fits perfectly into the filter holder leaving no room for light to leak or cause extreme glare. The magnetic frames on the square and rectangular filters also close off the sides significantly well to prevent light from entering.
3. Remote Camera Trigger
In a very dynamic scenario, even with a reliable tripod, the photographer’s hands can be the ones to induce camera shake. This is precisely why a remote trigger could be of great help. In certain conditions, setting the camera on two- or five-second timer can be helpful but if the movement involved in the scene requires a well-timed exposure, specifically for fast and transient movement, it might be quite difficult to achieve perfect timing without a remote in your hands. For very long exposures (generally reaching about 5-6 minutes), I’ve been enjoying using the MIOPS Smart+ trigger not just to specifically trigger my camera into shooting and maintaining the exposure for the long amount of time but also because of the ND filter long exposure calculator built into the app that was made to control the trigger. This generally leads to fewer errors in estimating exposure time and fewer wasted frames due to miscalculations.
Long exposures in landscape photography not only allow for optimal image quality and balanced exposures. If done meticulously and with intent, the effects and textures that long exposure methods can achieve can greatly improve your images into better designed, visually appealing, dynamic, and compelling artworks.