Gizmodo Photo Guide: Advanced Camera Tricks for Long Exposure And Light Painting

Your camera does a great job of snapping clean, clear photographs whether you're in bright daylight or out in less desirable lighting conditions like dim twilight or inside a dark room. But that's regular, normal, everyday photography -- it's easy, right? Why not test your skills and try some long exposures, whether it's at night or during the day, and give the beautiful classical-meets-high-tech art form of light painting a go. Here's what you need to know to get started.

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Play With Different Shutter Speeds

Longer exposures, all other things being equal, necessarily mean a longer shutter speed -- your camera's shutter being open for a longer period of time, letting in more light to get to the correct exposure that you want. You'll almost always want to be shooting with entirely manual shutter, aperture and ISO settings, but it's the shutter speed that matters most especially if you want to experiment with light painting. A shorter shutter speed of just a few seconds may still give you the feel of rushing and splashing water, while longer shutters smooth everything including the hustling and bustling of humans walking around your photos. And, of course, you can stop down your camera's aperture and reduce its ISO as much as possible to let in the minimum amount of light and let your camera's shutter expose for as long as possible.

Try A Neutral Density Filter For Daytime Long Exposures

Long exposures, and even light painting, aren't just for dark starry moonlit nights. Using something called a neutral density filter, you can reduce the amount of light being let through your camera's lens by a factor of three, a factor of 10 or even more, giving you the ability to drag out your camera's shutter speed for more than a few seconds even in the middle of the day. That means you can get photos of crowds of people moving around like grains of sand on the beach, or even make normally busy squares and town areas look empty and stark with the power of slow shutter speeds reducing the freezing effect that a regular camera shutter has on motion.

Light Paint With Different Tools And Objects

This is the best part of light painting -- trying out different light sources and understanding the effects they create inside your images. I'm a huge fan of the effect that you can get with a regular ol' dollar-store sparkler, but using glow sticks or LED lights -- especially more than one, in colours that complement or contrast each other -- can give you a really strong and noticeable effect. You can, of course, use a regular flashlight and just add some extra light to an area within a normal long exposure photograph, although that effect is far more subtle. If you're trying out anything quirky, try to understand the effect that it will have on your camera's auto white balance -- this is why a custom white balance is a good idea.

Invest In A Good Tripod

This is the big one. At night, there's less light for your camera to pick up and funnel down the lens and turn into little digital ones and zeros. And that means your camera has to boost the digital gain of its image sensor -- creating unwanted noise -- or slow down its shutter speed, potentially causing unwanted image blur, or open up its aperture -- meaning less of the image is in sharp focus. The easy solution to that is to use a sturdy tripod for your camera, to hold it steady to capture light no matter how slow its shutter speed is and how long it has to take to capture any given photograph. You can buy a huge variety of tripods -- tall, short, heavy, light, carbon fibre, aluminium, plastic -- but what's most important is that it holds your camera well and won't shake or topple at an inopportune moment.

Use A Remote Shutter And Timer To Stay Clear Of Your Camera

When you're using a camera on a tripod, you can touch it to change settings and adjust ISO, white balance, aperture and shutter speeds based on the results you're getting from your long exposure and light painting photographs, but you should absolutely stay away from it while the shutter is open and it's letting in light to capture an image. Any vibration will effectively ruin your image by making it blurry and robbing it of that pin-sharpness that makes long exposure landscape photography look good. To that end, you'll need a remote shutter trigger, wired or wireless, to fire off your shutter without actually touching the camera. Or you could use a timer, as long as it's long enough that your camera stops shaking before it takes the photo. Or, you could use your camera's integrated Wi-Fi and your handy smartphone.

Turn Off Image Stabilisation

It's also worth remembering that if you're on a tripod, your camera doesn't need image stabilisation turned on -- it can, in fact, be a bad thing for your photos and introduce (very small) amounts of blur, making your long exposures look a little less crisp than they would otherwise be. When you're shooting long exposure photographs it's crucial to remove any potential source of vibration for your camera or the tripod on which it's mounted, and that means staying well away from your camera while its shutter is open -- but also means disabling any in-camera feature that might unexpectedly work against you and sabotage what could otherwise be an awesome photo. Some newer cameras and lenses automatically sense when they're mounted on a tripod, so your mileage may vary.

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