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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Photography Techniques  >  Extended Exposures

Long Exposures

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 3734
1 Introduction  (104)
2 Shorter Length Exposures  (168)
       2.1 Composition  (302)
3 Medium Length Exposures  (349)
       3.1 Fireworks  (377)
       3.2 Shooting During the Day  (346)
4 Long Exposures  (312)
       4.1 Using a Flash  (664)
       4.2 Lightning  (158)
5 Using Film  (749)
       5.1 Filters  (193)
6 More To Discover (12)

This page has 56 images dated from
Jul 4, 2003 to Aug 24, 2006
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1 Introduction

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"Fairy Tern" in Flight
(Palau)
animals, fairies, flapping, horizontal, palau, tern, tropics, photograph
People often associate long exposures (or long shutter speeds) with night photography. What is overlooked are the amazing photos you can get with longer shutter speeds, ranging from 1/15 of a second up to many hours. What's more, these aren't tricky, and don't require sophisticated cameras and lenses. Because of the techniques associated with shooting at varying lengths of (longer) shutter speeds, I break them down into three categories: Shorter exposures, which go from about 1/20th of a second to several seconds, medium exposures, which go up to about a minute, and long exposures, which can be indefinitely long.

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Fast Shutter: No Motion Blur
(Glacier National Park, Montana, USA)
america, backroads, glaciers, horizontal, montana, national parks, north america, rides, speed, united states, western united states, western usa, photograph
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Slow Shutter: Motion Blur
(Glacier National Park, Montana, USA)
america, backroads, glaciers, montana, national parks, north america, rides, speed, united states, vertical, western united states, western usa, photograph
"Shorter" versions of extended exposures are those where you typically want to capture motion blur of an object or action. You may either be shooting from a moving object (such as riding a bike, horse, roller coaster), or you may be in a stationary position taking a picture of a moving object (like birds, horses, a bike rider, waterfalls, fireworks, fog). What each of these cases have in common is (most typically) the fact that they take place during the day. This means you have a lot of light available, and when there's a lot of light, your camera's shutter speed tends to be pretty fast. One way to slow down the shutter speed while maintaining the overall exposure balance is to use a very small aperture, also called "stopping down." The smaller the hole, the less the light, the longer the shutter speed to get the light.

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Shooting from a moving train
(with a fisheye lens)
(Peru)
horizontal, latin america, motion blur, peru, train tracks, trains, photograph
Technically, this isn't rocket science. The challenge is the composition. Because things are in motion, it's hard to frame your picture in real-time conditions that change so quickly, and deciding when to release the shutter. Expect to shoot many pictures of the same thing, hoping that one great shot will appear. One hint about composition is to pay attention to the direction of motion, since that will be the theme of the picture. Straight lines, curved motion, forward, backward. It's all about leading the viewer's eye from a starting point to an endpoint. It may be subtly implied, or very direct, but it's the motion itself that you want to convey.

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Shooting from a moving object
(Rotorua, New Zealand)
horizontal, luge, motion blur, new zealand, rotorua, photograph
When shooting from a stationery position, something else in the scene must also be stationary, or the effect is lost. Hence, it is necessary to keep the lens stable during the exposure to keep those stationary objects still. For 1/8 of a second or so, one "can", with enough practice, learn to be relatively still, but even then, it still requires repeated shooting. If you're on a train, for example, you can use a tripod.

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Spewing Water 3 (b&w)
(Chicago, Illinois, USA)
america, black and white, chicago, childrens, crown fountains, fisheye lens, fountains, horizontal, illinois, millenium park, nite, north america, people, spewing, united states, water, photograph
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Shooting from a moving car
(Havana, Cuba)
cameras, caribbean, cuba, dan jill, dans, havana, horizontal, island nation, islands, latin america, mirrors, motion blur, people, photographers, reflect, reflections, south america, streets, photograph

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Clouds Passing over Mt. Veronica
1 minute, 400mm, f5.6
(Peru)
ancient ruins, andes, architectural ruins, inca trail, incan tribes, latin america, mountains, peru, scenics, stone ruins, veronica, vertical, photograph
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Tripod-mounted camera
(Havana, Cuba)
caribbean, cuba, havana, horizontal, island nation, islands, lamps, latin america, malecon, motion blur, posts, south america, sunsets, photograph

Moving clouds are also excellent subjects for extended exposures. For example, this photo of Mount Veronica, Peru, shows how clouds appear when they move over mountains. Shooting just about any night scene with moving clouds can produce interesting effects, but be careful not to expose for too long. Given enough time, the whites of the clouds will eventually pass by all the open spaces in the sky (even if it's never entirely overcast), losing the "swoosh" effect.

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Short Exposure
Golden Gate Bridge
(San Francisco, California, USA)
bridge, california, eve, evening, golden gate, golden gate bridge, national landmarks, san francisco, traffic, vertical, west coast, western usa, photograph
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Long Exposure
Golden Gate Bridge
(San Francisco, California, USA)
bridge, california, eve, evening, golden gate, golden gate bridge, national landmarks, san francisco, traffic, vertical, west coast, western usa, photograph
Medium length exposures include those up to a minute or so, and are therefore the most common type of long-exposure work. The only thing required is a tripod or other sturdy object. Dusk, dawn and many nite scenes in cities (or traffic) are excellent candidates for these types images, because there is ambient light to fill in the shadows, which balance out the highlights. (Traffic at nite is one of my favorite subjects.)

As these photos illustrate, streaking lights from cars show a sense of motion, and are immediately appealing. The longer the exposure, the longer the car headlights streak. There are many ways you can play with this effect, and as you get more familiar with the process, you can experiment with the timing; when you start and stop such exposures has a great impact on the final result.

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Brooklyn Bridge
(New York City, New York, USA)
america, bridge, brooklyn bridge, cities, horizontal, motion blur, new york, new york city, nite, north america, united states, photograph
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Park Ave Car Lights
(Park City, Utah, USA)
america, buildings, horizontal, long exposure, motion blur, nite, north america, park ave, park city, snow, streets, united states, utah, western usa, photograph


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Shot at Nite
(Piran, Slovenia)
bell towers, churches, cityscapes, europe, horizontal, long exposure, motion blur, nite, piazza, pirano, slovenia, photograph
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Shot at Dawn
(Piran, Slovenia)
bell towers, churches, cityscapes, europe, horizontal, long exposure, motion blur, nite, piazza, pirano, slovenia, photograph


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Nite Boats Cityscape (3)
(Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada)
black and white, boats, canada, cityscapes, horizontal, long exposure, nite, reflections, vancouver, water, photograph
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Canon House and Cityscape (1)
(Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada)
canada, canon, cityscapes, horizontal, houses, long exposure, nite, vancouver, water, photograph


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Canal Nite (3)
(Venice, Veneto, Italy)
boats, canals, europe, italy, nite, slow exposure, venecia, venezia, venice, vertical, photograph

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Light Trails Experiments
bus, tech, prague, horizontal, bus, tech, prague, photograph
For example, consider the pair of images of the stopped bus. Both were exposed the same amount of time: 30 seconds. However, the headlights for the bus on right-hand image appear to "beam" forward. This is because the bus was stationary for the first 25 seconds before it began to move in the last five seconds. The brightness of the headlights were captured, but the bus' movement isn't captured because it doesn't emit enough light itself (other than its headlights) to affect the longer-term imprint that already took place. A shorter exposure might not have provided enough time to imprint the stationary bus, and would have also allowed the brief time it was moving to have a more pronounced imprint. To successfully capture this effect, experimentation is critical. (It took about an hour to experiment with this—mostly involving having to wait for another bus to come by.)

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Coit Tower Fireworks (7)
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, coit, fireworks, horizontal, long exposure, nite, san francisco, towers, west coast, western usa, photograph
A favorite subject among amateurs is fireworks. While beautiful, they can be highly unpredictable, so again, prepare to shoot many frames with more bad pictures than good ones. The main problem is figuring out what exposure to use. If it's too long, the fireworks themselves overexpose, and if it's too short, all you get is fireworks, and no background (context). The only solution to this is shoot for the background—that is, expose as if it's a nite shot—and try to time your shutter releases so that the fireworks are either at the beginning, or the very end of the exposure. You'll have to shoot at least one picture of the scene without any fireworks, just to
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20 seconds, 17mm, f2.8
(Whitefish, Montana, USA)
america, fireworks, montana, north america, united states, vertical, western united states, western usa, whitefish, photograph
gauge what your base-line "nite" exposure is. Once you have that, you can time the fireworks accordingly. (That is, attempt to have the fireworks either be at the first or last 5 seconds of (say) a 30-second shot, for example.) This way, the basic scene will come out right, and the amount of light from the burst won't be over-exposed. You want at least a second of it (and up to about five seconds) to get the "motion" of the sparks, or the photo probably won't come out pleasing. Again, experiment to taste.

Clearly, it's a lottery game to determine when the operator is going to let off the next one, and it's not even worth shooting when he lets them off back to back (unless you like the abstract/artsie look). Except for those situations, I'll shoot every moment of a one-hour fireworks display and be lucky if I come up with five good shots. And if there's a strong wind—forget it. Similarly, the smoke can become a visual eyesore if there isn't enough circulation to cycle it out during the performance.

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Wacker Drive
(Chicago, Illinois, USA)
america, buildings, chicago, cityscapes, fireworks, horizontal, illinois, nite, north america, slow exposure, streets, united states, wacker, photograph
I always try to compose fireworks to have some sort of foreground (the people watching them, nearby buildings or landscape). As you know, fireworks involve bursts, flashes, and streaks, which are all over the map for making good exposures. Getting an "even" look involves timing. And that is governed by your noticing how the fireworks are spaced apart from one another.

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1/6 sec @ f11
No filter
fog, tech, stationary, photograph
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30 second @ f4
10-stop ND filter
fog, tech, secs, flowing, photograph
The challenge for obtaining long exposures in the daytime is how to reduce the amount of bright daylight to allow for a longer exposure. Stopping down your aperture (as was done for the shorter exposures) won't be enough for these, because you need to block even more light. The solution is to use a neutral density (A.K.A., "ND") filter. These filters are tinted with a "neutral" color, serving no other purpose than to reduce the total amount of light into the camera. ND Filters come in many configurations, from one stop of light, up to thirteen stops, where each "stop" doubles the amount of time of your exposure because it blocks twice as much light as the previous stop. So, a picture that would normally taken at f16 @ 1/30 second can turn into a 30-second exposure with a 10-stop ND filter. People have been known to photograph the sun traveling across the sky all day using two 13-stop ND filters stacked on top of each other.

I usually carry with me a 5-stop and a 10-stop ND filter. And that's where the fun begins for things like waterfalls or fog, to name two examples. Fog is rarely motionless, so it is often a great subject for extended exposures because its movement often appears as "flowing cream" when low to the ground. (You tend not to get this effect if the fog is hovering; this type of photo is best shot when you're away from the fog.)


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Tam Fog (c)
(Marin County, California, USA)
california, fog, horizontal, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, rolling, san francisco bay area, tam, west coast, western usa, photograph
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Rolling Fog Ocean (2)
(Marin County, California, USA)
california, fog, horizontal, long exposure, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, ocean, rolling, san francisco bay area, west coast, western usa, photograph

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Normal Exposure
(Krka, Dalmatia, Croatia)
croatia, europe, girls, horizontal, krka, people, swim, swimming, waterfalls, photograph
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Long Exposure
(Krka, Dalmatia, Croatia)
croatia, europe, girls, horizontal, krka, people, slow exposure, swim, swimming, waterfalls, photograph
Flowing water has a similar effect as fog, and it's much easier to find. Whether a river, or crashing waves, any type of liquid movement is a good candidate for longer exposures.

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No Filter
1/125 @ f16
(San Francisco, California, USA)
buildings, california, cityscapes, fountains, san francisco, vertical, water, waterfalls, west coast, western usa, yerba buena, photograph
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10-stop ND Filter
8 Seconds @ f8
(San Francisco, California, USA)
buildings, california, cityscapes, fountains, long exposure, san francisco, vertical, water, waterfalls, west coast, western usa, yerba buena, photograph

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El Saltón
(Santiago, Cuba)
caribbean, cuba, east cuba, island nation, islands, latin america, salton, santiago, vertical, photograph
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Sun on Waterfalls
(Alto Adige, Italy)
alto adige, dolomites, europe, italy, nature, vertical, waterfalls, photograph
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Flowing Stream in Forest
(Triglavski Narodni Park, Slovenia)
europe, flowing, forests, lush, slovenia, slow exposure, stream, trees, triglavski narodni park, vertical, photograph

4 Long Exposures

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Tower Bridge (16)
(London, England)
bridge, cities, england, english, europe, horizontal, london, nite, tower bridge, towers, united kingdom, photograph
Long exposures are great for capturing cityscapes, like star trails, moon-lit valleys and lightning. For this discussion, we'll only be dealing with pictures shot at night, and where exposure times can last from several minutes to many hours. (If you set your ISO rating high enough, you can also get good night pictures with only a few seconds of exposure. These may look nice in small format, but digital noise from most cameras will probably yield poor results if you blow them up to larger prints.) In all the cases discussed here, a tripod and cable release are required (because you won't be able to keep your finger on the shutter release without moving the camera). For this photo of the Tower Bridge in London, I also used a "mist filter."
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90 Minutes, 50mm, f11
(Bodie, California, USA)
antiques, artifacts, bodie, california, exteriors, gen, ghost town, horizontal, landmarks, nite, north america, old west, panoramic, state park, stores, united states, west coast, western usa, photograph
One of the first tricks people like to play with using night photography is using exposures so long that the scene actually looks like a daytime shot. The longer the exposure, the more "daylight" the picture will appear to have. This only works for rural landscapes where there is either no artificial light, or where the light can be turned off. Otherwise, expended times will cause those lights to overexpose. The rest of the scene is lit naturally by the moon, which fills the sky with sunlight. (Remember, the moon is just reflecting sunlight, albeit at a reduce rate.)


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900 north Michigan Ave Building
(Chicago, Illinois, USA)
america, buildings, chicago, cityscapes, illinois, nite, north america, north michigan ave bldg, slow exposure, united states, vertical, photograph
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Las Vegas Strip
(Las Vegas, Nevada, USA)
america, horizontal, landscapes, las vegas, nevada, north america, united states, western usa, photograph

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30 seconds @ f2.8
(Yosemite, California, USA)
california, falls, long exposure, nature, nite, sky, star trails, stars, trails, trees, vertical, water, waterfalls, west coast, western usa, yosemite, yosemite falls, photograph
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3 minutes, 25 seconds at @ f2.8
(Yosemite, California, USA)
california, falls, nature, nite, sky, square format, star trails, stars, trails, trees, water, waterfalls, west coast, western usa, yosemite, yosemite falls, photograph
Night exposures of waterfalls are especially stunning, as shown by these pictures of Yosemite Falls. Shorter exposure times not only capture the night imagery well, but you can shoot more pictures than if you had to wait around for the longer exposures.

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Shooting With Fill Flash
(Havana, Cuba)
caribbean, cars, cuba, drivers, havana, horizontal, island nation, islands, latin america, nite, south america, taxis, photograph
Whether shooting on a moving object, or from a moving object, using a flash is very effective for freezing a moment in time, while also capturing the motion. The flash imprints the foreground only (because flashes are often limited to about ten feet), so its important to compose the photo accordingly. So, do not expect the flash to capture far-away objects. As for the foreground, even if other light happened to
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Men Dancing (12)
(Dubrovnik, Croatia)
croatia, dance, dancing, dubrovnik, europe, folk dancing, men, vertical, photograph
be captured with the motion blur, chances are that the flash will be more prominent. The taxicab photo is a good example of this, but other common uses are shooting bands in concert, or people dancing. The flash will capture a still image, but the extended exposure (ranging from 1/8 of a second to several seconds) will add the necessary "movement" feeling to evoke a sense of what's going on.

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Barn Door Ajar
(Bodie, California, USA)
ajar, antiques, barn, bodie, california, doors, ghost town, horizontal, long exposure, nite, stars, state park, west coast, western usa, photograph
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Red gel covers a flash burst from inside a bunker
(California, USA)
bunker, california, glow, horizontal, marin, marin county, nite, north bay, northern california, san francisco bay area, west coast, western usa, photograph
You can use flashes during long exposures creatively, for example, by going inside a building and bursting the flash by hand. The trick is to direct the flash away from the camera, but toward a wall or object that faces it. (Again, remember the ten-foot rule—most flashes aren't strong enough to illuminate objects further away.) You typically burst several times from inside a structure to make it appear that its interior is lit. The example here uses a flash covered by a red "gel" (over-sized filter). These long exposures require some experimentation to get right, but the effect is pretty, not to mention unique.

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Thirties Buick (3)
(Bodie, California, USA)
antiques, bodie, buick, california, cars, ghost town, horizontal, long exposure, nite, stars, state park, thirties, west coast, western usa, photograph
Given enough time and creativity, you can really go hog wild. For this photo of the junker 1930's Buick, I placed a flashlight inside the car, and gave it a blue gel. After a little while, I turned it off, and placed it inside of each headlight of the car.

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Using a Spotlight
(Bodie, California, USA)
antiques, bodie, california, churches, ghost town, long exposure, methodist, nite, square format, stars, state park, west coast, western usa, photograph
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Using Colored Spotlights
(Bodie, California, USA)
antiques, bodie, california, ghost town, horizontal, houses, long exposure, nite, over, star trails, stars, state park, west coast, western usa, photograph
For larger spaces, or for use on building exteriors, consider buying one of those mammoth-sized spot-lights at large home-improvement stores. For the photo of a church in the Ghost Town of Bodie, California, I "painted" the exterior of the church with a naked (no gel) spotlight just as thought I had a real paintbrush. I "stroked" the building from top to bottom with the spotlight, making sure the whole thing was covered. It only took about 30 seconds to paint it, but the entire exposure was about 7½ minutes long. In the other photo, I painted each side of the house with the spotlight, but this time, I used a red gel for one side, and a blue gel for the front. the exposure time was well over an hour and a half, but it only took two minutes to paint it with light.

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10 minute exposure, Red Gel Flash Burst
(Tucson, Arizona, USA)
america, arizona, cactus, desert southwest, north america, saguaro, sunsets, tucson, united states, vertical, western usa, photograph
If you don't have a flashlight—or, at least, not a strong one—consider the tail lights of your car. This is how I light the cactus in Tucson Arizona.

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Dan Light Painting (5)
(Lee Vining, California, USA)
dans, horizontal, lights, long exposure, nite, paintings, personal, self-portrait, photograph
If you really get bored at 3am, try self-portraits! For this single picture (lasting 54 seconds), I started by "writing" my name with a small pen flashlight on the wall. Then I sat on the bench and had a friend burst a normal camera flash my way. I did this four times in total, as I moved from one side of the frame to the other. Again, this sort of thing requires extensive experimentation, because it's hard to know where to "be" so that you don't overlap yourself on top of yourself. (It's a neat idea to try, but I found it doesn't really work.)

On the technical side, these techniques are no different than any other form of extended exposure photography. The creative aspect is finding interesting subjects and figuring out how (or whether) to light them.

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Lightning on SF Bay
(California, USA)
california, lightning, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, san francisco bay area, scenics, square format, west coast, western usa, photograph
Speaking of bursting light onto a subject, there's nothing like using nature herself to do the heavy lifting and adding the creative spin. Obviously, lightning's dramatic effect is worthwhile, but don't just set up your tripod in the direction of a lightning storm and hope to get good shots. Compose as though you were photographing any landscape, whether a cityscape or a natural backdrop. I just set the camera up (where it wasn't raining), pressed the button on the cable release, and waited anywhere from 5-10 minutes, depending on whether (or how much) lighting would strike. Metering for exposure times is similar to that of fireworks. The frequency of the lightning will affect the overall exposure, and there are no guidelines (other than experimentation) for how much exposure time you should allow.


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Sunset, Rainbow and Lightning
(Monument Valley, Arizona, USA)
america, arizona, desert southwest, horizontal, monument, monument valley, north america, united states, valley, western usa, photograph
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San Francisco Lightning
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, horizontal, lightning, nite, san francisco, west coast, western usa, photograph


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Nice Lightning
(Nice, France)
europe, france, horizontal, lightning, nice, nite, photograph
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Nice Lightning (2)
(Nice, France)
europe, france, horizontal, lightning, mediterranean sea, nice, nite, storm, photograph

5 Using Film

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3.5 hour Exposure
Mt. Kilimanjaro
(Kilimanjaro, Tanzania)
africa, kilimanjaro, mountains, nite, star trails, stars, tanzania, vertical, photograph
There is still a large community of people who use film for long exposures, and for one good reason: the batteries in digital cameras don't last during very long exposures (like star trails). So, many photographers use film because those cameras use very little (if any) power. There is one issue, however, that almost all film suffers from: reciprocity failure.

Chemicals in the film react to light proportional to the amount of light exposed to it. That is, they "reciprocate" the light. Reciprocity Failure simply refers to when the film fails to produce an image that represents the light that was projected onto it. Simply put, the longer the exposure, the more you have extend the time your camera meter says to get the correct image on the film. This is easiest to see in black and white film: if you meter a scene that shows a proper exposure of 1 second at f8, then doing the math, you should be able to double the time and the apertures to yield exactly the same picture: 2 seconds at f16, 4 second at f/32, and 8 seconds at f64. All of these should produce precisely the same image. However, for some films, "reciprocity failure" begins to emerge gradually as those exposure times increase, which may require (for example) extending the time exposure, even though the meter doesn't say it should. For example, doubling of time to 16 seconds at f64 to get the same result you should have gotten using 8 seconds.

What's going on is that the chemicals in film don't react to light consistently across time. This doesn't happen during short shutter speeds—those used during typical daytime photography, which explains why most people don't see this. Even at longer shutter speeds, the degree of failure tends to be minimal and people overlook it. (It's also easy to fix in the printing process, so it's rarely a concern.) However, as the during of time expands to longer and longer exposures, the film begins to fail more dramatically, so you need to add more time than you think you should, just to get the picture you want.

For black and white film, it's simply a matter of extending the duration of time. However, color film is more complicated because it has more than just one chemical: it has at red, green and blue to deal with as well. (In fact, most films have more, but you get the idea.) Here, the reciprocity failure affects all of these chemicals, and, making things worse, they all react to light differently than one another. As it turns out, reds and blues failure much more quickly than green, causing long exposures tend to look very green. The longer the exposure, the more out of sync these colors appear to be.

Different films use different chemicals for colors, and some films add more "stabilizing" chemicals than others to reduce this effect somewhat. So, while every film "can" suffer from some degree of reciprocity failure, not all are equal, so there is no uniform way to solve the problem across the board. Those who shoot Fuji Velvia 50, for example, has a much more dramatic problem with "green shift" than Provia 100F does.

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Bodie Stars
(Bodie, California, USA)
antiques, artifacts, bodie, california, exteriors, ghost town, landmarks, nite, north america, old west, square format, star trails, stars, state park, trails, united states, west coast, western usa, photograph
Because film's reciprocity to light fails gradually over time, and because different film types (and even similar films from different manufacturers) also vary, it's impossible to predict the final result from any given picture. You can use colored filters to "help" correct the problem, but the inconsistency of the films and the filters mean that you're never going get precisely a color-balanced shot like the pictures you see here. Whenever you correct for one color, you throw off another. The goal, therefore, is to find the filter that approximates your picture as closely as possible—finding that middle ground—at which point, you have to correct images digitally, where you can individually manipulate each of the red, green and blue hues in the overall picture.

One might think that, if you're going to fix it in Photoshop anyway, why bother with filters? The reason is that fixing colors digitally is just as imprecise as using colored filters: you change one color, you affect the others too. You get much better results and the process is easier if you start with colors that are as close to "correct" as you can get, and then go from there. Which leads us to a discussion of filters.

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Montgomery & Green St.
(San Francisco, California, USA)
california, green, montgomery, nite, san francisco, vertical, west coast, western usa, photograph
The FL-D filter is normally used to correct for the green hue from fluorescent lights. However, I use it to correct for mild reciprocity failure in some moderately long exposures using slide film. For longer exposures, FL-Ds are often not enough to correct the green as necessary, so I move to a 30cc Magenta filter, as shown in the Night photo of Montgomery and Green Streets in San Francisco. The fluorescent lights in the buildings are white, but the purple-ish hue affects the otherwise correctly lit areas of the scene. Using Photoshop, one can correct for this, but this raw image gives a better sense of you'd get without any correction.

Choosing the best filter can be done, but it could be an effort of futility to get perfect. Each film type has its own table for reciprocity failure, which you can find this in the box that the film came in, or you can look up on the web. Ironically, print film (negative) tends to suffer less than slide film, and the blueness of Tungsten film also doesn't have this problem that I've seen.

To see more pictures using long exposures, go here.

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