Friday, January 14, 2011

How to do long exposure photography

I've always been a sucker for those photos of traffic with streaks of light. They're done using a technique called long exposure, and it was one of the first things I learned to do with a camera back when I was using a five-megapixel Sony compact (a year ago). The technique also works with fireworks. It's not hard to do, and if I can do it, anyone can do it.

What you'll need:
1. Any camera with manual controls. That's the letter M on the dial. No manual controls? Try the fireworks scene setting, or the night landscape setting.
2. A tripod. No tripod? Get a stack of books and a clump of play doh.

What to do:
1. Choose your subject. A road with moving cars will get you nice streaks of light, for example. Cityscapes at night will become brighter and more vibrant. Or point your camera at some fireworks.
2. Place your camera on a tripod or any stable surface.
3. Set your camera to manual mode. What you'll be doing is leaving the shutter open for a long time, a second or two, or even longer if you're adventurous. This is also known as "dragging the shutter". On a compact camera with no manual settings, putting the camera on fireworks/night landscape setting will do (almost) the same thing.

Shot this with a very long exposure on a compact camera with manual controls. The exposure was probably too long, but I liked how it turned out.

4. The "right" exposure will depend on your mix of aperture setting and shutter speed. It's a delicate balance. Longer shutter speeds will have more dramatic streaks of light, but may overexpose your shot. Decrease your aperture if that happens. Just experiment until you find results that you like!
    Shooting in S or Shutter mode will ensure that your exposure is balanced. But to produce really bright night cityscapes, you'll have to overexpose on purpose.
5. The act of pressing the shutter button may actually cause some camera shake. This will manifest as a blurry photo. To avoid this, you may want to set your timer to a few seconds. If you have a cable release attachment, using this would be ideal.
6. Lastly, here's something that you don't have to do. I just do it because I like the results. Since most of these photos will take place at night, it's a good idea to crank your ISO down to 100 or something like that. This will reduce the noise in your photos. Your exposures will be long anyway, so they'll be plenty bright.

And you're ready. Now go look for some fireworks! Chinese New Year isn't too far away.

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