Essential Long Exposure Tool Kit
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
Long exposure photography opens a whole realm of creative possibilities: get started with these essentials additions to your photography gear.
Experimenting with long exposure is one of my favorite ways to lose myself for a while. With a small list of gear that doesn't take up much weight or space or cost a fortune, you can start learning long exposure photography right away. If you're an occasional space-case like me, then we're bound to forget something critical from time to time - tripod plate anyone? - I'll be throwing in a few workaround tricks as well.
Unless you want to utilize camera movement in your long exposure, you'll be needing a tripod for your work. You could pick up a wobbly piece o'crap for twenty bucks or blow a cool grand on a top of the line carbon fiber Gitzo - that's not even including the tripod head. Mercifully, there are dozens of solid quality options in the $180-$300 neighborhood, a pleasant uptick from just 5 or so years ago. Personally I use one from Siriu that's a perfect blend of sturdy, portable, and solid value at a little over $100 for the legs. Reliable brands include 3 Legged Thing, Slik, Siriu, Manfrotto, Velbon, and Giotto's.
For the casual photographer tight on space, the Joby GorillaPod series is a reliable choice. They makes several models, with the most robust being the SLR model. It claims to hold 6.6 pounds but I prefer to keep it under 5. This solution will only work with smaller/lighter setups.
A ball head makes precise positioning easy, and if you're going to splurge then make the tripod head the priority. A cheap head can mean blurred images or even your camera taking a dive. You can also upgrade your legs later but keep the same head. So what to do if you find yourself tripod-less? In most situations, there will be some kind of solid surface that you can build on: a chair or low wall for example. Set your camera bag on top and settle your camera in. You may be forced to make changes to composition and angle, but it works in a pinch. Keeping a small sarong or travel towel in your bag can keep gear protected from muck and dirt.
For exposures of 30 seconds or less, most cameras will allow that in the regular shutter speed settings. Simply set the timer to 2 seconds and you won't even need a release. For exposures of more than 30 seconds though, you will need to use Bulb Mode. This means you are responsible for timing the exposure and starting/ending the exposure. I have done this manually in a pinch but it makes it much more likely you'll introduce shake into your image.
The simplest type of shutter release is a basic cable release, which means you can utilize Bulb Mode without touching the camera itself. Different cameras use different connections, so be sure to select the correct one for yours. More advanced shutter release cables will "hold" the shutter down for you, keeping those thumbs from getting tired. Wireless shutter remotes are available, many from the camera manufacturer or via an app, but Vello makes the ShutterBoss series with different cables to connect the receiver. It's more advanced and takes a little time reading the manual, but is my preferred option.
For times where your release isn't working or it's the one time it wasn't in your bag, go old school by using the timer for exposures of 30 seconds or shorter. If you are shooting a bulb exposure, use a black card to cover the lens each time you press the shutter button to hide camera shake.
Several years ago, I purchased a piece of 8x10 adhesive-backed felt and a piece of black craft foam, stuck them together and I've been using it ever since. It has acted as a flag, lens shade, mini-shade for macro work, and pseudo-split-ND. When faced with a scene that demands a split-ND that I don't have, I use it to block the brighter part of the scene for a portion of the exposure, then simply move it away. The only caveat there, is that it won't work with uneven horizons. For about $3, you'll have a simple tool with multiple uses that's light as air and no larger than a notebook. Should you find yourself black-cardless, you can get away with using your hand, hat, or scarf in a real pinch. Another reason photographers often wear lots of black!
For the image above, I had even forgotten my black felt card, so I used my hand as a split ND filter to achieve proper exposure in camera. It took several tries to get right, but I was happy with the result. Yes, you can use exposure bracketing but with the clouds moving and wanting to save myself time in post production, I decided I preferred this route.
The options here are practically infinite, from the crazy expensive mega-flashlights to cheapo glowsticks and everything in between. One essential light is a basic flashlight: for times when you are working in the dark, it makes seeing what you're doing possible. A headlamp might look a little goofy but leaves your hands free to work your magic. Headlamps can be found for under $20 or go crazy on a full bells n whistles setup for upwards of $60. I currently use a small Maglite I bought at Target for around $10, and it's served as a practical flashlight as well as a light-painting tool. Currently, I also have one blue and one red light on lanyards that can be set to steady on or strobe. They aren't super bright, but they were a couple dollars each and let me start experimenting with light painting before making pricier purchases. I also like to keep a little envelope or swatchbook of colored gels that I can attach to any light with a little gaffer tape. For more advanced light painting, check out the amazing Eric Pare.
This image is a very basic example of light painting. I used the glow stick, wore all black, and kept moving during the 60 second exposure.
When aiming to shoot exposures longer than several seconds, it's surprising how seemingly dim light can still be too darn much. Unless you want to be forced into f22 - which still may not be sufficient - you'll need an ND filter. This is another item you'll want to spend a little extra money for: cheap filters are bad for image quality, and it's a worthwhile investment. My largest lens has a 77mm filter thread, so I buy my NDs for that, then carry a step-up ring to accommodate my other lenses. These are inexpensive and will give your wallet a break.
I currently have a 6-stop and a 10-stop from B&W and I usually use the 10 stop. They can be stacked for minutes long exposure in daylight. It is possible to buy a variable ND filter, which varies in strength as you rotate it, but this is a filter type that usually demands top dollar to avoid quality pitfalls. Read reviews carefully, and make sure you understand the return policy carefully so you don't get stuck with a bad apple. For filters, Hoya, Tiffen, and B&W all make great products at reasonable prices.
This particular ND filter imparts a rosy warmth to images that I actually like, but can easily be corrected with custom WB setting or when you polish your image in post.
With the exception of the tripod, this kit will take minimal space in your bag and barely add any weight. It's easy to just leave them in there all the time, providing the freedom to create long exposure shots whenever you desire. Depending on your tripod selection, you can easily get started with just a few hundred dollars - far less if you already own a tripod. Keep scrolling for more examples of long exposure photography.
Please take a moment share any of your favorite items for long exposure photography in the comments or share this list with your fellow photographers.
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