Stories take time. They have a beginning a middle and an end. They evolve.
A picture is a snap shot of a split second in time. It tells part of a story and can infer more. Pictures of castles can tell of hundreds of years of history with a little knowledge and a lot of imagination. Collections of pictures will lead you through a story, but moving from one to the next disconnects you. Moving pictures will draw you in telling the story while holding your attention, but move you along at their pace, not yours.
But what if you want to capture more of the story in a single image? An image to take your own time with, to contemplate. An image with fresh insights that doesn’t require prior knowledge. An image that uses all four dimensions of time and space.
We can do this with Long Exposure Photography and it can be extremely evocative, showing patterns not visible to the naked eye, or capturing unexpected emotions.
You don’t need much extra equipment for this technique other than a way of keeping your camera still for long periods and a neutral density filter to allow the longer exposure. The most effective way of doing this is with a tripod but any flat solid surface will do. In low light conditions you won’t even need the filter.
Here are a few creative ideas for using longer exposures.
If you take an exposure of several seconds, anything moving through the image space will be photographed as a blur. This is a great way of capturing ghostly people and can evoke a number of emotions, a sense of loss, loneliness or isolation, for instance. From busy crowds to single people, there are myriad possibilities. Try a bustling street where one person stays still, the patterns created by throngs of people shot from a high vantage point, or as here, a derelict building with a single ghost moving through where once many may have learned, played or worked.
To get this effect, set your camera with an exposure of about 2 seconds using shutter priority. A low ISO will help you get a longer shutter speed or you may have to use a Neutral Density filter if the image would be overexposed.
You could walk through the frame yourself if you set the timer or get a friend to help.
Take a look at the result. If you see no ghostly image, the person may have moved through the space too fast, so walk through at a slower pace. Take several shots using slightly faster shutter speeds each time until you get the effect you like.
A popular theme for evening city photography is light trails from passing vehicles. These are great for showing the pattern of our busy lives in way which is unique to long exposure photography. A bridge over a busy road is a great place to start. To capture complete trails, start by setting the length of your exposure to the time it takes a vehicle to pass through the field of view. Use shutter priority to set the duration and the camera will set the the rest to get a good exposure. If the road you have chosen is very busy, you may have to use a faster shutter speed. Check your images. If the exposure is too bright or dark, you can dial in some exposure compensation. If the there are not enough trails, increase the length of time for the exposure, if the trails are overpowering the image, set a shorter exposure time.
Other kinds of light trails can include sparklers to create images in the air or torches as used in this fun Dr Who story mock up.
Here, a light lit the whole scene for a fraction of a second before being switched off then a a pen torch was used to create the light trail all in one exposure.
Long exposure can be used to add an ethereal quality to water in motion, from the waves of the sea to the rush of a waterfall, to the ripples of a lake. In the image at the top of this article, the wind rippled surface is stilled to give an impression of a surface reflection which wasn’t visible to my eyes. The length of that exposure was 15 seconds and required the use of a sturdy tripod.
For the fast moving waterfall below, I used a much shorter exposure.
The water shows as streamers of movement but not completely milky, an effect you can get with longer exposures.
Over to You.
To add some mystery, romance or ethereal qualities to your images all you need to do is add the extra dimension of time.
Take a tripod and filter with you if you can, but you can still get some great shots by choosing low light conditions and finding a vantage point with a suitable flat surface.
Just get out there and get shooting.