Time Manipulations What has the Camera seen?

Freeze a moment in time. Make time stop in it tracks. The decisive moment. This is what conventional “realistic” photography does – catch a fraction of a second, record a very brief slice of time. The resulting messages very much depend on the moment the photographer choses.

Now, imagine for a moment that you could add several slices of time onto the same scene, pile fractions of time on top of each other, and create something completely different, something that would show various aspects of the scene at the same time. Similar to a movie, but still in a two-dimensional format, something that is a hybrid between present and past - longer moments.

Long exposure photography gives you these longer moments in time.

So, let’s take a closer look at this.

Long exposure photography (LE) is defined as keeping the camera shutter open for a prolonged time, longer than a fraction of a second.

LE photography is not a novel technique – quite the opposite, LE is as old as the origins of photography. The famous 1826 image “View from the Window at Le Gras” took eight hours of exposure time, albeit mainly due to the insensitivity of the recording substrate.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce “View from the Window at Le Gras” (image courtesy of Google)

Today, this technical limitation no longer applies and yet still, LE is a popular technique.

Let me tell you my reaction when I first saw good long exposure images. It was like a bombshell! Everyday scenes looked otherworldly, like memories from a dream, ethereal, soft and a little surreal. It triggered my desire to really explore photography, to create something different. It was almost addictive.

Many great photographers employ LE, in color and black & white, in a great variety of styles. Alexey Titarenko, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Michael Kenna, are some of the biggest contemporary names. I am showing a few sample images below. They differ in style and approach, but all their images express an ethereal quality.

Images by Alexey Titarenko (2), Hiroshi Sugimoto (2), Michael Kenna (2)

Not that it is easy to reach their level, but how can some of this mysterious quality be achieved?

The good news about LE photography is that no expensive gear is needed. The key to getting incredible long exposures is time, practice, and patience. In theory, anyone can do it.

There are a few pieces of equipment that can help:

  • A tripod to hold the camera for a long time. Especially if your goal is sharpness in an image (like in real estate photography), a tripod becomes mandatory as else you'd introduce camera shake when trying hold with your hand.
  • A remote release trigger since the sheer pressing of the camera button will cause shake.
  • Neutral density filters. You can think of them as “sunglasses for your camera". One or more, put in front of your camera lens, are used to reduce the amount of light getting into the camera. Otherwise, after a long exposure in daylight, everything would be recorded as one big white scene. The filter being “neutral” means, it has no effect on color, just on the amount of light.

Any way you can get there, the objective is to leave the shutter open.

8 seconds of "Morning Light" at Little Estero Island

One of the immediate effects of LE is that is slows you down. Not just through the exposure time, but also you as a photographer. Instead of just snapping in a hasty manner, you need to take more time planning and executing. Understanding changing light, anticipating wind, cloud and water movement, become essential skills. Mundane obstacles, such as exhausted batteries and overheated sensors, add to the challenge. You need to plan for the shot and approach the subject thoughtfully. And after all the planning and the elaborate setup, each exposure will take several minutes, if not longer.

"Playa Llanes" - 122 seconds of waves and clouds

LE is a technique that can be used both in studio and outdoor environments. For sure, the most common playground is landscape photography, where typically a moving element is combined with a static element. In the above image, the movement of the water and clouds is juxtaposed to the static nature of the rocks.

Oceans, waterfalls, fountains, and rivers are all classic subjects for long exposures. Combining them with a fixed element, like a mountain range or a building, creates contrast between solid and blurred elements, adds drama, and helps to show the passing of time.

"Close of the Day" - 182 seconds of sunset over the Gulf of Mexico

Contemporary architectural photography also frequently employs LE techniques. You might wonder why, since buildings typically don’t move. Would you have guessed it? It is all about improving the light. Because light is “magnified” in a long exposure, you record much more light information than in a typical short exposure. This holds true for indoor and outdoor photography. Even when shot in daytime, when sufficient ambient light is available, LE shots give a softer, fuller, feel.

Hamburg's "Water Castle" at night - 193 seconds

At night, sources of light could also be considered “moving” elements, even if they stay still, as in the above image. While they may seem static to the naked eye, they are actually emitting light waves that do move in a specific direction. Your camera will register this “movement” of light, making it appear brighter and more dramatic in your photo.

"The Star" - 6 seconds of 4th of July fireworks

Of course, actual moving lights at night are even more interesting. They leave light trails during the exposure, thereby creating "light paintings" in the dark.

One thing I should note here is the representation of colors in a LE. As with light, colors in LE photography also come out deeper, richer, but at the same time appear more translucent, lighter. It is difficult to demonstrate this point when all images are shown in a lower internet-ready quality. The long exposure records more color information than a short exposure, and the ensuing translucency stems from the overlapping of the layers of light.

"Morning Colors" - from 7:17:11 to 7:17:41

Long exposure turns into a lot of fun when it comes to people. Obviously, most humans can hardly hold still for a second, let alone minutes. When exposed for a longer time, people are no longer sharply outlined but morph into ghostly hybrid creatures - virtual light shapes that seem to merge with the space in time.

"Office Work" for 232 seconds, "Brushing Teeth" for 171 seconds
"Kathy" - In conversation for 331 seconds

Portraits of people in LE are a step away from recording the sharp and precise documentation that we expect, but rather allow for an extraction of the essence of a person. Although blurry, and therefore more open to interpretation, we still recognize the person and their characteristics.

On a practical basis, ultra-long exposures can facilitate photographing iconic buildings that have unwanted tourists walking in front of them. Keep the camera shutter open long enough (hours rather than minutes) and the pesky tourists will eventually morph completely into the background. Gone they are. In a way, also a reminder that people are transient while the buildings have been standing for centuries.

What about really long exposures, several hours and longer? Not very practical and only found in rare occasions, because they simply take too long and many accidents can happen while taking them, they can still lead to interesting effects.

"Evolving Lilies"

The set of 4 images above demonstrates the "aging" of an image. Starting with the semi-fresh set of flowers (#1) and ending with the "final" bouquet in the last composite (#4), each sequential image had approximately 20 hours of lifetime (exposure) added to the previous. You can see how the plants develop and move over the course of time. The last image, #4 in the sequence, consists of almost 100 hours cumulated exposure time and shows the bouquet both as young and as old, its whole life recorded in one image. Would you have thought this possible?

Final image of "Evolving Lilies" in B&W

During the exposure time, layers and layers of new detail are recorded on top of each other. In a way, by the constant re-writing, the images destroy themselves but at the same time leave irreversible traces. They age.

At the beginning of this article I showed one of the first long exposure images in history. I would like to end with the longest exposure in history – 34 months! German photographer Michael Wesely recorded the re-development of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Four cameras active from 2001 to 2004 produced eerie depictions of the passage of time. Everything that happened on the scene during these 34 months is recorded in a single image.

Rebuilding MoMA - 34 months (image by Michael Wesely taken from Googlr)

In summary, long exposure photography can distort time and transform an everyday scene into something otherworldly. It juxtaposes the temporary and the permanent, it creates a reality where past and present coexist. It allows us to see something that is not readily visible to the human eye, but yet we know is there.

Lots of food for thoughts ... And if you have a camera, try out some long exposures!

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All images by Hilda Champion unless indicated otherwise.