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Checklist for Shooting Long Exposures (at Sunset)

Here is a quick checklist of the things you’ll need to pay attention to, when you want to take long time exposures with an SLR (single-lens-reflex) camera. Any time you want to shoot a long sunset, night, or even sunrise shot.

25 second exposure of Seattle Skyline at Sunset

25 second exposure of the Seattle cityscape at sunset.

  1. Use a tripod
    • Extend the legs as long you can to bring the camera to the desired height (then raise the center-post, if necessary).
    • Extend the legs’ longer tubes before the narrower ones (if you do not need the legs’ full extension).
    • Spread the legs as wide as as their locked spread will allow.
    • Once the camera is positioned, lock all the tripod (and head) settings.
  2. Lock up the camera’s mirror during the photograph, if possible (the settings may be buried in the camera’s advanced settings)—this applies to SLRs only, of course.
  3. Turn off any “vibration reduction” or “image stabilization” of the camera or lens! This will vary by camera or lens brand, but the following example is the same camera and lens setup; the only difference was the lens’s anti-shake control (click to see them full size):

    Lens's vibration control left on

    Lens’s vibration control left on

    Lens's vibration control turned off

    Lens’s vibration control turned off

  4. Use the camera’s self-timer to trip the shutter; this delayed shutter release means the vibration of your finger pushing the button won’t affect the image. If you have a remote shutter release, even better.
  5. Set camera exposure, automatically, first, then adjust.
    1. Since you are shooting a dark scene, you probably want the image to be dark.  For a base-line, let the camera find the “normal” exposure. Then set your camera at various levels of under-exposure. Of the following, the actual appearance was slightly darker than the middle image (1-stop underexposed).

      Seattle skyline, normal exposure

      Seattle skyline, normal exposure

      Seattle skyline, 1-stop underexposed

      Seattle skyline, 1-stop underexposed

      Seattle skyline, 2-stop underexposed

      Seattle skyline, 2-stop underexposed

    2. Note the last exposure’s shutter speed and lens aperture f/stop settings of one of the favorite images, from the prior step. Set the camera to manual mode and set those same settings.
    3. Set the aperture to some middle setting of the lens or smaller (i.e., f/8 or higher number). Compensate by slowing the shutter down by doubling the time for each stop. You might be limited by the slowest your camera can be set; if so, open up the aperture by at least 2-stops, adjusting the shutter speed accordingly. It is not critical to be exact, at sunset, the light is constantly changing anyway.
  6. Take several pictures at different exposures by adjusting only the shutter speed.
    • Taking some pictures at brighter than you need will pick up details in dark areas that you might not have noticed.
    • Taking pictures at darker shutter speeds might pick up more color saturation—in the sky, for example—and will bring out more detail in lit areas of image. Note that lights are very bright compared to the dark scene surrounding it, so looking closely at a dark image, you might still find that lit areas are completely “blown-out”, with no detail because the lights were too bright.
    • If the camera’s slowest shutter speed is not long (“slow”) enough, look to see if there is a “Bulb” setting. This allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you hold the shutter-release button (unfortunately you can’t use the self-timer trick, above, when using the bulb setting).
    • By shooting a range of images at different exposures, you should have enough exposure range that you can use HDR (high dynamic-range) software to combine images in interesting ways (more on that in a subsequent blog-post).
  7. Be patient, the light will be changing a lot. Get to your location early and start shooting early. Then keep shooting until late. The changing light will capture many variations that differ by more than just exposure.  For example, the image at the top of this post was taken from the same location about 20 minutes later than the three exposures, above.
  8. Don’t get stuck shooting only sunsets; shoot sunrises as well. The air is often clearer and the light can be very different that what you see at dusk.
Seattle Sunrise

Seattle Sunrise

It should be noted that camera sensors do not deal with long exposures very well, so the result is that you may see a lot of “noise” in the images (especially if you are shooting RAW). The camera will try to clean that up, to an acceptable degree with the JPEG images, but if you are shooting RAW (unmodified) images, you will need to use noise-reduction software to clean that up.
Let me know what your experiences are. Happy Shooting!

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