Rock Steady Photography

You may have noticed that long exposure photography (LE) is a technique I use quite often when photographing landscapes. I love capturing the sense of motion in water and clouds contrasted against static elements within the landscape such as rocks, trees and mountains. I like to use this technique to help convey the atmosphere of the moment. However, just like high dynamic range photography (and Marmite), you will either love it or hate it. (If you don't know what Marmite is, then you don't know what you're missing :-)

For those who like this style of photography but may be having problems with less than-sharp images, assuming that your focus is spot-on, then the most likely culprit is imperceptible camera movement during the shot. Whilst the movement may be difficult to notice, your camera's very sensitive sensor will record all movement, however minute. So, if you're tired of that disappointing blur or you are just wanting to try this for the first time but are unsure of how to go about photographing a long exposure, I thought it might be useful to share some tips and techniques that will help achieve a rock-steady image. What I won't do in this post is cover the use of filters and how to correctly calculate correct exposure times for long exposure photographs as this is a whole article in itself. Hopefully I will cover this in detail in a future post.

Generally speaking, while these tips / techniques apply to long exposure photography, they also pretty much apply to landscape photography in general.

When shooting a long exposure, essentially what we are doing is slowing the camera's shutter speed long enough to allow any moving or changing elements time to move within the frame and thus create "the effect" of movement within the image.  This effect only really works well if all the static elements remain in sharp focus. Otherwise you end up with one huge mess. Essentially, a long exposure is considered to be anything in excess of half a second. However, much longer exposures of anything up to several minutes under certain conditions may be necessary to capture the scene, effect and correct exposure. 

So, the first and hopefully obvious point is that the camera itself needs to be capable of shooting extended / slow shutter speeds and the camera must be free from all vibration. (No handheld shots here!).  Most DSLR and mirrorless cameras in general can shoot as slow as 30 seconds under "normal" settings and well beyond this using the camera's "B" (Bulb) setting. However, as most modern digital cameras can expose for several seconds, then many of the following tips should be applicable. Please note that many of the following tips can also be applied to SLR, rangefinder and medium and large format film cameras.

Use a tripod. This is truly essential equipment for this type of photography and for landscape photography in general. If you are going to be shooting landscapes regularly I highly recommend avoiding cheap tripods. To be honest, I can't recommend them under any situation. They will most certainly be flimsy, will probably fall apart quickly and you will just end up spending the money on a decent one anyway. So you might as well start off right and invest in a solid quality tripod. If you are just trying this out for the first time and are not sure if its for you, try to borrow a solid tripod from a friend rather than buy a "temporary" cheap one.

Add Balast. The tripod should be sturdy and will often have a hook that can be used to hang your equipment bag on (or some other additional weight) to help stabilise the tripod further. If you are working on soft ground, try and wiggle the tripod into the soft ground to make it more sturdy. High-end tripods may come with retractable or screw-in spikes that can help grip the legs into position. If working on rocks, try and find natural contours to position the feet into and help brace the tripod into place. It can then be leveled-off  by adjusting the length of the legs.

Don't use the Camera's Shutter Release. This will create vibration / shake that may ruin all your hard work. Invest in and use a remote infra red release or remote cable release. Remote releases are cheap and there are enough alternatives to the manufacturer's own models available on ebay. Just make sure that the one you purchase functions with your particular camera model. If you don't have a remote release then use your camera's self-timer mode to activate the shutter after a few seconds. This will help ensure that your hands are well clear and your camera is absolutely stable before the shutter is fired.

Use Mirror Lockup. Only applicable to cameras that use an internal mirror such as DSLR or SLR cameras. This is an additional and, in my experience, worthwhile step to take.  You will be surprised how much vibration can be created by that big old mirror slapping up and out of the way to allow light through to the sensor. If your camera has this feature, learn to use it.

Turn Off Image Stabilisation. If your lens has IS then turn it off. You should always do this if the camera is mounted on a tripod. Image stabilisation is great when using a camera hand-held but will still try to "correct" movement when there is none and can subsequently have some very odd effects on a tripod-stabilised camera.

Turn Off Auto -Focus. AF is again great when using the camera hand-held and/or trying to focus on moving subjects. Landscape photography is slow, precise and methodical. Setting up the shot in a careful and deliberate way is essential. Take your time, work out your focus point and use your camera's LiveView and zoom mode to get in close and manually focus with as much precision as possible. This will also ensure that the lens doesn't try to re-focus at the last second as the shutter release button is pressed.

Cover Up Your Viewfinder. Only applicable to cameras that use an internal mirror such as DSLR or SLR cameras. Again this is just good practice and you will be surprised how much light-leak occurs via an uncovered viewfinder on a DSLR or SLR camera. There is no point taking all the time to set-up and stabilise your camera with precision, calculate long exposure times, set-up filters, and then ruin your shot by allowing stray light to enter through the exposed viewfinder and find its way onto the sensor. There is nothing to see through the viewfinder during the long exposure so cover it up. If your camera has a built-in sliding viewfinder cover then use it, if not a small piece of gaffer tape across the viewfinder works just as well.

Shelter Your Lens from Unwanted Lens Flare. This applies to landscape photography in general and especially to long exposures. Use a lens-hood if you're not using drop-in filters to avoid direct light onto the lens. If using drop-in filters or you don't have a lens-hood, try and think about any unwanted light that may be straying in-between the filters or directly onto the lens. Find a way to use yourself or a filter pouch to try and block any stray sun-light from ruining your shot, always taking care not to include yourself in the frame. However, this is not always easy to do without potentially taking a great "selfie" of your hand. When I first started out I had this happen to me on several occasions. I couldn't always determine there was a problem from the image playback on the camera and it wasn't until I got the files up onto a larger monitor that the impact would be visible.

Disconnect Your Camera Strap. Yep, it sounds stupid I know. But imagine this. You are likely to have windy conditions that move those lovely clouds and give you the effect that you want. A flapping neck-strap clanking against the tripod and camera for several seconds or minutes will easily create enough vibration to ruin the shot. Get a neck-strap with quick-release clips so that you can easily disconnect and re-connect the strap. Lowepro and Op/Tech USA make quality comfortable neoprene straps with quick release clips.

Lock-Down Everything. Make sure that all extended tripod legs and the knobs on the tripod head are all locked-down nice and tight. The same goes for the quick-release plate between the camera and the tripod head.

The following are not related to camera shake but worth considering when shooting long exposure landscapes :

Carry spare Batteries. Again it sounds obvious but long exposure photography drains a battery quickly. So rather than have the camera shut down mid-way through a shot and have to go home early and potentially miss the best shooting conditions, carry spare fully-charged batteries and avoid disappointment. The use of a battery grip for extended battery life is also an option but I would still carry spares in the field.

Concentrate. It sounds obvious enough but long exposure photography is just that. Long enough to get distracted and not time the exposure properly. Stay focused until the shot is in the bag.

Slow Down. This goes for landscape photography in general. Take a breath and slow down. Scout a location and turn-up early. Double-check everything before you squeeze the button on the remote release cable. Don't turn up at the scene and rush to set-up because you are likely to realise that you've missed something when its already too late. Take your time and enjoy the process.

If you are new to landscape and long exposure photography I hope that you found the above information helpful. If you are experienced then perhaps there might be one or two tips above you found helpful.

If you have any further tips of your own or questions on any of the above, feel free to post a comment below.

Until next time.

Frank