Long Exposure Techniques: Mystical Landscapes

December 08

6 min. to read

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Long exposure photography is especially impressive when used on landscapes with moving water, clouds, or grasses. Here's a short guide to landing those mystical shots.

Ever feel inspired by the mysterious, other-worldly feeling that many landscape photos on sites like 500px evoke? They’re often full of streaking clouds, glassy water, misty waves, and a sense of mystery and calmness that pervades the frame. Many of these are created using long exposure techniques that aren’t particularly difficult to master. All you need is a DSLR (or mirrorless camera), a 10-stop ND filter, a tripod, a shutter release cable…and a little technological  knowhow .  

Long Exposure Techniques: Mystical Landscapes Image1Photo Credit: Trevor Cole

Why an ND Filter?

Neutral density (ND) filters cut down the amount of light entering the lens. As a result, the shutter will need to be open longer to get the correct exposure—hence ‘long exposure.’ The darker the filter, the longer the exposure needed. With a 10-stop filter, you can achieve exposure times much longer than your camera could do on its own. Artistically, that means you’ll have silkier water, longer streaks in your clouds, and a greater effect overall.

Long Exposure Techniques: Mystical Landscapes Image2

Choosing Your Subject

Long exposures work best on landscapes where there’s motion, either in clouds, grasses, or water. Actually, anything that’s clearly moving is an opportunity to explore. As with all landscapes, shooting at the golden hour or near sunset/sunrise will give you some of the best light in the sky, so it’s best to start there. At the same time, avoid having the sun in your composition, as the area of overexposure it will create will be hard to edit out.

Long Exposure Techniques: Mystical Landscapes Image3Photo Credit: Tianshu Liu

Focusing

The interesting—and challenging—thing about working with a 10-stop ND filter is that neither you nor your camera will be able to see anything through it once you put it on the lens. That means you have to do your focusing before putting it on. If you operate purely in manual, that will be easy. But if you tend to use your camera’s autofocus, you’ll need to go through a few extra steps. Here’s one method:

Step 1: Set your camera to the aperture priority mode, dial in your settings (ISO, aperture, etc.), and set your focus (by half-pressing the shutter button). Once you’re satisfied with the focus and exposure, switch to manual mode to avoid your camera trying to refocus later.

Step 2: Carefully attach the filter. (Make sure you have your tripod locked down so nothing slips.)

Step 3: Set your camera to “Bulb” mode and manually increase your exposure time by 10 stops. (Most likely this will be 30 clicks of the dial as most cameras are set to 1/3 stop increments.)

Step 4: Block the light out of your viewfinder with your hand, a piece of black card, or the covering that comes with your camera. (If you’re using your hand, be careful not to touch the camera as this can introduce camera shake into the photo.) Now, using your remote shutter release, take your first shot, being careful not to touch the camera until it’s completely finished.

Step 5: Check to see if the exposure was correct. All ND filters have slight variances, some of which you might need to compensate for. You might also want to make your own creative adjustments.

Pro Tip: Check your histogram after you first use your autofocus and again after you’ve taken the long exposure shot. If they’re roughly the same, you’ve succeeded!

Long Exposure Techniques: Mystical Landscapes Image4Photo Credit: Nathan Anderson

Editing Your Photo

If you’re using an inexpensive ND filter, chances are that it will introduce some kind of color cast to your image. That means that you’ll more than likely have to change the white balance and/or remove the color cast with other adjustments. If you shot in Raw, it will be a fairly easy adjustment—especially with Luminar’s Remove Color Cast filter. But if you’re taking a lot of photos of the same scene, you might want to batch process them with the corrections.

Long Exposure Techniques: Mystical Landscapes Image5Photo Credit: Brandon Kawamura

That’s all there is to it. Now you’re ready to pack you bag and head out to capture those mystical shots. Good luck!

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