The Beauty of the Long Exposure

Road to nowhere - the beauty of the long exposureI have seen some astonishing black and white photography that uses very strong neutral density (ND) filters such as the B+W ND 110 to blur cloud movement using a long exposure.  I wanted to get some shots with the same effect into my portfolio.  The B+W 110 is not for the faint hearted because it is so black the camera typically can’t meter or focus through it, but I’ve tried lesser NDs and they are just not strong enough for the full effect. The real full on long exposure effect can be stunning, and I obtained reasonably pleasing results on the shoot, so I’m going to keep going. The picture on the left is entitled ‘The Road to Nowhere’ and is a small road that runs just off the A41 between Aylesbury and Bicester towards Brill, where I also shot that day.  After some experimentation I found the following to work quite well:

  1. Ideally you should shoot on a cloudy day with strong winds so that you can capture the movement as a blur. The direction and speed of movement of the clouds is of interest as movement across the frame versus towards or away from you look quite different.
  2. Set up your camera on a tripod. Make sure it is really secure, especially if you are in a high wind. If you have a strap attached to the camera make sure it is not flapping about. Ideally you should be using a cable release or remote to release the shutter.
  3. Compose a test shot without the filter, in aperture priority mode – setting the desired aperture, which will typically be small (I mainly used f16). Typically you will want to set a low ISO, shoot using Raw and disable lens vibration reduction as it is not helpful on a tripod.
  4. Focus using auto focus and take note of the shutter speed.
  5. Next, screw in your B+W 110 10 stop neutral density filter, and switch to manual focus and manual mode.
  6. In Manual mode set the shutter speed to 1000 times the shutter speed of the meter reading for the test shot, keeping the same aperture setting and using the bulb setting if necessary.
  7. Take the shot and look at the result. Adjust the shutter setting as desired until you get the exposure you want.
  8. Take off the ND filter, flip back to aperture mode and autofocus and take a bracket of 3 shots that can be used with the long exposure to create a properly exposed image.


Darkness at Noon in New York

Darkness at Noon in New YorkThe Chrysler Building is a favourite of mine, and a great subject for black and white photography.    The metallic exterior, the sunburst on the crown and the metal eagles make it an architectural wonder for me.

The Chrysler is a reflection of both the Art Deco era and the machine age and has strong automotive accents.   at 319 m, it was was briefly the world’s tallest building before that honour passed to the Empire State Building in 1931.  It was the headquarters of the Chrysler Corporation from 1930 until the mid-1950s and is still the tallest brick building in the world, albeit with a steel frame, and the 5th tallest building in New York.  The corners of the 61st floor are decorated with those fabulous metal eagles whilst replicas of the 1920s Chrysler bonnet ornaments (aka radiator caps) adorn the corners of the 31st floor.

I took the shot you can see here on a Nikon D300 with an 18-200mm lens at 112mm.  It was shot from 42nd Street in New York City at ground level and the picture was taken in broad daylight, in the early afternoon.   This statement sometimes results in disbelief, but at night what is most visible of the crown of the building is the triangular illuminated windows, so the building appears quite unlike my picture.    A quick search on Google Images for ‘Chrysler Building at night’ will confirm the difference.  The effect you can see here, which I refer to as ‘Darkness at Noon’ relies on  a good quality circular polariser, the nature of the camera’s light meter, and an underexposure/red filter combination during mono coversion.  Let me break this down step by step.

A circular polariser is an indispensible piece of kit that increases color saturation and decrease reflections.  It is also one of the only lens filters the effect of which cannot be replicated by editing.  Importantly, it can also darken skies, which is what I was using one for in this instance.  I used a Hoya Pro-1, which does the job very well.

The second part of the equation is not a technique but a property of the camera, whose reflective light meter wants to average out every scene to middle grey.  What this means in practice is that the brighter the subject (building) is, the darker the background (sky) will be.  This is why the sky looks dark blue in many Mediterranean holiday photos – the white buildings darken the sky.  I took a lot of shots of the Chrysler (around 50) and one in particular had a brighter building and a darker sky, as it had caught the sunlight particularly well at that moment.  So, I took the best shot I had, in which the sky was already dark blue – helped along by the circular polariser – and did my raw editing in Aperture, adjusting the curves into a gentle ‘S’ shape to make the image more punchy.

From there I moved on to Photoshop, to perform the mono conversion.  I use the Silver Efex Pro plugin, which is an amazing bit of software – it has a powerful set of options but also a rich variety of presets, which makes it easy to use.  I selected the ‘underexpose’ preset and added the red filter, which together will turn a dark sky pitch black, and the image was complete: a silver building on a black background.   Or perhaps, a silver building caught in a flash of darkness…