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Creating long exposure photographs is an art form not all photographers explore and master. We can hardly blame them; it requires lots of time, effort, patience, and lots of trial and error. Yet, long exposures leave a lot of room for creativity, opening doors to a variety of photography genres — not to mention, a whole galaxy of possibilities — that only a few get the privilege of exploring. And the rewards you yield in return are more than worth it.
Armed with the trusty Nikon D850 and the Tamron 17-35mm F/2.8-4 Di OSD ultra wide angle zoom lens — which is not only lightweight and super compact to carry around in the field, but also boasts a wide aperture that’s favorable for low light photography — we delved into the world of long exposures. Our version of the lens was made for Nikon F-mount DSLRs, but there’s also a version for Canon EF-mount DSLRs. (Full review coming soon!)
Let’s explore five different, very creative, super fun ways to capture long exposures photos, and how to get the coolest results.
Astrophotography is a joy. Not only because taking long exposure photographs of the night sky is an extremely rewarding journey, but also because it makes you appreciate the fact there’s an entire universe out there that we haven’t explored.
Capturing star trails requires really (really) long exposures—we’re talking anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours, even overnight. This takes a bit of trial and error, but the key here is to find yourself a dark sky location and set up before it gets dark as it’s difficult to frame your shot and fine-tune your focus when you can barely see your hand in front of you.
A lightweight zoom lens with a wide aperture comes in handy, which is why we chose the Tamron 17-35mm F/2.8-4. It’s light enough to carry when you have to hike to a good spot, and it boasts a maximum aperture of F/2.8 at its widest focal length. It also offers different focal lengths so you can experiment—remember, the larger the focal length, the longer your trails will be.
Adjust your settings depending on how dark it is at your location, but start off at the widest aperture (F/2.8 to F/5.6 typically works well). Adjust your white balance to 3400 to 3900K, and shoot on manual mode for 20-30 minutes at first. If everything’s in order, try a longer exposure of one hour or more. When you’re feeling more confident that you won’t overexpose the shot, go for three or more hours!
Be warned; star trail photography will test your patience. Things will go wrong. It can get cold. But think about your safety, pack extra batteries and warm clothes, and keep at it. You’ll get the most spectacular images.
Capturing silky water is actually surprisingly easy, once you’ve acquired the right tools. First, to get a really silky look, you need rushing water—the faster and stronger, the better—so head to a beach with a strong surf break, a whitewater river, or a gushing waterfall for maximum effect.
Next, you need the right lens. A wide-angle zoom like the Tamron 17-35mm F/2.8-4 not only gives you flexibility in composition but with an 11-inch minimum object distance across the entire zoom range, you can get a variety of wide-angle close-ups of moss-covered rocks or include that dramatic landscape surrounding your waterfalls.
Also, unless you’re under a really thick canopy of trees through which sunlight can barely penetrate or shooting after sundown, you’ll need a good ND (Neutral Density) filter, which limits the light going into your lens and allows you to do long exposures even in daylight. We used the Tiffen 77mm Variable Neutral Density Filter, which not only cuts light, but also yields richer colors. And lastly, a stable landscape photography tripod is a must to keep your shots sharp and steady.
Much like star trails, a silky water effect, which is essentially a motion blur, also takes a bit of experimentation and shooting in manual mode. However, a good rule of thumb when shooting in the daytime is to set your ISO low to 100 or 200, your shutter speed anywhere from 3 to 25 seconds (the longer your shutter speed, the silkier your water), and your aperture to F/11 or smaller; then adjust accordingly.
Forget posed models. Long exposures give you the flexibility of conveying humans in motion as well, from athletes in mid-action to children in play. Dance photographers, particularly, have long harnessed the many possibilities long exposure photography offers to capture the beautiful and flowing movements of dancers.
Perhaps the most complicated long exposure techniques of the five, but with a bit of practice and research, you can definitely make it happen. Try your hand at photographing dancers—whether they’re professionals or your friends at a party—so that you’re capturing their movements in a single shot.
Now, there are two ways to do this. For capturing ghostly movement, you’ll need a continuous source of light and, akin to star trails and silky water, simply let the motion playout while your shutter is open. But, for a truly dramatic image (see above), we suggest setting up in a dark room, opening your shutter, and firing off a flash each time your subject moves to a new position, which freezes their action in-camera while creating the look of a multi-exposure image. And, when you feel like you’ve got a hang of both techniques, take it to the next level by combining them to see what results you’ll get.
Don’t be a tourist and use flash when taking photos of a city. It’s not going to work; and if by some miracle, it does, it’s not going to look great. We get it; traveling can be hard, and when you’re exploring a different city, you don’t want to be lugging around a tripod. But trust us when we say that the only way to capture the essence of city lights at night is by long exposure. The colors will considerably be more vibrant, and the lights will sparkle.
If traveling light is of high priority, invest in a GorillaPod, which you can quickly stuff in your bag and mount on many surfaces, or simply find a stable, flat surface. As far as lightweight and compact lenses go, we absolutely love the Tamron 17-35mm F/2.8-4 as it offers several wide focal length options and is moisture resistant, making it perfect for different weather conditions.
To get better results, swap that auto mode for manual or aperture-priority. Shoot at a small aperture like F/22 for a larger depth of field, making everything in your photograph crisp and in focus. Choose a lower ISO to minimize noise, and set your shutter speed accordingly. To avoid accidental shakes, use a remote shutter or your camera’s remote control app.
When you see the results, you won’t be touching that flash again… at least for city lights photos.
Light painting photography isn’t only a hoot; it also allows you to be incredibly creative and playful with your exposures, and collaborate with friends. Heck, even Picasso has dabbled in it. Master light painters have created incredible and highly intricate works of art using only different lights—from actual light painting brushes to colored headlamps and colored gel covered flashlights.
The key to successful light painting is finding a dark location with minimal light pollution. Mount your camera on a tripod, set it on bulb mode at F/8 or F/11, then “paint” whatever you want with your light “brushes” — flashlights, small LED lights, or even sparklers work great — in front of the camera. Keep the shutter open for as long as you need it, depending on what you want to create.
Start with something simple at first—write words and make stick drawings in the air or trace a stationary object like a car or a bush. When you’re feeling more comfortable with the process and your exposure, you’ll be able to advance to masterpieces.