Photography 101: A Beginner’s Guide – Lesson 6

Long exposures are used quite often at night. Just as the name sounds, a long exposure is when you set the shutter speed to a really slow setting. This keeps the shutter open longer so that you can continually soak up light. Think of it like an oven; the longer you let an item stay in the oven, it will continue to soak up more and more heat. In the same way, light has an additive effect on the camera’s sensor chip.

This can work to the photographer’s advantage. If it’s very dark and you have a tripod, you can take photos at night. This is an advanced technique and can be subject to trial and error, so lets take it one step at a time and see how you do. You will have several homework assignments in this lesson. Each one will build on the other.

Homework Assignment One – Simple Night Shot

For this photo you will want to wait until it’s dark.

  1. Pick a subject or scene to photograph. Any subject or scene will do, as long as it is dark or dimly lit. Stationary objects work great for this, such as vehicles or buildings.
  2. Set your camera up on a tripod or rest it on something so that you can press the shutter button and let go without the camera moving.
  3. Set your desired f-stop and set the shutter speed so that your meter is showing proper exposure.
  4. You may need to change your ISO to a higher one if your camera’s meter indicates you will need a shutter speed of over 30 seconds to get a proper exposure. This is the highest many camera will go without using a remote to manually keep the shutter open.
  5. Make sure it is auto focusing when you press the shutter button half way. If it is too dark for the camera to focus on something, you can turn auto focus off and use the focus ring. If you don’t know how to do this, check your manual to see if your camera supports this capability. If your camera does not have a manual focus setting, you can shine a flash light on your subject or something in the scene so your camera will focus.
  6. Once all the settings are set, press the shutter button and let go. Depending on how much available light is in the area, your camera’s shutter may remain open for up to 30 seconds.
  7. Once your camera has taken the shot, review the photo and it should be nicely exposed even though to you it is dark outside.
This photo was taken at around 9:00PM. It was shot with f/11, a 30 second shutter speed and and ISO of 400. To my eyes this shot was DARK, but do to the additive effect of a long exposure I was able to get a good shot. Some side effects of the long exposure are; the trees look soft because their movement in the wind caused them to blur; the lights in the background have a much brighter effect than they looked to my eye.
This photo was taken at around 9:00 PM.
It was shot with f/11.
A 30 second shutter speed was used.
An ISO of 400 was used.
To my eyes this shot was DARK, but due to the additive effect of a long exposure, I was able to get a good shot. As a  side effect of the long exposure, the trees look soft since their movement in the wind caused them to blur. Also the lights in the background appear brighter than usual.
You can create a ghosting effect by moving into the frame and then walking out half way through. This was a 30 second shot, so I sat in the chair for 15 seconds and then walked out of frame.
ISO – 400
f/13
30 seconds
You can create a ghosting effect by moving into the frame and then walking out half way through the exposure. This was a 30 second shot; I sat in the chair for 15 seconds then walked out of frame.

Homework Assignment Two – Background Burn-In

We will use the flash for this assignment.  In a previous lesson, I mentioned that using the flash causes backgrounds to be to dark.  There is a way to work around this issue. By using a flash, you can illuminate your subject and foreground during a long exposure.

ISO - 200 f/7 25 seconds This photo exposes the night sky behind the fence but my foreground is mostly black.
ISO – 200
f/7
25 seconds
This photo exposes the night sky behind the fence but my foreground is mostly black.
ISO - 200 f/7 25 seconds For this photo I kept the same settings as the previous one, except I used the flash. By popping off the flash I was able to quickly expose the chair and backyard while still "burning in" the background elements. You can use this method for people if your shutter speed is not to slow and your subject can stand very still.
ISO – 200
f/7
25 seconds
For this photo, I kept the same settings as the previous one except I used the flash.
With the flash I was able to quickly expose the chair and backyard while still “burning in” the background elements. You can use this method for people if your shutter speed is not too slow and your subject can stand very still.

Homework Assignment Three – Painting With Light

Painting with light is exactly what it sounds like. You can use a light such as a flash light to paint light onto your environment or subject. Just as in the first homework assignment,  set your shutter speed to a very slow setting. Once you push the shutter button, you can use a flashlight as a paint brush to paint light onto your subject.

Sometimes your flash is not powerful enough to illuminate the entire foreground. So by turning the flash of,f and using a flashlight in a sweeping motion across the scene you can expose the foreground.
ISO – 400
f/13
30 seconds
Sometimes your flash is not powerful enough to illuminate the entire foreground. By turning the flash off and using a flashlight in a sweeping motion across the scene, you can expose the foreground. It is possible to use different colored filters on a flashlight and literally paint with light.
ISO - 200 f/7 25 seconds Using a small flashlight will allow to to paint shapes in the air.
ISO – 200
f/7
25 seconds
Using a small flashlight will allow you to paint shapes in the air or write words. As a note, you have to write backwards (a flipped image), so practice before you take the shot.

Homework Assignment Four – Misty Water

Have you ever glimpsed a photo where running water looks misty or a waterfall resembles steam flowing over rocks? You can take photos just like those now! All you need is running water and a long exposure. Creeks are a great place to get this type of photo because they are typically covered by a thick canopy of leaves that block and soften the light. This allows you to use slower shutter speeds in the day time without overexposing your image. For this assignment all you need it a hose or a spigot.

  1. Adjust your f/stop to where you want it. I would choose a high one if you take this shot in the middle of the day.
  2. Turn on the water. If you are using a hose it is helpful to have someone hold the hose or (better yet) have your helper hold his/her thumb over the end to get a nice spray of water.
  3. Set you shutter speed to something lower than 1/15th of a second. For some cameras that may simply read 15, not to be confused with a 15 second shot which would look like 15″.
  4. Take the shot and review it. If the water is not blurred or misty enough for you, increase your f/stop and decrease the shutter speed before the next shot.
ISO - 400 f/8 1/500 of a second Using a fast shutter speed you can see that the water is frozen in time.
ISO – 400
f/8
1/500 of a second
Using a fast shutter speed, you can see that the water is frozen in time.
ISO - 100 f/22 1/10th of a second By using a longer shutter speed the scene stays clear but the water looks like it is flowing. It becomes more misty the longer you can keep the shutter open.
ISO – 100
f/22
1/10th of a second
By using a longer shutter speed, the scene stays clear, but the water looks like it is flowing. It appears more misty the longer you can keep the shutter open.

Conclusion

As you can see, when the sun goes down, you can still take photos. If you don’t want to mess with the f/stop for these assignments remember you can always set your camera to shutter speed priority mode which was discussed in previous lessons and then all you have to adjust is the shutter speed.

Next Lesson

In the next lesson, I will discuss how to get those breathtaking sunset shots and silhouettes. As always, feel free to use the contact us page or leave your questions in the comment section below if you have any questions about these lessons.

Take great photos and happy trails!

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