The World is Your Canvas

Set an exposure between 3–6 seconds, zoom in a little, pause for a second, zoom in a little more, pause for a second again, zoom in all the way, pause and voila–you have an unusual zoom burst! Exposure: 3.2sec at f/7.1 (ISO 100). Photograph/Samira Pillai

Set an exposure between 3–6 seconds, zoom in a little, pause for a second, zoom in a little more, pause for a second again, zoom in all the way, pause and voila–you have an unusual zoom burst! Exposure: 3.2sec at f/7.1 (ISO 100). Photograph/Samira Pillai

Ambarin Afsar helps you discover creative ways of making stunning long exposures of the most everyday scenes around you.

This story was originally published in March 2010.

Have you ever looked out of the window of a cab and wished that the traffic would disappear, leaving behind only a trail of light? Wish no more. You can make this happen with your camera! And this is just one of the uses of long exposures. Long exposures can transform dull subjects into magical photographs. Landscapes can look like fairy lands, waterfalls look silken and dreamlike and stars like streaks of light across the canvas of the sky. To achieve any of this, all you need to do is look for the most suitable subjects and then figure out the right settings for the same.

Capture Hustling-Bustling Traffic
Light trails are the most common kind of long exposures. They are fairly simple to execute and make for spectacular images. Dusk, dawn and night are the most suitable times for capturing traffic trails. At these times, there is enough ambient light to fill in the shadows, which balances the highlights. Streaking lights from cars show a sense of motion and are instantly appealing.

Ferris Wheel and Joyride Trails
The Ferris wheels, the merry-go-rounds and the joyrides at fairs and amusement parks will give you unique long exposures. However, there is a lot of ambient light at such places. To avoid overexposed images, experiment with short lengths of exposures such as 3–10seconds.

Shoot Perfect Fireworks
While fireworks are beautiful, they can be highly unpredictable. Be prepared to end up with more bad frames than good ones. The tricky bit is figuring out which exposure settings to use. If the exposure is too long, the fireworks will overexpose. So, expose for the background and time your shutter-release so that the fireworks are either at the beginning or at the end of the exposure. For example, the fireworks could be captured during the first or last 5 seconds of a 30-second exposure. Take one picture without the fireworks to check the borderline night exposure. This is to ensure that the basic scene comes out right and the amount of light coming from bursting fireworks is not overexposed.

Stellar Star Trails
When photographing stars, you can capture a field of stars—a static snapshot of the stars as points of light. You can also capture star trails, in which the movement of the stars causes them to streak across the sky. The length of the exposure determines whether you capture many stars together or a star trail. The Earth rotates in a way that the light emanating from a star appears to move after about 15 seconds. Any camera that allows you to make 30-second long exposures at f/2.8 can give you amazing results.

Shake Your Camera
There are two types of long exposures— one in which the light source moves and the other in which the camera moves. You do not always need a steady camera to capture long exposures. Moving your camera can give you crazy results. Fix focus on your subject and press the shutter-release button. Shake the camera continuously for the length of the exposure or keep it still for a few seconds before you move it. This makes for great close-ups of traffic, fairy lights strung together or an altar with lit candles.

Zoom in, Zoom Out
When you set a slow shutterspeed, lock focus, release the shutter and then zoom in or out, the resultant image is a zoom burst. Instead of doing a smooth zoom in/out, do it in intervals to get spectacular results.

Toss It All Up
Set a long exposure and select the self timer, release the shutter, and toss it into the air just before it goes off. Catch the camera or have it land on a soft surface. The results can be mind blowing.

Pan the Camera
Select a slow enough shutterspeed and press the shutter-release button. Pan the camera vertically, horizontally or diagonally to get painting-like exposures. You can pan the camera in the direction of the subject’s movement, like corn stalks waving in a field.
Long exposures captivate people and make them stop dead in their tracks to admire the beauty of the world around them. Capture this beauty by experimenting with different lengths of exposures, different times of the day and different subjects. Highlight elements that are already enchanting and transform the unlikeliest and dullest of subjects into vivid, striking images. Take a look around you. There is a whole world out there for you to explore and paint.

Shooting Long Exposures with a Compact Camera
If your camera does not allow more than 15 or 30-second long exposures, shooting several exposures of one scene can help you simulate a very long exposure.

  • Multiple Exposures: If you are shooting a seascape, for instance, you can take a 15-second long exposure to freeze the stars in the sky. To ensure that the frame is properly exposed and capture the motion of the water, take two other 15-second exposures. Then combine all three shots to form one long exposure; by using Layers and the Layer Blending Modes in Photoshop. Open a new file and make each image a different Layer. Erase or mask on specific Layers to remove unwanted elements. Merge all the Layers in the end to make one image.
  • Stack Frames: You can also stack, that is, combine many frames to compose one very long exposure. Suppose you want to shoot an hour-long exposure capturing star trails. Set the timer on your camera to take a 30-second long exposure every 35 seconds. Combine all the resultant shots into one image in any image editing software.
  • It is Fun to Light Paint With Your Flash Too: You can use an on-board or external flash to freeze a subject, while capturing motion. As the flash’s coverage is limited to only a few feet, only the foreground will be frozen. So, it is important to compose accordingly.
  • Freeze a Subject, Capture Motion: You can shoot a band in concert or a group of people dancing. The flash will capture a still image, but an exposure of 1/8sec or longer, will ensure motion blurs that convey a sense of movement.
  • Light Paint a Structure: Using the flash, you can light paint subjects as diverse like man-made structures, vehicles, trees and even rocks! Use an external flash with coloured gelatin paper or flash gels, to dramatically light your subject. Choose an exposure of 5–8 minutes and fire the flashgun to paint the exterior of the structure.


Tags: Ambarin Afsar, light painting, lights, march 2010, night