Long exposure techniques are a fantastic way to inject interest into your photography. By nature, these techniques present your images in a way that is different to how the world is perceived by the human eye. Blurring moving elements within your frame (whether that be water, people or clouds) can also be a tool to help you isolate and focus on the elements of a scene that you want your viewers to focus on. This makes long exposures a valuable asset for composition and design. While most long exposures last for a matter of a few seconds, there are tools available that will allow you to do extreme long exposure photography – even in the middle of the day.
This tutorial will show you how to use a 16-stop neutral density filter to do extreme long exposure photography. It will take you step-by-step through the equipment you need, the steps you need to take to get started, and the considerations you need to make to overcome some technical issues. There is also a list of tips at the end to help you get the most out of your 16-stop ND filter.
Why 16 stops?
Long exposures, even with strong 10-stop neutral density filters, are usually limited to low light situations. For the most part, this is fine as that means you will be out at golden hour or blue hour when the light is at its very best for most types of photography.
What a 16-stop ND filter allows you to do is to extreme long exposure photography in the middle of the day when the light levels are at their highest. For example, a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second (sunny 16 rule) turns into an 8-minute and 44-second exposure when you put 16-stops of neutral density filter on the lens. This kind of exposure time turns the water and clouds into an almost ethereal, milky texture that works well visually. By blurring these elements, you are also potentially reducing visual clutter and contrast in your scenes, making them more visually appealing.
What you need
- A camera with a Bulb setting.
- A sturdy tripod that will hold still for several minutes or more.
- A release that will allow you to trigger the camera without touching it.
- An exposure calculator.
- A 16-stop ND filter. (This tutorial will work the same with any strength of ND filter.)
How to do it
Once you’re out on location, setting up for a long exposure is pretty easy. In fact, these steps remain the same whether you are using a three-stop filter or a 16-stop filter.
Step 1: Set up your camera and line up your composition.
Make sure to attach all of your releases or filter holders at this point as well. Anything you can use to reduce the chance of camera movement between now and the time your exposure finishes will help to ensure there is no camera movement affecting your images. Take your time with this step and if you need to, take as many test shots as possible. Once you put the filter on, you will be stuck in place for several minutes.
Be sure of your composition before you get to that point.
Step 2: Meter and calculate exposure
If you’ve taken test shots, you already know what your exposure is (without the filter). If not, read the camera’s meter. Take the exposure it has given you and input it into the exposure calculator of your choice to calculate the exposure required for 16-stops of ND filter. This will give you your required exposure for your final image.
There are a lot of exposure calculators available on iOS and Android. They all provide the same end result, so pick whichever one you would like
Step 3: Set focus
Set the focus where you want in the frame and then place the camera in Manual Focus mode. Autofocus will not work at all with a 16-stop filter. It is way too dense. Putting your camera into manual focus will make sure that the camera does not attempt to focus when it can’t, thereby rendering your photos out of focus.
Step 4: Switch to Bulb
Put your camera into Bulb mode to allow it to keep the shutter open for as long as your exposure requires.
Step 5: Attach the filter
With everything in place, you can now attach your filter. If you’re using a rectangular slot-in variety, attach the holder to the ring you’ve already placed on your lens. If you’re using a screw-in variety (shown), be very careful not to jostle your set-up because, if you do, you will have to start the process again.
Step 6 – Input shutter speed
With the filter set up, you just need to input your shutter speed into whatever trigger you are using. In these examples, I am using a Pulse trigger which allows me to control it from my phone. There are a lot of available options at a variety of price points. Be sure to choose one that doesn’t require you to hold down a button for ten minutes though.
Step 7 – Release the shutter
With that done, the only thing left for you to do is to start your exposure and wait.
Easy as that
This process may seem like a lot of steps, but it is quite easy. As long as you take care not to move the camera throughout the process, you will be fine. You will be able to set it up in a minute or so once you have practiced a bit. The key here is to know your equipment and to practice the movements so you can perform them as second nature.
Now that you know how to create long exposures with your 16-stop ND filter, there are a few technical considerations you should bear in mind.
Unfortunately, long exposures with digital cameras mean noise. The longer the exposure, the more noise appears in your images. If you use a higher ISO to achieve shorter exposures, that will also increase the noise levels in your images.
To alleviate this as much as possible, try to avoid really, really long exposures if they are not necessary. If your camera has a Long Exposure Noise Reduction (or similar) feature, turn it on (remember that this will double your exposure time). It will also help if you to familiarize yourself with noise reduction software, either inside Photoshop or Lightroom, or other third-party program.