Lighting the Bulb


The photographer has fired an external flashgun covered with a red gel, from inside the house. This, combined with the star trails, has created an eerie setting. Photograph/John Ryan

The photographer has fired an external flashgun covered with a red gel, from inside the house. This, combined with the star trails, has created an eerie setting. Photograph/John Ryan

Hidden under a few settings is the Bulb mode of your camera, Ambarin Afsar helps you locate and understand this jewel.

This article was originally published in December 2011.

What is the one thing that can help you capture lightning, star trails, the night landscape as well as allow crazy experiments? It is the Bulb setting of your DSLR. Switch to the Manual mode and keep decreasing the shutterspeed value, from 1/2sec to 1sec, 10sec and lower. Once you reach 30sec, turn the dial again and you will find ‘Bulb’ or ‘B’ appearing on the display.

The Bulb setting works on a very simple principle—it keeps the shutter open for as long as the shutter release button is pressed. So, you have complete manual control over shutterspeed. If you want to photograph a busy street for an hour or trace the course of lightning, then using the Bulb setting will keep the shutter open for the desired period. However, there are a few other things that you need to consider in order to explore this enigmatic setting.

Employ a Sturdy Companion
What is the first thing you need if you are making long exposures? That is right. A tripod to keep your camera steady! When using a tripod, remember to secure the legs and the base plate. Also, make sure that all fastenings have been locked snugly. Additionally, if you pay a little attention to those helpful bubble levels, then you will be able to tell whether the horizon in your frame is aligned properly.

Have Remote Control
Can you stand next to the camera for, say, an hour or even 20 minutes, with your finger on the shutter release? Not only is this tiresome, it will also cause plenty of camera shake. So, you need to use a traditional shutter release cable or even the more modern, wireless remote triggers. Wireless remotes can even be timed to take a series of exposures at specified intervals. These exposures can later be combined in a process John Ryan called stacking.

Work Around Obstacles
If you do not have a release or remote, you can use some gauze tape. Place a piece of thick paper in the middle of the tape to weigh down the shutter release button and tape your camera. Since this will induce shake, you can place a dark card in front of the lens while you fi nish taping the shutter release button. When you are done, remove the card to start the exposure. Similarly, you can place a dark card to end the exposure and remove the tape without any shake registering in your image.

Lock it Up
Did you know that serious photographers, who spend hours ensuring that there is no camera shake, also lock the mirror up? They do this to avoid any movement or vibration caused by the slap of the mirror. Some DSLRs allow you to lock the mirror up—this option might even be disguised under names like Exposure Delay and Anti-shock. Read your camera’s manual to find out whether it allows for mirror lock ups and how it can be achieved.

If your camera does not have any of these options, then you can use Live View, as it also involves locking the mirror up.

Maximise Existing Power
The camera has continuously been recording an image for about 40 minutes. What do you think would be one major side effect of this long exposure? Battery drain. Most DSLRs will allow you to shoot an hourlong exposure, uninterruptedly, before the battery gives out.

But, this depends on a few factors, such as dropping temperatures and noise reduction. Shooting out on a cold night will cause the camera’s battery to drain sooner than usual. Carry chemical heat packs or hand warmers and attach them to the back of the camera. Switch off noise reduction, if your camera allows it, as this will also prolong battery life.

Ensure Endless Power
You might ask, is there any way to ensure enough power for exposures longer than an hour? Yes, you can consider investing in a battery grip as it will increase the battery capacity by a great degree. A grip stores multiple batteries and increases your exposure time by twice or nearly thrice.

If you do not want to buy one, then you can carry a couple of fully-charged battery packs. This will not facilitate making a very long exposure, but will help you stack exposures. When the battery runs out, you can take it out, replace it and continue stacking. However, you will need to mount the camera in such a manner that you can access the battery compartment easily.

Create a Shield
Did you know that a lens hood is just as important for extremely long exposures in the night as it is for regular use in bright daylight? You need a lens hood to minimise flare coming from unexpected sources such as street lamps and car headlights.

Avoid Spots and Speckles
Besides battery drain and shake, what could create more trouble? Noise. During long exposures, the sensor heats up considerably, contributing to little white specks and blotchy spots. The way your camera combats this is by performing in-camera Noise Reduction, but this will double the amount of time taken by the camera for the picture to be written to the card.

For example, if you shoot an exposure that lasts 1min, the camera will take an extra minute after the exposure is made, to minimise noise. If you switch off Long Exposure Noise Reduction, you will need to do this process manually, in software. This involves making an equivalently long exposure with the lens cap on. After this, one needs to remove noise from the original image using masks and layers, in an image editing software.

Understand Focusing
How do you focus when all you can see is pitch darkness? Using autofocus is out of the question. So, it is important for you to work out the hyperfocal distance for your lens. This will help you know at what aperture and at what focal length, how much of the scene will be sharp. Another thing you can do is carry along a powerful torch. Once you have composed your frame, shine the torch at the subject and let the AF lock on to it. Now, switch to manual focus so that the camera does not hunt for focus again.

Filter the Light
Do you have to make Bulb exposures only in the middle of the night? Not at all! From beaches at twilight, to waterfalls, flowing rivers and gushing rapids in bright daylight, you can explore all these possibilities. But, you might say, all I will get is a blown out frame. Here is where Neutral Density filters come into play. These filters limit the amount of light entering the lens and are graded according to densities, such as 0.3, 0.6 and 0.9. A higher grading means that more light will be filtered, allowing for longer exposures.

Now you know all about the Bulb setting and all the magical photographs it can create. Let us leave you with one more astounding fact. The Bulb setting on DSLRs is called so, because old film cameras required the use of an air bulb that would be squeezed to open the shutter and released to close it. Isn’t it amazing how cameras have evolved to create something that can give us otherworldly glimpses!

Breaking Through the Boundaries of Creativity

We get you started with a few out-of-the-box ideas that will help you explore endless other possibilities with extremely long exposures.

Now you know what is required to get the Bulb setting to work at the optimum. So, how do you explore this realm where the shutter is at your command and subject to your whims?

Light Painting
All you need is a torch, a dark room and you can create animals, stick fi gures, thought bubbles and comical expressions. You can also write words, using this technique. Why, you can even take the torch outdoors and light paint around buildings and other structures!

Flash Pumping
Complex as the name may sound, the technique is really simple. It involves repeatedly firing an external flashgun to illuminate an object or a landscape. Suppose you have found an abandoned house. You can set your camera up outside, start a long exposure, enter the house and fire an external flashgun to make the empty house seem eerily lit!

Double Exposures
Imagine photographing a car before it moves and then showing the headlights of the same car streaking across the landscape, all in one frame! All you are doing in a double exposure, is exposing the same frame to two different images. The length of each of these exposures depends on you and the possibilities are endless.

Tags: Shooting Technique, Ambarin Afsar, night, Tripod, long exposure, light painting, star trails, bulb mode