Long Exposure - Urban Streets In The Night

This coming Thursday evening (Feb 27th), we'll be hitting the streets to try our hand at Urban Style Long Exposure and a few people have been asking about what gear to bring and were looking for some basic ideas on exposure.  So I thought I'd hit the streets this weekend, try out a few ideas, check out what gear is needed and see if I can come up with some suggestions on where to begin. 

On the gear side of things, it's pretty basic.  A camera capable of shooting in manual mode.  Sturdy tripod.  And a flashlight or two.  It would be great if you had a shutter release cable but everything we're likely going to try won't go over 30 seconds exposure time, so the cable release isn't mandatory.  Ditto for ND filters...handy to have but not a requirement for this night.  And finally, don't forget the warm clothing part either.

So how can a long exposure make your night on the street image look interesting and unique?  What I found is that it pretty much comes down to exposure time.  Want a deserted street look as the backdrop for your Night of the Dead epic film?  Go long, really, really long.  We're talking minutes here (5 to 10 minutes) as the longer you make it the more movement will be eliminated.  Cars and people will vanish.  But if you want to use vehicle lights as streaks of colour to show movement, then shorten up that exposure to something like 10 or 15 seconds. 

I know, I know, seems strange to say 15 seconds is a short exposure but here's an example of a 15 second exposure in front of the Plaza. This was shot at f/13 with ISO at 100, using a 14-24mm 2.8 lens set at 15mm.  I used the camera's meter to get a sense of where I wanted things set but shot in manual mode with manual focus.  Shooting in manual mode allowed me to quickly experiment with my settings and keeping the focus in manual insured that passing cars didn't keep altering my focus.  The exposure was long enough to capture a lot of street detail while still managing to turn those headlights into white streaks.

But those headlights were bugging me a bit.  I thought they were too much and that a few more tail and break lights would add some colour and provide a better mix.  So I tried again but since most of the traffic was coming towards me, I simply turned the camera around and went for a shot with the cars leaving.  Here's what I ended up with.

Same setup as the last image (15 sec, f/13, 100 ISO, 15mm focal length) but now there's a better colour mix, not to mention an arrest happening just out of frame.  One thing I was starting to learn though was that above everything else, focus is absolutely crucial. Movement should be blurry but everything else has to be as tack sharp as you can make it.  Best way to do this is to use your live view, magnify it a notch or two and then focus using that live view screen. 

But long exposure doesn't just have to be moving vehicles.  You can have a heck of a lot of fun shooting still life that can bring out colours and moods that no daytime traveler sees...well that is until you show them the pictures you've taken.  In this case, I slipped into the alley between Victoria and Seymour.  Knew from walking through there in the daytime that there were a lot of murals and graffiti and was thinking it might be fun to shoot at night.

In the shot below, I went with the same lens and kept my exposure time at 15 seconds, changed my aperture to f/20 and continued to work with an ISO of 100.  But here's where you can start to have some fun.  I had a flashlight with me and during the exposure I shone the flashlight beam on each face in the mural for a few seconds apiece and then ran it along the barbwire on the roof to the left.

In this last one (below) I wanted to see what would happen if I simply used the available light in the alley.  Again, same lens, ISO 100, aperture f/20 but I upped the exposure time to 30 seconds.

Back at the beginning of this blog I mentioned cable releases and how they're pretty much necessary if you go over 30 seconds as most cameras switch to "bulb" after that.  The other thing they are really good at doing is eliminating vibration when you fire off your shutter.  You'll know vibration is an issue if despite every effort to nail that focus, your images are still a bit blurry.  

On this weekend's shoot I went without a cable release and stayed under 30 seconds as I felt there was no sense spending anymore money until I found out if I liked this long exposure stuff.  So my poor man's cable release was a simple switch on my camera setup.  I set my camera to timer and selected a 2 second delay hoping that brief delay would eliminate any vibration from my finger as it pushed the shutter release.  For added anti-vibration safety you can also use mirror lockup if you like.  For these images I didn't and everything on my budget setup seemed to work.

So what's the verdict on long exposure?  I like it and enjoyed having a chance to start experimenting with this type of photography.  As a personal preference, I'm probably leaning more towards the alley type shots as I love the light and shadow combinations and can see that with a bit of practice, I could start to get images I like.  The people I met in the alleys were not scary.  Different yes but scary no.  This is kind of their territory and if you show them and their place some respect, all seems to work.  That being said the streets are not always safe and for the uninitiated, traveling alone can be a little nerve wracking, so going out with some friends is the recommended way.

Finally, keep in mind that this blog is simply intended to give you a place to start.  That initial setting that gets you going because if I learned anything this weekend, it's that there are not a lot of rules for long exposure.  It seems to be a type of shooting that opens up so many creative doors, giving you a chance to make some images that you may never have tried or seen before.  And if you are coming out this Thursday, it's a great opportunity to hang out with some other photographers who are as intrigued with as you are.

Bill McQuarrie
Bill McQuarrie


1 Comment

Dave M
Dave M

February 23, 2014

Good stuff, Bill, enjoyed your story….

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