Long Exposure: Magic Blue and You

Saturday, September 17, 2011

With long exposure you can cure a lot of ills
Remove choppy water, eliminate people in a scene

At the extremes, beyond the pale, on the periphery, above the rim are where you find the best stuff. 
Mountain tops/ocean floors
Middle of the road?  Anybody can snap a picture at 1/250@f/8.  That is a camera’s sweet spot.  But what you capture way out on the ends, at ten seconds or at ten thousandth piques the senses.


Right down the middle is average, safe—mediocre.  At the edges shapes change, colors change, perceptions change, things shrink & grow.  Once during a blackout engulfing most of Boston I made exposures of the city that lasted minutes—half an hour.  Reciprocity went through the roof.  On the resultant film, the black sky turned green, puffy clouds morphed into flimsy mist & there was a discernible flare. 

Extremes, though contrary, have like effects.  Extreme heat kills, &
so extreme cold; extreme love breeds satiety, & so extreme hatred;
& too violent rigor tempts chastity, as does too much license.
                    —George Chapman

On an assignment for the now defunct Polaroid, I had the honor of working with “Doc” Edgerton before he died.  We shot a rifle bullet through an ordinary playing card.  His mechanics froze the projectile & shock wave in mid flight.  For both experiences—one too slow for the human eye & the other too fast—the resulting images stick in my mind for all the information they revealed.

“magic blue”

When I first started to bracket for elusive nighttime shots, the timed exposures turned the pictures cyan.  I had no idea what to expect until I developed the film.  Cameras, film & light meters were not designed to handle beyond certain limits.  I crossed my fingers.  “The proof is in the proofs.”  I had no inkling but that is how I eventually discovered “magic blue”—a mistake that I capitalized on by pushing the technology to the extreme. 

On Kodachrome film, the combination of reciprocity failure & the preponderance of ultraviolet light waves in the atmosphere at dusk gave the images a “day-for-night” appearance.  Under the right conditions city lights become bright & dramatic, the shadows hide the ugly details & the sky acquires a saturated blue.  At normal latitudes the window for this special light is only about twenty to thirty-five minutes.  So you have to be in place & prepared to take maximum advantage but it is well worth the effort.

In taking pictures the more we know about light the less we need of it.

I have a friend in Ohio who claims that he can make precise light meter measurements of a sunset to ensure optimum colors but I am skeptical.  In the old days I used to bracket like crazy.  Today we have the luxury of the LCD. 

Long exposures require a Zen-like attitude.  Our greatest personal asset is patience.  To master “magic blue” you wait forever for a very short span of time.  Not knowing the territory, you maybe get to many locations early & wait.  Many anxious hours have been spent anticipating the right conditions, the right light & hoping everything would work.  Now we can also rely on HDR.


To discover the essence of long exposure on your own means to stack up years of experimentation, thousands of hours collectively waiting for the right moments & hundreds of failures.  Millions of frequent flyer miles, early dawns, late nights.  My journey has been exquisite but daunting.  I am not sure I would do it again. 

Many spend time accurately documenting earth, air, fire & water.  But to utilize long exposure is to go beyond, to dig down deeper into a mechanical bag of tricks available to the photographer who makes an attempt to reproduce the intangibles between subject & him/herself…to capture the invisible.  When we extend the time frame, we introduce another dimension.

In a photograph long exposure is often invisible to the naked eye & almost impossible to detect.  But time leaves artifacts.  Normal shutter speeds record the expected—reality, as it were.  Lengthening time “paints” another “wash” over the façade of the photograph & marries art & science.  For example if we capture cascading waterfalls with an extended exposure, we are recording something that our naked eye never actually sees.  Therefore it begs the question, “Is it real or is it art?”

The “accumulation” of light subtly “bedazzles” a picture, somewhat like a young girl’s hobby craft.  Light leaves hints: streaks from automobile tail lights, trails from body movement, paths of stars, ghosts of another period.  And the original photograph is no longer placid.

    A snapshot steals life that it cannot return.  A long exposure creates
    a form that never existed.
                        -Dieter Appelt

Ultimately we are still photographers.  Our cameras freeze moments before turning them into history.  But the world is in constant motion.  Everything moves.  To represent this is sometimes our mission.  One technique is to utilized blur.  It gives a still photograph a somewhat cinematic effect.  It isolates things that you want to illustrate.  Makes them stand out, not only visually but psychologically.  Blur cannot be controlled but with practice we can learn to anticipate its cause.

Every photography textbook describes how to use longer exposures to add some blur to an otherwise dull picture or how to pan with a moving subject to obliterate the background.  They also teach you the complicated metering you have to master.  But today’s digital cameras are capable of making perfectly exposed pictures by just switching the camera to automatic.  A camera does not care if you are too stupid to hold it steady.  Consequently you can concentrate on composition & “following through” with the sweeping movement.  It is a matter of shutter speed & choreography.  Also learn to use your ears.  You can hear how long the shutter remains open & discern how much blur is appropriate in that time limit.  You can make small adjustments to the exposure but the electronics will make a proper exposure even as you move in & out of light & shade.  However you might want to turn off that image stabilization apparatus.

Sports are especially enhanced by blur.  Athletics are so balletic & graceful that they absorb it willingly.  Even things that do not normally remind us of motion can also be subjects.  Freeze a landscape with a tripod but long exposures let the wind rustle the foliage & alter how we experience forests.  Fuzzy leaves.


To manage long exposures you often need a whole bunch of extra equipment.  In this case the photographer’s best friend is his/her tripod.  It keeps everything steady & loyal for as long as you require & does not ask for compensation.  The tripod’s companion is a good cable release.  Sometimes you can get away with a little body tremor with short lenses but, as soon as you stick that long lens on, you excite all sorts of random vibrations.

I also carry a mono-pod everywhere.  It does not replace a tripod but eliminates one degree-of-freedom & helps me gain as much as two extra stops slower shutter speed.
In the absence of a tripod I use a wall or a tree.  But the best makeshift camera support is my camera bag.  I can throw it down anywhere & its soft, malleable exterior acts as a beanbag & cushions my camera excellently.  The added benefit is I always have it with me.

Ours is a solar profession.  We resemble sun worshipers.  But it is hard to get longer shutter speeds when shooting in broad daylight.  Even with the lowest ISO settings, the longest speed possible may not be adequate to slow you down.  That is when I pile on the Polarizing filters.  In a perfect world it would be optimum to have different neutral density filters but they are heavy, bulky, expensive & have a single purpose. Polarizers are designed for another problem but act as an excellent substitute.
World’s Longest Exposure
When you get the hang of it you may want to experiment with “double bracketing”: 1) vary the f/stop around the speed of the action 2) vary the exposure with the shutter.  The mood & rhythm change with each new variation.  Subsequently you are exploring a new kind of art: photography that integrates both movement & elapsing time for special effect.

I often mix strobe with available light.  The flash etches a sharp image &, at the same time, continuous light produces some form of smear that is unpredictable.  In this form light is a variable that is hard to corral &, as stated before, impossible to control.

To integrate strobe with continuous light is a juggling act.  The results are unique but the calculations can be complicated.  Speedlights make this much simpler.  By using one of the automatic settings (aperture priority, shutter priority or programmed mode), the camera can maintain perfect exposure every time.  It takes a bit of practice to understand why this is happening but, again, composition is all you should be concentrating on.


To elongate time is the “photographer’s exclusive moment”.  Not instantaneous but not quite eternal.  With slow exposures we are armed with a tool for abstraction.  We can experiment with motion.  It is a characteristic unique to photography. 

As we become more knowledgeable we expect photography to do more than what is inherent.  Not just to document but to explore new vistas while preserving old memories.  We expect it to perform herculean feats.  Fortunately it has always risen to the task.  It exceeds all my expectations.  I no longer visit a place to see what other people seek.  I come to see ONLY what others don’t.  I come for things that may not exist.  Sometimes it happens, sometimes it remains elusive.  I am not afraid of that.   “They also serve who only stand & wait.”


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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.