Long Exposure photography with the FUJINON XF18-55mm
A most of us do, I enjoy browsing sites such as Flickr, in particularly some of the amazing long exposure photos; dreamy waterfalls and milky oceans and have thought “how?” I decided to do a little bit of research and was intrigued furthermore. So much so I went ahead and purchased a couple of neutral density (ND) filters and started to experiment with my various bits of gear to see what worked best.
Now as you may have gathered I am a big fan of the the FUJINON XF18-55mm F2.8-4 R LM OIS lens and as I tell most people; it’s not your typical kit lens. When I want to go out and shoot long exposure photography I tend to gravitate towards my XF18-55mm for two main reasons; the first is image quality and the second is versatility. I can shoot landscapes at 18mm or small hard to reach waterfalls at 55mm, this coupled with the Fuji X-T1 I feel fit my needs perfectly.
Normally the day before a shoot I tend to think about the location, subject and how my completed image might look. I sometimes take a glance at Google images to get ideas about composition as chances are someone has already done it before me. As a lot of my long exposures are taken at the coast I also check tides, often there is no point in visiting at low tide. I use a free app for iPhone (also available on Android) called My Tide Times. Another handy tool is the The Photographer's Ephemeris, a web based tool for calculating sunrise and sunset times. Finally I head to Google maps and plan the route from my home to the location.
My Gear List
- Fuji X-T1 (you know I love my X-T1, say no more)
- FUJINON XF18-55mm F2.8-4 R LM OIS (versatile with great IQ)
- Tripod (essential as the camera must remain perfectly still for the entire duration)
- Shutter release cable (needed to prevent camera wobble)
- Lee Big and Little Stopper ND filters (my filter of choice but others are available)
- Spare batteries (long exposures can zap the batteries so I carry extras)
- Warm clothes (very early or very late in the day tends to be cold!)
Setting up & taking the picture
On the day I like to arrive at my location early, for sunrise shoots this sometimes means leaving the house at silly o’clock! Once I’m there I usually have a walk around and scope out different angles or interesting compositions. When I’m happy it’s then time to setup my tripod, dial in ISO 200, select an aperture of around f8-f11, turn off image stabilization and set to RAW (I don't attach my filters yet). I take an initial test shot with the shutter speed set to auto. This gives me an idea of how long the shutter will be open once I have attached my ND filter and still give the correct exposure. It sounds complicated but in reality it is not. Lee filters even provide a chart to calculate the correct exposure times when attaching a specific filter. There’s also lots of free apps available that will do the same calculations for you.
As an example, what the chart is telling me is; that a correctly exposed photo taken at 8th/sec without a filter will take 2 minutes once the filter has been attached. In this case the ‘Big Stopper’ (10 stop) ND filter.
With the calculations done it's time to attach the filter and plug in the shutter button release cable. A point worth noting when shooting at sunrise or sunset. The lighting conditions change rapidly so I constantly have to adjust my exposure times little by little as I go.
I usually take a few shots at my first location and review the histogram on my rear LCD screen to double check that I am not under or overexposing the scene. Then I like to move around quite a bit and try new angles, this is where the versatility of the FUJINON XF18-55mm comes into play. I know from experience that this lens has great image quality across the 18-55mm spectrum so I feel confident shooting extremely long or short. When lighting conditions are changing fast, the last thing I want to do is remove my ND filters, swap lenses and re-attach filters. I much prefer the one lens approach for a simple life.
How long is long enough?
I sometimes get asked; “How long do I leave my shutter open to get silky smooth seas or dreamy waterfalls?"and such. In all honesty it's difficult to say as it all depends on the lighting conditions at the time but I tend to stick to the following as a rough guide:
Seascapes 1-3 minutes
Waterfalls 5-40 seconds
Car head lights 5-25 seconds
Stars & Milky Way 20-25 seconds
ISO 200 f/9.0 40ec
A Word on Focus
In most cases attaching an ND filter to your lense restricts the view as the scene darkens, this makes focusing difficult. I usually try to get focus in manual mode before the ND filter goes on. Another method for maintaining focus (providing I will be the same distance from my subject through the shoot) is to use the AF-L (focus lock) button on the rear of the camera to ensure my focus doesn't change, which is really handy when using a dark ND filter.
Once back home I import the RAW files into Adobe Lightroom 6 for processing. Shooting in RAW helps immensely here as I can bring back lost shadows, tone down the highlights and add some contrast. Also worth noting is that some ND filters can leave a colour cast to the image, however this is easily corrected by altering the white balance or temperature slider. I prefer a lot of my long exposure photography in black and white so I like to convert the images in Lightroom. After that it's a case of exporting my images as JPEGs ready to share on social media.
I hope this brief overview of my work flow can assist anyone looking to get into long exposure photography. It can seem a little daunting at first but I find it fun and the results extremely rewarding. Here’s some recent examples.