Slowing Time: Why The long Exposure?

I started to use the long exposure technique to add a new creative dimension to my photography and this post is about what I think it brings to both the colour and composition of the image.

Now, in case you were wondering, a long exposure photo is when the camera's shutter remains open capturing one image over a relatively longer time than normal. To quote Wikipedia on the subject, "Long-exposure, time-exposure, or slow-shutter photography involves using a long-duration shutter speed to sharply capture the stationary elements of images while blurring, smearing, or obscuring the moving elements." More info can be found here on Wikipedia.

To achieve the long exposure effect you need to trick the camera into thinking the scene you are capturing is darker than what it is in reality and to compensate, the camera will open the shutter for longer in an attempt to let in more light. This is normally achieved by using a filter (a natural density filter) and placing it in front of the camera lens blocking some of the light from hitting the sensor. See my about page for details of the filters I use.

A Compositional Tool

Although London is one of the best (in my slightly biased opinion) and architecturally iconic places on earth, visually the city has a lot going on and it can be hard for the subject to stand out amongst all of the other competing shapes and contrast happening in the scene. Now, although long exposure images do nothing for static objects, such as buildings and statues. If there are moving objects such as water, people or clouds then this is where the technique can make all the difference. By blurring or even removing any moving objects in the image I am able to isolate the main subject making it stand out by removing distractions that will be contending for the viewer's attention. I will also use long exposures to add compositional elements, for example, blurring clouds that are moving towards or away from me can create some awesome lead in lines as in the photo of Tower Bridge later in this post.

Blending the Colours of the Light

A traditional photo captures the colours of the light in a split second and is a true representation of that particular moment in time. However, a long exposure photo will capture the colours as they change over time and blend the tones together which can have some quite beautiful and emotive results that might not normally be captured. Below are two images I took only a minute or so apart with identical post-processing. I shot the first image at 1/20th of a second and on its own a pleasant enough photo.

Photo of the London Eye taken by Trevor Sherwin

1/20th sec
f10
ISO200
21mm
Fujifilm X-T10
XF18-55mm

Next is the longer exposure, I took over 28 seconds. Straight away you will notice a less cluttered, simpler composition due to the river being smoothed out complementing the clear sky.

Long exposure photo of the London Eye at Sunrise taken by Trevor Sherwin

28 secs
f10
ISO200
21mm
Fujifilm X-T10
XF18-55mm

What might be less apparent are the subtly different tones in the image. The colours from the first image are still there but appear slightly more muted in the second, specifically the warmer orange. Also, although not many clouds, in the first image they appear to contend with the London Eye and fight for the same space whereas the softer look of the clouds in this image allows the structure to be more prominent in the scene.

It's not just colour images that benefit

If it is minimalistic architectural cityscapes you want then you can take it one step further and remove the colour altogether. Below is a similar shot of the London Eye taken on a dull, foggy morning when the light was less than ideal.

Black and White long exposure photo of the London Eye by Trevor Sherwin

280 secs
f9
ISO200
21mm
Fujifilm X-T10
XF18-55mm

This image (above) is a 4 minute, 40 seconds exposure, resulting in the River Thames looking even smoother giving it an almost luxurious soft sheen and with the lower, defused light, this black and white conversion allows the contrast in the London Eye and surrounding architecture to be prominent in an otherwise minimalistic cityscape.

So that's it, a few reasons why I use and enjoy the long exposure in my London cityscapes. To finish, below are a couple more examples of long exposures images I have taken since beginning this slow shutter journey.

Long exposure photo of Tower Bridge at sunset taken by Trevor Sherwin

140 secs
f9
ISO200
18mm
Fujifilm X-T10
XF18-55mm

Long exposure black and white photo of The Shard London by Trevor Sherwin

30 secs
f4.5
ISO200
18mm
Fujifilm X-T10
XF18-55mm