This is the third of a four-part series discussing the technical side of photography.
For the last two segments of the Technical Side of Art series, I will talk about shooting long exposures and panoramas. Together, these were the primary techniques of my photography improvement project last year. What I learned that year — and have continued to develop this year — I think epitomizes the points I have been trying to make about attending to both one’s technical skill as well as artistic eye so that the one enables and enhances the other. This post describes the project, and focuses on the long exposure half of the techniques I was using. The other half, shooting panoramas, will be covered in the next post.
The Great Falls Project:
In 2014, I embarked on a year-long project to improve my landscape photography skills. From a technical standpoint, landscape photography is one of the simpler genres in that it doesn’t require too much by way of specialized equipment, but on the artistic side, capturing the glory of a landscape onto digital media is definitely the hardest tasks of all the genres of photography I have taken to. I felt a lot of my earlier landscape work fell flat and far short of what I had seen when I took the shot. After watching and reading the advice of some accomplished professional landscape photographers, I soon discovered that the primary problem was one that they all had to learn: landscape photography is not just about the right locale, it’s about the right time.
It’s more an issue of artistic talent and fieldcraft than the technical skills I have been talking about up until now. Nature is shy, and reveals her most dazzling beauty only rarely and briefly. Usually, when we come across an amazing landscape we may recognize its potential, but some of that is our imagination subconsciously filling in the possibilities of light and weather, singling out the most striking details and accentuating them. What separates a great landscape photo from an average one is the recognition of that potential and nailing the perhaps one-in-a-thousand chance of timing and positioning. The only way to discover those secrets is to form a relationship with the place. Landscape photographers spend a tremendous amount of time at a single area, shooting it at different times to catch how the lighting changes, different weather conditions, as well as as many vantages they can find, to understand which offer the best compositions, as well as the best opportunity for the elusive glimpses of glory they are seeking. Of course, once that moment comes, the photographer had better have his or her technique to capture it in top form.
As one who does this for a hobby, I don’t have the time or money to spend all in exotic locales. The landscapes I took in Japan and Ireland in 2014 were of the “take it or leave it” variety. I visited them once, took my shots, and it may be that I’ll never see those places again. While I still got some shots that I like, it was largely up to luck of weather and lighting, and what part of the area I was at to envision my composition and get my shot. I cannot say whether I captured any one area at its best. In Ireland in particular, weather was not my friend, and the grey skies challenged me to alter my technique to keep the photos interesting.
One way to reduce the gamble is to research online and plan ahead. I planned my trips with a mind to the season I wanted to shoot in. I Googled images of the areas to see what compositions other people had come up with to at least get an idea of some of the possibilities. I watched the weather forecast, and used an app called The Photographer’s Ephemeris to get an idea of what the lighting would look like, the timing and angle of sunlight or moonlight in relation to the spot I would be shooting. But even with this preparation, I could never tell whether nature would cooperate and/or how it would dazzle me until I got there.
I eventually learned that the real trick, however, was to find a place to photograph close by, so that I could visit it often and develop a relationship between the locale and my artistic eye. I chose Great Falls Park, a cascading waterfall on the Potomac River bordering Virginia and Maryland, in the DC metro area. I wanted to shoot it in all seasons, from both the Virginia and Maryland sides, to see how the different lighting and colors impacted the image.
For the record, I’m not sure how successful my project was in improving my artistic eye or becoming “one with the land” (sorry, I’m being facetious — I truly do believe the task is important) – if such things can even be measured. Part of the problem was I missed the peak Fall season — only able to visit slightly before and slightly after the leaves were at their height of color. High winds had denuded the trees almost overnight. I still got some satisfying shots with the fall colors, but I know it could have been better. Another problem was that there are only three photography vantages from the Virginia side (that I know of), and only one from Maryland, so my angles were limited. My wife, who isn’t as interested in landscape photography as I am, gets bored when I linger too long and if there aren’t any birds around. Lastly, I was likely not thorough enough in hitting both sides of the park at the peak lighting times — the golden hours or even the blue hours — for each season. It has hours of operation, for one thing. I can’t say that I discovered any special lighting at the times I was there, and the only unusual weather I experienced was one winter day when it snowed. So, in many ways I don’t really feel I’m done with this project, and I intend to continue it. That said, I did learn some of the rhythms of the river, and I have a feeling that the project helped in other ways I haven’t realized. I do feel a lot more confident about landscape photography in general.
Once again, however, I progressed first on the technical side. I wasn’t even trying to focus on technique per se, but development started occurring almost immediately, perhaps because it was easier, or perhaps it was as if reaching a certain level of technical skill was prerequisite before being able to focus on the original goals. I practiced both long exposure and panoramas (which is the topic of the next post), and I feel I made much more progress on learning those techniques. Together they helped capture the movement of the water and the wide expanse of the falls. I tried bracketing various filters, HDR, and different speeds of long exposure (see below) to see how it effected the character of the flowing water. I tried different frames both there as well as cropping the images in post. I used the Dramatic Tone art filter to see how it effected the water. The images definitely got better as I went. I know I can get better still, with more extensive visits and variation. Perhaps I might even find a closer locale to shoot, where I can overcome some of the limitations I was experiencing before.
The gear I used was the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens. I intend to use my 8mm f/1.8 Pro Fisheye lens, now that I have it, and I am sure any of the UWA angle µ4/3 lenses available now would also work great. My support gear and accessories were my Really Right Stuff TVC-24 tripod and BH-40 ball head; and Lee Seven5 polarizer, Big Stopper, Little Stopper, and graduated ND filter set. While I don’t have any affiliation to Really Right Stuff or Lee, I will say that I couldn’t be happier with any of these gear choices. They are higher-end and thus more expensive gear, but they are also items I will likely only have to buy once in my lifetime, and I skipped the even-more expensive route of buying cheaper gear and upgrading later. I will discuss Lee and Really Right Stuff gear in more detail later on.
If you would like to see more of my pictures of the Great Falls Project, including images of all seasons, both long exposure and normal speed, as well as shots of kayakers, please visit the Mirrorless Planet Flickr page.
Long Exposure Basics:
Long exposure photography is the holding of the shutter open for longer periods to blur any movement in the scene. With a steady tripod, any stationary elements will still be tack-sharp, while different effects to movement can be achieved depending on how long the shutter is open and how fast the movement being captured. To blur the movement of the sea until it looks like smoke requires several minutes. Some of the blurring of the dangerously fast river currents shown here took less than a second.
Shutter speed is usually lengthened in-camera by stopping down aperture, which can have detrimental effects on sharpness if done too much. Lowering ISO can also help, but ISO levels should be kept as low as possible anyways, so this is of little use here. However, when shooting in bright conditions, it is generally impossible to lengthen exposure time by much in-camera without overexposing the image. So, neutral density filters are added to the front of the lens to block out enough of the light to allow for longer exposures. Filters are graded by how many stops of light they block out (giving an idea of how long shutter time can be extended), how they impact sharpness, and how much of a color cast they create (which is unavoidable, but can be corrected in post processing).
My primary tool for these shots was the Big Stopper, and occasionally the Little Stopper — neutral density filters that block out 10 or 4 stops of light, respectively. Occasionally, I added a neutral density graduated filter, which is darkened on only half the filter, to darken the bright skies, which adds more color and cloud texture. The polarizer is used to reduce glare, particularly in the water, and in doing so also provides a bit of extra color. The white balance will need to be adjusted, but they work extremely well. I do not own any colored ND graduated filters (useful for certain types of landscape scenes) and can’t say anything about their use, but there are several such sets in the Lee Seven5 system.
Because of the variables of movement and light involved, and depending on the amount of blurring the photographer is going for, there are no hard guidelines on how long to hold the shutter open. I started with slow shutter speeds and increased them incrementally, taking the river from a smooth snow-like quality to an angel hair look in the flow of the water. The last shots that I took for the project were of the falls in the melting snows. The water was flowing at an amazing rate, and carrying massive quantities of mud with it, turning the rivers a caramel color. I found that I didn’t even need the filters, as the current was so much faster than I had ever seen that just stopping down the aperture was enough. Earlier in the Fall we went out during a high wind, and even a little stopping down of the aperture (no filters) blurred the swaying trees as well, giving them an almost paintbrush appearance, while the water still looked normal.
Simple Long Exposure:
The long exposure process can be done in one of several ways. The simplest way is to have the camera in Aperture Priority and autofocus, compose the image, mount the filters, and take the shot. Conventional wisdom says that the filters block out too much light for autofocus to work, but I have found this not to be the case. Furthermore, I have also found that the in-camera metering adjusts for the filters and gets the shot anyways, so I haven’t needed to bother with doing f-stop calculations for the right exposure. I am not sure if this is a benefit of the E-M1’s hybrid focusing system, or (more likely) the brighter conditions I am shooting in. For Great Falls, I generally shot at shutter speeds between 5-30 seconds. If I desired a different shutter speed, I changed the aperture or the filters. I use this method often, and have not seen any detrimental effects in doing so. This method can be used for exposures up to one minute, which is long enough for most applications.
I am not sure if the officially correct method has any advantages over my shortcut approach. First, take a shot of the scene in Aperture Priority Mode and with autofocus, making a note of the shutter speed. Switch to Manual Mode and manual focus (so as not to change the focus point), and add the filters. Adjust the shutter speed by how many stops of light the filter will block out (my Lee filters came with a card showing the conversions) and take the shot.
When using filters, even with the camera mounted on the tripod, there are a lot of components to fumble with — the lens, the lens hood, the connector ring, the filter mount, and the filter itself. Even with my wife assisting me (and she is not a very attentive assistant), the risk of dropping something valuable, or taking too much time and getting dust on the sensor or fingerprints on the glass, are all very real. I have to think about what I need and what steps I must take, and practice them until I am methodical and efficient. Had I chosen to use screw-on filters, my methodology would have been quite different.
Now consider the artistic variations possible with the use of ND filters. Because they are an external component, they can be used in any camera mode without limitation (although they cannot be mounted on a few lenses, such as my new fisheye), as long as the shutter speed doesn’t need to be over 60 seconds. Experiment with using various Art Filter (not to confuse the two) or Scene Mode effects along with ND filters to create unique long exposure shots.
Bulb Mode and Live Time:
Bulb Mode (found when in Manual Mode and scrolling the shutter speed beyond 60 seconds) can be used for exposures longer than and one minute. To get exposures long enough to turn water to fog, Bulb Mode is usually necessary, but I did not do any of that here. Note that to get such long exposures, any light source must be sufficiently dampened so as not to be over-exposed. Rather than stop down aperture to the point of diffraction, it may be necessary during the day to lay two ND filters over the lens.
The reason I do not use Bulb Mode is because I find Live Time is just a little better. Live Time is the shutter speed setting available right after Bulb Mode (again, Manual Mode only). For Bulb Mode, the shutter is open for as long as the shutter button is depressed. For Live Time, the shutter is pressed and released at the start and again at the end of the exposure duration. With Live Time, the exposure process can be seen as it occurs on the LCD, both in the form of a histogram and the developing picture itself. The photographer simply presses the shutter button to start the process, watches the screen, and presses the shutter button again to end the process once it is deemed that the image is “baked” enough. It takes all of the guessing or mathematical calculations out of long exposure. Olympus made this capability available for Bulb Mode as well, but I still prefer Live Time simply so that I don’t have to hold the shutter down.
There are some menu options to be aware of for these modes. You can set the maximum duration the shutter can be open, but the only use I can think of for this feature is if you accidentally trigger a long exposure shot without realizing it, or forgot to end a Live Time session. You can also change the refresh rate (how often the image exposure is updated on the LCD), with a maximum rate of once every half-second. Again, I don’t understand why you would ever want to slow that down, perhaps to preserve battery life. Lastly, you can change the brightness level for the screen itself. Mine was factory set to -7 EV, and I think that was causing me to leave the shutter open too long when I was shooting with ND filters during the day. While I could see the image looked ready on the histogram, the LCD image still looked really dark. I recommend paying particular attention to this setting depending on the conditions you are shooting in. At night, a dimmer screen makes sense.
If memory serves, the only time I have successfully used Live Time was when I was taking the shot of the pier at Ocean City, Maryland, as the sun rose. It was the first long exposure shot I ever took, and luckily it was still rather dark. I have tried many times since, but until I figured out the screen brightness setting, I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t working out. The Ocean City shot was posted on an earlier post in this series, The Technical Side of Art: Part One — Know Your Gear. The ocean water was calm compared to the raging torrents of Great Falls in the examples above, necessitating the longer shutter speeds.
Olympus’ newest feature is Live Composite, the setting immediately after Live Time. In Live Composite the camera is doing something completely different. Rather than one long exposure, the camera is creating multiple exposures, each one only exposing the highlights brighter than the one before it, and merging them in-camera into one photo in the end (as a RAW file and/or a JPEG, depending on settings). The photographer can choose the aperture and shutter speed for each exposure (to a minimum of half a second), then press the shutter button to start the process. The LCD will update after each frame, showing the shutter speed setting, counter of shots taken and overall elapsed time. Once satisfied, the photographer presses the shutter button again to end the process.
This incredible method captures changing variations of light over time, such as for fireworks, star trails, light trails of city traffic, or light painting. The unique benefit is that none of the highlights will be overexposed. This means even star trails can be recorded over a nighttime cityscape — previously an impossible task without overexposing the city lights. My first attempts at Live Composite were taken of the local 4th of July fireworks celebration this year. I was amazed at how easy and flawless this application works, and in no time at all I had the settings the way I wanted them and was firing away. The properly exposed lamp post in the view demonstrates how static lights will not be overexposed even with exposures of nearly 10 seconds.
While the above was the intended purpose of Live Composite, photographers are using it in other ways. Since it limits highlight exposure and shutter speed can be set rather long, it can be used to a similar effect as an ND Filter on subjects such as rapidly moving water in the daytime. Each time some white water caps move across the image, they are added, creating a quasi-blurring effect. If the shutter speed is set low enough, actual blurring can also occur, and blends into the picture.
Settings for Live Composite are a bit more complex than the others. You must pick a duration of the exposure for each image, with a minimum of half a second and a maximum of one minute. Press the shutter button twice to initiate the Live Composite. After the initial exposure occurs, the camera shoots again, only exposing new highlights and not re-exposing old ones, until you press the shutter button again to tell the camera to stop. The exposure time for each iteration obviously has important ramifications for the brightness and motion blur of the image.
The next post in this series goes into more detail on shooting panoramas, which – as many of the example photos show – I often have used in conjunction with the long exposure techniques described above.