How to shoot and process long-exposure seascapes

THE MISSION

Extend your shutter speeds to minutes for minimalist seascape photos 

Time needed: One hour

Skill level: Intermediate

Kit needed: Tripod • 10- or 13-stop ND filter • Cable release • Photoshop CC/CS or Elements • Stopwatch (or timer on a phone)

We photographers often obsess about detail, sharpness and resolution. But simplicity can be just as powerful. By paring down our images to the barest elements we can create beautiful, minimalist artwork. In this project we’ll show you how to set up and shoot long exposures, then strip out colour for a gorgeous mono finish.

Few things highlight the magic of photography more than a long exposure. When we stretch out our shutter speeds to several seconds, or even minutes, any motion in the scene is recorded as beautiful silky blur. The ability it gives us to present everyday scenes in a completely different way can be hugely effective. It gives them a surreal, calm quality that goes hand-in-hand with the minimalist approach.

Seas are a perfect example. Photographed normally, choppy seas are full of detail – there are all the dips and ridges on the surface, the foaming waves, the spray and any floating debris. But with a longer shutter speed all of this is eradicated, transforming those busy, distracting details into a silky-smooth surface.

Extending shutter speeds requires a strong neutral density filter, a tripod and a few simple camera skills. It takes meticulous attention to detail and you might only come away with one or two shots, but that’s all you need! 

01 USE A STURDY TRIPOD

Attach your DSLR firmly to a sturdy tripod and ensure it’s stable – we need it to stay still for entire minutes, so any movement at all will ruin the shot. If it’s windy then weigh down the tripod – you could attach your camera bag to the hook under the centre column.

02 TAKE A TEST SHOT

Before attaching any ND filters, first take a test shot. Use Aperture priority and ISO100 with an aperture of f/11 or narrower. Focus on your subject, switch to Manual focus to lock it, then take a shot. Take note of the shutter speed – 1/60 sec at f/11 in our shot.

03 FIT THE ND FILTER

Attach your neutral density filter to the lens. Here we’re using Formatt-Hitech’s Firecrest filter holder with a 13-stop ND. Consider using a polarizing filter too. Not only will this darken down blue skies, it also blocks around two more stops of light.

QUICK TIP!

Light levels can change during long exposures in fading light – so you may need to extend exposure time to allow for the drop

04 LOCK OPEN THE SHUTTER

The shutter speed in our test shot was 1/60 sec, so with the 13-stop ND filter attached we need to double this value 13 times, equalling 2 mins. Switch your DSLR to Bulb mode (B), attach your cable release, then lock open the shutter for the required time.

ESSENTIAL KIT: The gear you need to help you take it slow

01 ND FILTER KIT

You need a strong ND filter to achieve super-long exposures – at least 10 stops if you want to shoot in the daytime. The Formatt-Hitech Firecrest ND set we used includes 10-, 13- and 16-stop NDs.

02 WORK OUT EXPOSURE

Each stop of light blocked with an ND filter doubles the exposure time. For 13 stops that’s a lot of maths, so make life easy with an exposure calculator like this one within the excellent PhotoPils app.

03 VIEWFINDER BLOCKER

If we leave the viewfinder open during a really long exposure then we run the risk of light leaking in. Use a viewfinder blocker (there’s one attached to your strap) or piece of black tape to cover it up.

04 TIDE CHECKER

High tide might cover messy patches, while low tide may allow access to certain areas or include temporary pools in the sand. Check tides before you head out with the free Tides Near Me app.

05 TRIGGERTRAP APP

A stopwatch and cable release is fine but there are smarter options for timed exposures. The Triggertrap dongle hooks up your DSLR and phone, and the app lets you set exposures of any length.

TOP TIPS: Essential skills for minute-long exposures

There’s more to long exposures than ND filters and tripods – here are four essential tips to help improve shots...

Which ND Filter?

Neutral density filters block the flow of light into your camera, thereby extending shutter speed. The strength of filter you need will depend on the ambient light and your exposure choices. Every stop enables you to double the exposure length, so consider that if you meter 1/125 sec without any filter, a 6-stopper will slow this down to 1/2 sec, while a near-opaque 16-stopper will take it to 8 mins 44 secs. Some super-strong ND filters will often introduce strange colour casts, but the Formatt-Hitech Firecrest set we used produced very neutral results.

01 WHAT TO LOOK FOR

A strong focal point is the single most important thing, so look for interesting details that stand alone, like a single post, a pier or building surrounded by moving water or clouds – there’s no point shooting long exposures unless there’s movement in the frame!

02 BANISH LIGHT LEAKS

Often showing as purple patches, light leaks are the enemy of long exposure photography. The two main leakage points are the viewfinder and the filter fixing, so as well as covering up the viewfinder, use a good quality filter set with tight, light-blocking seals.

03 FIND THE SWEET SPOT

There’s often a temptation to use narrow apertures, like f/16 or f/22, to extend depth of field. But all lenses have a sweet spot, usually around f/5.6 to f/8. Above f/11 diffraction can cause softness, so consider whether you really need the extra depth-of-field. 

04 TURN OFF STABLIZATION

Whenever you shoot a long exposure it’s a good idea to turn off any stabilization, as it can lead to blurry images. There’s really no need to use mirror-lockup as the effects of the mirror will go unnoticed when your exposures stretch to several seconds or more.

STEP BY STEP: Convert your seascapes to monochrome

Use Photoshop and selective adjustments to finish off with a classy black-and-white conversion

Long-exposure images suffer from noise so set noise reduction in ACR’s Detail panel. Convert to mono with ACR’s HSL/Grayscale panel, which enables you to control the brightness of colour ranges – here we darkened the blues for a moody sky.

You can change the mood of your image with a series of selective tweaks. In Photoshop Shift-click over the sea with the Magic Wand to select, then add a Levels adjustment layer, using the sliders to lighten the area. Repeat to adjust other areas of the image.