As many of you probably already know, I am avidly shooting long exposure for many years. During these years, I have accumulated a large and varied amount of experiences while shooting both architecture and landscape long exposure that helped me chisel my technique and make it more and more efficient. My experience with shooting long exposure photography in an urban environment is vast and having this experience is key for creating the photography I’m making.
In this article, I’m going to share with you a few simple practical tips taken out of my experience with shooting long exposure, that will help you be more accurate and efficient when you shoot long exposure out in the field. This way you can concentrate more on your vision and create an image that portrays that vision perfectly, without needing to struggle with your equipment.
As a heads up, before getting into the article, if you want to learn or improve your black and white fine art photography and long exposure photography, you can sign up and join me in my upcoming 3-day Live Online (en)Visionography Workshop on November 20-22, 2020, where we will get into detail about how to create this kind of photography, from finding your vision to extensive post-processing lessons. It will be a small group workshop and there are only a few spots left. Don’t miss out! If you need a bit of convincing, here are what my students say about my workshops in their testimonials.
Now, back to the article.
They say you learn from your mistakes. That is true, and I would add to that, you learn even more from your experiences. The more experiences you have shooting long exposure, the more your technique advances, and the more you’re comfortable with it and able to attain the result you have in your mind in an easier and quicker way.
While inspiration and vision are fundamental for creating fine art photography and for working with long exposure, even the greatest ideas can be challenged by the practical aspects of realizing them. It is the same with photography. No matter how wonderful the idea you have in mind is, you may never be able to put it in practice if you haven’t figured out how to do it practically, and this stands even more when you are shooting long exposure. Long exposure is a complex technique that can only become simple if you figure out how to solve the technical and practical aspects in the field so you become comfortable while working with it and be able to focus on the creative part.
URBAN LONG EXPOSURE – A SPECIAL KIND OF LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHY
For a long time, long exposure photography was mainly related to landscape photography and the great outdoors, but during the past years, things have started to change and more and more photographers are inspired to shoot long exposure in the city. I’m happy to be one of the early promoters of this current of architecture long exposure photography and, as such, I’m happy to share what I learned with others wanting to walk on this path.
Being an architect as well as a photographer, I am an avid lover of urban and architecture photography and for this reason, I am striving to contribute as much as I can to the popularization of architectural long exposure photography, so others can fall in love with it too.
I have first came in contact with the use of long exposure photography in the city through the work of Alexey Titarenko and his series Shadows of a City from the early 1990s that came to my attention at the beginning of the 2000s after watching a documentary about it. From then on my love for long exposure photography has never diminished and I have combined that with my love for architecture and for shooting in the city, practicing it intensely all over the world and trying to popularize it through my workshops, my writings, and through my own work.
For someone who isn’t familiar with the particularities of using this technique in urban photography, I can say that even if you can use the same tools and approach as for the practical side of shooting long exposure, as you would in landscape photography, shooting long exposure photography in an urban environment is quite different from shooting long exposure in nature for instance.
SPEED VERSUS TAKING YOUR TIME WHEN SHOOTING LONG EXPOSURE
One of the particularities of urban long exposure photography is that you will need to be much faster when shooting in the city than when shooting in nature. This is happening because most of the time you will need to shoot while moving among passers-by and generally you will be working in a more or less crowded environment, which is almost never the case in landscape photography. This means that the photographer shooting long exposure in the city doesn’t have as much freedom as a photographer shooting landscape. Of course, landscape photography has other challenges but at least when you shoot landscape you have the peace and quietness you need to focus on your photography without being pressured by time, traffic, or people going about their business.
Most of the time, when shooting long exposure in the outdoors, you are free to take your time and spend as much as you like setting up your camera, composing, shooting different angles, relaxing and just enjoying the scenery. Unless you need to shoot a certain kind of light that is changing, as you do at sunrise or sunset, or a special formation of clouds that may go away if you linger too long, most of the time you don’t have the pressure of time you have when you shoot in an urban environment. This is one of the things I like most about shooting landscape photography. It is a quite different experience than shooting architecture in the city. From my point of view, these two experiences complete one another. Shooting in the city gives you the boost of energy that comes from the fast-paced rhythm while shooting landscape brings you the peace and serenity you can only find in nature.
Both kinds of photography have their challenges. For instance, you won’t be able to make it shooting landscape photography, especially in areas with more rugged terrain, if you don’t have the right outfit and equipment, if you don’t have the resistance to hike and you don’t know how to treat nature and its dangers. On the other hand, while shooting in the city you don’t necessarily need to wear hiking boots and be careful to not be swollen up by the high tide, there are other challenges that you need to overcome.
THE CHALLENGES OF URBAN LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHY
The challenges of urban long exposure photography are many and one needs to be well prepared and knowledgeable to be able to get the best technical results in these conditions, while also focusing on their vision and on the artistic value of their work.
What I find the most challenging in shooting architectural long exposure photography in the city is being able to move quickly while finding the best angles and being able to shoot freely without encountering limitations related to the layout of the urban space, the number of people passing by or the amount of available space you have to set up your tripod and camera so you can get the results you need.
One thing to point out is that an urban long exposure photographer needs to have patience and be able to relax and enjoy his work in an often stressful urban conditions. When shooting in the city you will feel the energy of the city, its fast pace and excitement, but if you are searching for calm and serenity at the same time, you will need to have a special approach to be able to relax in these conditions.
THE BEST SETUP FOR SHOOTING LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE CITY
What I would recommend when shooting long exposure in the city is to have a simple setup. Learn your neutral density filters well and also learn well how to use all your equipment. You need to be able to move fast and not fiddle around with all the lenses, filters and holders you own, trying different approaches to find out what works. It is likely that, if you spend too long with that, the conditions you have in front of you will change and you may not be able to capture what you intended in the first place.
What I always do is to have in mind very clearly what I want to do before I even set up my tripod. I will make a mental note of what filters I’m going to use so I can mount them quickly on the lens and be able to finish the exposure in a few minutes and then move on.
A FEW TIPS FOR INCREASING SPEED WHEN YOU SHOOT IN THE CITY
CHOOSING YOUR TRIPOD
One of the things I find very useful when shooting in the city is to carry a manageable tripod. What do I mean by a manageable tripod? What I mean is that you have to have the best quality tripod you can find in a size that you can handle easily in the city and carry with you attached to your backpack.
Generally, the larger the tripod, the more stable and the better it is in harsh weather conditions as for instance windy days. Having such a tripod will ensure that you will get much more stable images when shooting in challenging weather conditions but at the same time carrying such a tripod with you in the city may be overkill. That is the kind of tripod that I would use when shooting landscape and when I have enough space to move around and carry this tripod.
This is why when shooting the city I’m using a smaller tripod that I can easily carry with me without bumping into passersby, lampposts, or other kinds of urban furniture. It may seem funny when you think about me bumping into things with my tripod but it is definitely not practical. A smaller tripod may not be able to give you 100% stability but it will give you more images because you will be able to set it up more easily, in more confined spaces and it will help you be more flexible.
What you have to do though is to find the best smaller tripod possible and I could recommend the one I’m using, the Gitzo Traveler GT1545T 4-Section Carbon Fiber Tripod. Gitzo is a great tripod brand, one of the most widespread and even if they are a bit more expensive, they are very strong and will be with you for years if you take good care of them. Aa the heavy-duty version of this tripod, one I would use in harsh windy weather conditions, I’d recommend one of the Gitzo Mountaineer series tripods. Another tripod brand I like and I’m using is the FLM tripods, both in the light and heavy-duty range.
PREPARING YOUR NEUTRAL DENSITY FILTERS
I usually carry a large backpack with all my equipment on my back but I also carry a small pouch in front of me that is easily accessible, where I have ready a couple of filter setups so I can use them quickly when stopping for a shot in the city. I would generally have ready a 16-stop neutral density filter and a 14-stop or a 13-stop for shorter exposures. I also use a polarizer quite often, especially on sunny days, and sometimes I combine it with the neutral density filters to either increase the exposure or to control the haziness or the reflections in the scene.
This small setup will always be in my pouch ready and accessible and this gives me the confidence that I can capture everything that moves me in a quick and accurate way.
When I know that I will need to work with exposures of different lengths in the same shooting session, I may work with stacked filters and instead of the single filters, I may have ready in my easy to access filter pouch a set up with a 10 and a 6-stop ND filters stacked together or a 10 and a 4-stop, for instance, stacked together so I can easily break up each setup into two pieces and work with either a 4, 6, 10, 14 or 16 stops. The 4-stop neutral density filter may be a 3-stop filter sometimes, especially when the weather is overcast, just like the 14-stop filter can be a 13-stop filter. Doing so, many times increases my speed quite a bit since I don’t need to take out my large backpack to take other filters out of and create more setups.
While it may seem a small detail, this practical approach saves me a lot of time and makes things much easier for me so I can relax and enjoy my shooting, almost as if I was shooting on a deserted beach with only me and the sea in front of each other, and not in a busy environment like for instance Manhattan with so many people moving around.
One simple detail is sometimes enough to change the entire experience and this is one of my secrets for managing to be in a Zen state of mind when shooting in a busy urban environment. Maybe architecture and landscape long exposure photography are not so different from each other after all.
And since we are talking about landscape long exposure photography, here is an example of the setup I would make when shooting a seascape long exposure. In this example, I have stacked a 16-stop neutral density filter with a 2-stop neutral density grad filter, both attached to the lens with a holder. This is one of the best holders you can use for long exposure photography. It is a Formatt-Hitech anti-light leak holder that you can use with both regular square filters and neutral density grant filters.
For any kind of long exposure photography equipment, from filters to holders and other accessories, you can use my discount code JULIA10 to get 10% discount from Formatt-Hitech. You can order at either Formatt-Hitech UK or Formatt-Hitech USA.
If you are interested in studying long exposure photography more in-depth, I have created this complete guide to long exposure photography that you can consult on my website.
in addition, you can find extensive material about long exposure photography in my book From Basics to Fine Art-Black and White Photography and my video tutorial Creating (en)Visionography.
If you want to learn more about black and white fine art photography and long exposure photography, from the first sparkle of vision to extensive post-processing, you are welcome to join my Live Online (en)Visionography workshop on November 20 – 22, 2020 where we will discuss in depth about how to create images like the ones you see in this article.
If you enjoyed this article about shooting long exposure photography in an urban environment and you are interested in learning more practical tips and tricks like this that can make your life as a long exposure photographer easier and more enjoyable and help you create better images, let me know in the comments below and I’ll come back with more articles like this.
Also, if you are on Instagram, you can follow me on Instagram so we can keep in touch over there too.