Long Exposure Tips for Photographing Seascapes

Francesco Gola
Tips and tricks to capture your long exposures without any inconvenience

One of my favorite quotes ever is from Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Long exposures have exactly that: an incredible power to let you see a place that you think you know well with new eyes.

Technically, it is just a matter of shutter speed, but I believe it is also a matter of mood and feeling. Taking a long exposure shot is easier than you could expect. Just put your camera in Bulb mode, and open the shutter for the required time. In this tutorial, I want to share some tips with you that can help you have fun with this fantastic technique.

Open Your Mind
Take your time to visualize the shot in your mind. When shooting long exposures, what you see with your eyes will turn out different than what you’ll capture on camera.

Look Up
To create a well-balanced composition, figure out the direction where the clouds are moving towards. Also, try to evaluate how fast they are moving. If you’re taking a seascape shot, check how wild the sea is. This will help you in choosing the correct shutter speed to get a really dramatic sky and a silky sea without making everything flat and dull.

f/11, ISO64, 120”, GND Medium 0.9, ND256, Polarizer

 Photo ©Francesco Gola

Wind
The wind is your enemy. Use a sturdy tripod, and once set firmly on the ground, hang your backpack on it to increase the stability with weight. Keep in mind that a few seconds of wind gust can compromise a two-minute exposure, and above a cliff, strong winds are quite common. If possible, use your body as a windshield for your camera.

Focusing
Focus on the subject before adding the filters. As ND filters can be really dense, it would be difficult to get your subject in focus using autofocus, or even manually focusing through the viewfinder. The best solution is to always compose and manually focus the scene before adding filters. Remember that there is nothing worse than having a magnificently composed 4-minute exposure that is out of focus.

Remote Shutter
Use a remote shutter. Your camera is extremely sensitive to vibrations. Using a remote shutter will prevent you from touching the camera. If possible, use a programmable remote shutter and you’ll be able to get several minutes of exposure without constantly checking your watch!

The Sun
Predict the sun’s position. Unlike “still photography,” in a long exposure shot, you should avoid having the sun in the frame. This is because, after two minutes of exposure, the sun will not be around anymore. The sun itself, plus every surface on which it will reflect, will be so overexposed that it would be almost impossible to recover it in post-production. There are apps you can download on your mobile device to predict the position of the sun.

f/11, ISO40, 120”, GND Medium 0.9, ND64, Polarizer

 Photo ©Francesco Gola

Weather
Clouds and storms are your friends. If you think that the current weather condition prohibits you from taking a photo now, it won’t be the same in an hour. Use images from satellite to predict where the storm is moving to, and remember that the best clouds are at the end of a perturbation.

Calculate, Don’t Improvise
The perfect light can last only a few minutes or even seconds. If you are taking a 3-minute long exposure, you have only one chance to get your shoot. The best strategy here is not to improvise how long the exposure should be after mounting a 10-stop filter. Take a test shot without filters with the desired ISO and aperture first. Once you’re happy with the exposure, stack on the desired ND filters and compensate for the stop introduced by the filters in the shutter speed. Using an app for your mobile or a printed chart may be a good idea, but if the light conditions are changing (for example a cloud is going to cover the sun reducing the available light), just add (or subtract, if you expect the light to increase like in a sunrise shoot) an extra 15-20% to the resulting time. Remember, taking a test shot is also recommended for checking the composition and focus.

Histogram
Use your histogram instead of your LCD. Don’t trust the LCD. The LCD display of your camera is extremely luminous and is not good for reviewing the image you just took. Use the histogram instead. By checking the histogram, you can quickly visualize if the calculations you made for the shutter speed are correct or not. In case they are wrong, looking at the histogram will allow you to calculate the correction needed. To improve the experience with LCD in strong daylight conditions, you can use a Loupe.

Light Leakages
Be aware of light leakages. In a long exposure shot, every infiltration of light in your camera will compromise your work with banding and color casts. The solution is incredibly easy and cheap: use black tape. Before taking an exposure, remember to cover your viewfinder and the edges installed in the filter holder with black tape.

f/8, ISO64, 180”, GND Hard 0.9, ND256, Polarizer

 Photo ©Francesco Gola

Francesco Gola

Francesco Gola is one of Out of Chicago’s diverse team of world-class photographers. To learn more about Francesco and our photography conferences he’s teaching at, click here.

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