Extending Time

Long exposure techniques can help create mood and simplify compositions

I have always been fascinated with long exposure photography. Since extended exposure techniques are so popular these days, I thought I’d share a few images and experiences with you.

long exposure of ocean surf just after sunset

Twilight surf, Big Sur Coast, California, 1991.

Although I started trying long exposure times when I used 35mm film cameras, I became more and more intrigued by the effect when I used a 4×5 camera. With large format cameras and the smaller apertures often used, my exposure times with daylight scenes were several seconds, at least. When photographing in low-light situations like slot canyons or at twilight, the times could easily be a minute or more. I remember seeing photographs that were taken at Big Sur back around 1980 that inspired me to give it a try.

My photograph “Twilight Surf” was a five-minute exposure. I used a Pentax V Digital Spotmeter to measure the light. I metered for the highlights to make sure that they didn’t wash out. Because the light was fading, I doubled my exposure reading. I only had time for a couple of exposures, and I wasn’t sure how the foreground rocks would stand out until the processed film came back. Fortunately, it worked out just fine, with good spacing and separation between each stone.

Besides photographing surf with long exposures, waterfalls are another popular subject for landscape photographers. If I have only one tip for making magical water motion images, it would be to experiment with many shutter speeds. Every situation is different. Water flows vary daily and, of course, seasonally. My waterfall photo here was taken in low evening light and at a diagonal angle with a telephoto lens, so a smaller aperture was needed. Although the image was made with a 4×5 film camera and I didn’t record the exposure time, it was probably 2-4 minutes long. The film and processing were $3 per sheet of film, so I didn’t bracket!

long exposure of waterfalls

Burney Falls at twilight.

With digital capture, I take dozens of frames at many different shutter speeds. I can now compare the variations on the camera LCD and on the computer later to see which gives the best interpretation. With the longer exposures like my film capture here, the texture within the streaks of motion blend together but give a strongly misty look. Shorter exposures, as fast as about 1/2 a second, will show streaking of various degrees within the water motion.

Another significant advantage that I love about long exposures is that the blurred water simplifies my compositions. Pounding surf becomes smooth twilight mist. A roaring river softens into a silky background for my dogwood and river images like the one here.

long exposure of a river beneath a dogwood branch

Dogwood blooming along the Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 1990.

Some may find that images of blurred water are overused in landscape photography. The benefits of adding to the mood, as well as simplifying an image’s design, are hard to dismiss. With “extended time” photographs, we see what our eyes couldn’t have seen in real time. I love the process of discovering and portraying a bit of the magic and mystery I feel in nature.

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.