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.
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.
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.
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.