Long exposure photography is one of my favorite types of photography. It is one of the least cliched categories, it often shows us something our eyes can not see, and it is absolutely beautiful. The reason that you see less long exposure photos than any other type of photos, is because it takes a certain level of "know how" to achieve these images. You can't just go outside and take this type of photo with your iPhone camera. That being said, I put (Super Easy) in the title because long exposures can be very complicated and difficult. In this instructable, I will explain how to achieve 5 different types of photos, ranging from super easy, to slightly less easy.
The 5 types of photos I will be teaching are:
1. Steel Wool Photography
2. Star/Milky Way Photography
3. Lightning Photography
4. Star Trails Photography
5. Light Painting Photography
(Sorry these are not in order.)
For three out of four tutorials the only necessary equipment is a camera, computer, and tripod. For the steel wool tutorial we will need a few more things, which I will discuss in the next step.
Each step is fairly long, not because it is difficult, but because I really wanted to explain it well.
Every picture I took for this instructable was taken on a Nikon D3200 with the kit 18-55mm lens, so you really don't need super expensive professional gear to get this quality of image!
Step 1: Gear.
To start off, I am going to let you know that for these types of photos, your phone camera will not cut it. This is the reason why these photos are so unique, not everyone can take them.
I will go into each piece of gear and why you need it fairly in depth so if you don't want to read all of this here is the list: A camera with manual mode, a tripod, a computer.
1. A Camera: You need to own a camera with a manual setting. A DSLR/Mirrorless Camera works the best, but there are other cameras with manual settings. This setting allows you to change the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO of your camera. If you aren't sure what any of these are a quick google session should give you a basic understanding of what each of these are. If you aren't sure if your camera has a manual mode, look for the little dial that should be somewhere on your camera. It will have settings for things like flowers, mountains, sunsets, moving people, portraits, etc.. If you have a manual mode, there will be a little M on that dial. I included a picture of what I'm talking about. Hopefully that made sense.
2. A Tripod: The way long exposure photography works is, the shutter of the camera stays open for an extended period of time, letting light in during this time. Without a tripod, our images will be completely blurry, and will be pretty much useless. We need our camera perfectly still for all of these. I'll go into this a little more in the next step.
3. A Computer: Not technically necessary, but you will probably want one to export your images and do a little editing.
4. I changed my mind, I'll tell you the supplies for steel wool photography in the tutorial for it.
Step 2: What Is Long Exposure Photography?
I know you just want to get into the picture taking so I'll keep this brief...
To be able to take these images you need to understand what is going on. When you take a normal photo is daylight, you will here the camera click when you take the picture. If you listen closely, it is actually 2 clicks. One click is the shutter opening, the second is the shutter closing. the way long exposure works is the shutter will open, and then remain open for several seconds/minutes. A normal photo might have a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second, while a long exposure might a have a shutter speed of 8 seconds. When our eyes see light, we can only see where the light currently is. A camera can see where the light has been, which allows us to make cool light painting and trails.
Step 3: Light Painting Photography.
Finally into the tutorials!
This one is sort of a bonus because it is super easy, it doesn't really have strict setting, and I did not include this picture in the title page, because it is the least cool.
If this one seems less in-depth than the others its because I wrote it last.
The way this one works is you hold the shutter open and draw a design with a flashlight or something similar, and then the camera captures the design you drew. The second image is not mine, but it demonstrates light painting a little better than mine.
To start set your camera up on a tripod and use these settings.
Shutter speed: 8-30 Seconds
Once you have set the camera settings, press the shutter button, and then draw your design! Keep in mind that the image you draw will be mirrored on the camera, so if you are writing something, either draw the text mirror image style, or use an editing program to mirror the image later.
Thats pretty much it! Just change up the shutter speed to accommodate how long your design will take.
The photo I included is just the headlights from several cars driving over hill. I took this one from the backseat of the car going the opposite direction, and it turned out looking awesome.
Step 4: Steel Wool Photography
This is basically another form of light painting but it is way cooler.
I actually made a really in-depth instructable on this type of photo. Its pretty awesome, and if you read it you will have a much better understanding of this style of photography.
Okay so the way this one works is you take some steel wool, light it on fire, and spin it around. When you do this the result is the super awesome effect you see in the photo above. This photo is not photoshopped at all, it is just the way the photos turn out.
What you need: Steel Wool (grade 0, 00, 000, or 0000), a lighter, a cooking whisk, and some rope/string. A friend will also be useful.
Okay, so for this one, find a location where you won't catch anything on fire it should also be dark outside.. (I have a story about this in my full length tutorial..) Next what you are going to do is take your steel wool and stuff it inside of the whisk. Then you tie a some rope or paracord around the end of the whisk handle. About 2-4 feet of rope should work fine. Now onto the photography part. Set your camera mode to manual and set these settings
Shutter Speed: 8-15 seconds
Aperture: f7 (the aperture isn't super important on this one.)
The focal length I used was 20mm but that doesn't really matter.
Give these settings a try, and then play around with them a little to find what works for you. Just remember, higher ISO or shutter speed will make the photo brighter and visa versa.
You will need to focus the camera, so use auto focus to focus on the area where you will be doing the steel wool at, and then turn auto focus off, so it doesn't ever try to refocus.
Once you have the camera set up and on a tripod, Light the steel wool on fire, and start spinning it around. Sparks should start to fly all over the place. Remember not to catch anything on fire. Once the sparks start to fly press the shutter on your camera. Thats it. Pretty simple.
Tip: If you can set the shutter speed to "bulb mode" you can hold the shutter open as long as you want. If you have a friend spinning the steel wool, you can press the shutter button when the sparks start flying, and then let go of the shutter when they stop spinning. Good luck!
Check out more of these photos in my other tutorial!
Step 5: Lightning Photography
Lightning, is often associated with speed. "He was fast as lighting" , "The cat disappeared quick as a flash of lighting". You get the point. Because of how fast lighting appears, and then disappears, it is often very difficult to capture photos of the lighting. One great way to capture the lighting is with long exposure photography. I should mention this method will really work best at night without another light source in the frame of the photo. If you want to take pictures of lighting over city I will give a brief description of how to achieve that at the end of this tutorial.
The first thing you need to know about this type of photo is how to focus your camera. We will be pressing the shutter before you ever see the lighting so the camera has to be focused ahead of time. The way focusing works is you set the lens to the distance the object is away from the camera lens (or auto focus does it for you). For example, if you are taking picture of an apple and the apple is 2 feet away from the lens, you would set the focus ring to 2ft. After a certain point all distances focus the same whether the object is 800 feet away or 800 lightyears away. This is called focusing to infinity. You can either set the lens of your camera to infinity if your lens of capable, or you can auto focus on a very distance object, and then turning auto focus off.
This is pretty much the bulk of the tutorial. Next wait for a lighting storm at night and set your camera to these settings:
Shutter Speed: 8 seconds
Then set your camera up on a tripod and press the shutter button. The way this works is, if you are in total darkness, and at some point in the 8 seconds the shutter is open lightning strike, it will show up in the photo. Because the camera was recording very little light when you started the photo, the lighting is very bright, and will show up well in the photo. Just keep doing this until one of the bolts of lighting shows up in your photos. In the picture above, I was outside taking pictures in the rain for about 20 minutes and only got one really good photo. This technique is super easy but requires some patients.
Tip: Remember the bulb mode I talked about in the last tutorial? If you set your camera to bulb and just hold down the shutter until you see lightning, that is another good way to do it. Don't hold the lens open for too long though, or the photo will be washed out. Try holding it in 4-7 second increments. As soon as you see lightning, you can let go of the shutter.
If you want to take these photos in the day, or over city lights just set your camera to burst mode. Take a ton of pictures and hope lighting shows up. This obviously isn't long exposure though so thats why I am briefly mentioning this method.
Step 6: Star Photography
If you have ever gone camping and the sky was very dark, you probably could see millions of stars that you had never seen inside the city. Perhaps you were inspired to take out your phone or camera, and try to snap a picture. You probably just ended up with a black screen, maybe one or two especially bright stars showed up.
In order to capture the magnificent light show that is our stars, you have to use a long exposure. This one is somewhat tricky because you have to find a dark sky with lots of stars visible. Thanks to humans and electricity this can be easier said than done. To get the best results we want to let in AS MUCH light as possible. This is the only tutorial where the type of lens you use is somewhat important, if you have a kit 18-55mm lens it will work fine. I'll go into this in a second.
To start, focus your camera to infinity. If you skipped straight to this part, go back and read how to do this in the other two tutorials. Next you will want these settings:
Exposure time: 8-30 seconds
Focal length: As wide as possible. I was using the 18-55mm lens, so I set mine to 18. If you can go wider, do.
Aperture: As wide/low as possible. If you can set the aperture to f2.8 set it to that. The widest I could set mine was f3.5
ISO: This depends on how long you can keep the shutter open, and how low/wide you can set the aperture. Start at ISO 1600 and work your way up to 6400
The reason this one is harder than the others is because it needs a lot of messing around with the settings, remember, the longer the exposure time, wider the aperture, or higher the ISO, the brighter the stars will be. I had to leave the camera settings fairly vague on this one because it really depends on the camera set up.
Note/Quick Astronomy lesson. The stars move. Our planet is spinning, we don't really notice it with our eyes but our cameras can. If we leave the shutter open for too long, the stars begin to streak because they are moving. (This is the point of the next tutorial)
There is a rule that tells you exactly how long you can leave your shutter open for, it is called the 500 rule. It is somewhat complicated so I will leave a link to a fantastic article the explains it.
This article is super awesome.
Step 7: Star Trails
You may have seen a photo similar to this in the past and wondered "How the heck do you do this?" Well I'm going to show you.
Now I will admit, this technique is more time consuming than difficult, which is why I have only really attempted it once.
Pretty much you are going to do everything the same as in the last tutorial, except for the shutter speed. Find a dark sky with stars, set everything the same.
If you read my quick astronomy lesson in the last tutorial you will know that the stars are moving in the sky. This method of photography captures that movement. Now, these stars are moving across the sky fairly slow which means we would have to hold the shutter open for a crazy long time, which would most likely result in a totally blown out image and somewhat short star trails. Fortunately there is a sort of cheat around this. This is the only method that some might consider "Photoshopped" (you don't need photoshop though)
Basically what we are going to do, is take a whole bunch of picture with very small star trails, and then stack them on top of one another to create longer star trails. In order to do this you need to download a free program called StarStax, available for PC and Mac.
To get the perfect spirals you see in my photo you have to locate the north star and point your camera at it. The north star doesn't move in the sky because all the other stars seem to revolve around it. If you don't point the camera at the north star, the star trails will appear more like meteors than circle trails.
How do I find the north star? First locate the big dipper. It looks like a big ol' dipper. You know what never mind, I'll just include picture that explains it pretty well.
What is that long straight streak in the picture? An airplane. I could have removed it from the photo, by simply removing the photos that contained the airplane, but I kind of like it, so I left it.
Back to how to do this. Like I said, you could keep the shutter open for like 2 hours to achieve this, but that is pretty difficult. Here is how I did it: Set the camera to the settings from the previous step, then take about 70 photos that are all exposed to 45-90seconds. It is important to keep the exposure time consistent through out all your photos. You don't really need 70, thats just how many I took. 45 Should do the trick.
Now, most cameras have a max shutter speed of 30 seconds, unless you use the bulb mode, which I did. Basically what I did was press the shutter button once to open the shutter set my phone timer to a minute and a half, and then press the button again to close the shutter when the timer went off. Repeat 45-70 times. Tedious yes, difficult no. There is a device that can do this called an "intervalometer" I just don't have one. They cost like 25-50 dollars. If you are serious about taking star trails, just get one.
Once you have all these photos, open starstax set the blending mode to "Lighten" load all your pictures into the program using the button on the far top left of the window. Wait for all your photos to load in, then press the button that says "start processing" It is the fourth one over. Then you are done! Just press save and enjoy your work.
Yes this one is kind of difficult, but the results are really awesome.
Step 8: The End!
Thats it! If you read all of this, thank you! I know it was pretty long, but hopefully I taught you something about photography. One thing I never mentioned is that you might want to use a photo editing software to get the photos just how you want them. I use Adobe Lightroom 5 which cost around 90 dollars, but you can use any number of free softwares as well.
If you take any of these types of pictures, or have in the past, please share your image in the comments!
Feel free to check out some of my other photography on Flickr
I also post some photography on my twitter and instagram. Both @MattBothell
If you want to learn a little more about this, I did a really comprehensive instructable on Steel Wool Photography
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