We’ve all seen those magically smooth and misty landscape photographs and have been wowed by it. The first thing that usually comes to mind after being blown away by such images is Photoshop. Has it been Photoshopped for the sea to look like that? I mean, it’s only natural, our eyes don’t usually see water like that.
But even the most proficient Photoshop user would be hard-pressed to produce such an image from a normal seascape photograph. The trick here really is within the camera itself and how a photographer manipulates light and motion to smoothen even the roughest sea.
So how do we manipulate light and motion? With the use of camera filters, particularly Neutral Density (ND) filters. Okay hold on, they may sound intimidating and all but I promise, it’s all very simple, hang on.
An ND filter is just like your any regular filter that you screw in front of your lens. The only difference is it’s very dark. There are varying darkness for these filters, but most are 3, 6 and 9 stops (or times if you will) darker than if you have no filter on your lens.
If you’re gonna invest in filters, get the branded ones. More expensive means higher quality when it comes to these things. They come in circular and rectangular types, get the circular ones to prevent light leaks when exposing. Good brands include B+W, Singh Ray, Lee, Hoya and Kenko (reportedly same as Hoya but much cheaper). Prices range from a thousand to more than ten thousand bucks depending on the brand and filter size.
Why the need for a filter at all? So that you can trick your camera to shoot at slower shutterspeeds to blur the motion of the waters, therefore smoothing them out. Most photographers call this as long exposure or slow shutter photography.
Have you ever taken a photo at night (on auto mode) without using a flash? What happened to the picture? It’s all blurry right? That’s because the camera reads that there isn’t enough light to capture the scene correctly and it compensates by slowing down the shutterspeed to let more light in to the sensor.
That’s the exact same principle in shooting long exposure photography. The only difference is the only thing that you would want to blur is the water (and the occasional fast-moving clouds). But how do you keep everything else sharp with only the water being blurred? By using a tripod. Yup, that clunky, heavy thing that landscape photographers lug around (yup they’re not for group shots after all haha).
So the basic kit in shooting long exposure photography are ND filters, a tripod and of course, a camera.
First, you set your camera on a tripod. And depending on the darkness of the ND filter you are using, you either compose your image first before screwing in the filter (for the really dark filters where you cannot see anything at all) or screw in the filter then compose (for the lighter ND filters). Now you can either set your camera on Aperture Priority Mode but if you know how to operate your camera manually, use Manual Mode. Lastly, set your ISO to its lowest value.
For landscape shoots, I usually set my aperture to f/8 up to f/16. Anything higher than f/16 and the image softens due to what they call lens diffraction. Don’t ask me to explain what and why that is, the experts say so, so let’s just have it at that alright? :P
The shutterspeed would depend on the darkness of your filter and the light of the scene. Just check your camera’s light meter (see photo above) and set it to zero or center. If the output is too bright, bring it down a notch to negative, and vice versa if it’s too dark. Yup, it’s a trial and error thing.
If you’re shooting in broad daylight, you’ll need a darker filter, like a 6-stop or 9-stop ND, to block out the strong daytime light enough to shoot at more than a second of exposure. But if you’re shooting during the golden hour, like before a sunrise or after a sunset, you may not even need a filter since the scene is already dim enough not to warrant a darkening filter anymore.
The same is true when doing long exposures at night. Remove all your filters and you’re all set to go. Just don’t forget your tripod of course, you still need one.
Now how many seconds do you need to get that smooth water? It all depends on what you’re shooting. If you’re taking a photo of a waterfall, 1/4 of second would actually do it since its water is already rushing down. But if you’re doing seascapes, 30 seconds to a minute is the ideal exposure for a fully placid water effect.
For shutterspeeds of more than 30 seconds, you’d have to use a remote though. Most cameras can only shoot up to 30 seconds without the aid of a remote for its Bulb Mode.
But don’t discount shooting at shutterspeeds of 1 to 2 seconds too, you don’t always have to max out your shutterspeed. Slow shutter exposures are good for capturing rushing waves and sea current motion. Something that longer exposures cannot do.
And that’s basically it. It sounds complicated at first but once you try it, it’s easy as counting 1 2 3. Just remember though, you don’t always have to use long exposure photography to capture great seascapes. There are instances where a normal exposure is better than a long one. You just have to put everything into the right perspective.