The Essential Long Exposure Tool Kit

December 03, 2013  •  2 Comments

Recently, in a little case of cart-before-the-horse, I wrote about fun long-exposure techniques to try out. Of course, before you can experiment with those techniques, you'll need to get a basic long exposure tool kit ready to go. This endeavor doesn't have to break the bank either, with all but a couple items well under $50. If you're an occasional space-case like me, then we're bound to forget something critical from time to time - tripod plate anyone? - I'll be throwing in a few workaround tricks as well.


Unless you want to utilize camera movement in your long exposure, you'll be needing a tripod for your work. You could pick up a wobbly piece o'crap for twenty bucks or blow upwards of $1750 on a top of the line Gitzo's Ocean series. Mercifully, there are dozens of solid quality options in the $180-$300 neighborhood, a pleasant uptick from just 5 or so years ago. For the active photographer tight on space, the flexible and light Magnus MegaGrip for a mere $38 might be a good fit. A ball head makes precise positioning easy, and if you're going to splurge then make the tripod head the priority. A cheap head can mean blurred images or even your camera taking a dive. You can also upgrade your legs later but keep the same head. So what to do if you find yourself tripod-less? In most situations, there will be some kind of solid surface that you can build on: a chair or low wall for example. Set your camera bag on top and settle your camera in. You may be forced to make changes to composition and angle, but it works in a pinch. Keeping a small sarong or travel towel in your bag can keep gear protected from muck and dirt.


Once you've mounted the camera on a tripod (or camera bag) you'll still need a shutter release to avoid dreaded shake from the shutter and mirror. You can shell out upwards of $35 for the branded one, or pick up third party brand for around $8. I've had my Bower release for almost 3 years and not a single misfire. You can also go with a wireless remote shutter release for about $35 or get advanced with an app-combined dongle system like the IoShutter which retails under $50. For times where your release isn't working or it's the one time it wasn't in your bag, go old school by using the timer for exposures of 30 seconds or shorter. If you are shooting a bulb exposure, use a black card to cover the lens each time you press the shutter button to hide camera shake.


Several years ago, I purchased a piece of adhesive-backed felt and a piece of black craft foam, stuck them together and I've been using it ever since. It has acted as a flag, lens shade, mini-shade for macro work, and pseudo-split-ND. For in-camera double exposures, simply place it in front of the lens, make your changes, and remove it. When faced with a scene that demands a split-ND that I don't have, I use it to block the brighter part of the scene for a portion of the exposure, then simply move it away. The only caveat there, is that it won't work with uneven horizons. It can also act to block your light source from the camera's view when light painting a scene. For about $3, you'll have a simple tool with multiple uses that's light as air and no larger than a notebook. Should you find yourself black-cardless, you can get away with using your hand, hat, or scarf in a real pinch. Another reason photographers often wear lots of black!

Almost EastAlmost EastSince I forgot my black felt card, I used my hand as a split ND filter to achieve proper exposure in camera. It took several tries to get right, but I was happy with the result.


The options here are practically infinite, from the crazy expensive mega-flashlight from Lowel to cheapo glowsticks and everything in between. One essential light is a basic flashlight: for times when you are working in the dark, it makes seeing what you're doing possible. A headlamp might look a little goofy but leaves your hands free to work your magic. Headlamps can be found for under $20 or go crazy on a full bells n whistles setup for upwards of $60. I currently use a small Maglite I bought at Target for around $10, and it's served as a practical flashlight as well as a light-painting tool. Currently, I also have one blue and one red light on lanyards that can be set to steady on or strobe. They aren't super bright, but they were a couple dollars each and let me start experimenting with light painting before making pricier purchases. I also like to keep a little envelope or swatchbook of colored gels that I can attach to any light with a little gaffer tape.


When aiming to shoot exposures over 30 seconds, it's suprising how seemingly dim light can still be too darn much. Unless you want to be forced into f22 - which still may not be sufficient - you'll need an ND filter. This is another item you'll want to spend a little extra money for: cheap filters are bad for IQ, and it's a worthwhile investment. My largest lens has a 77mm filter thread, so I buy my NDs for that, then carry a step-down ring to accommodate my other lenses. I currently have a 6-stop ND by B&W, and will soon add a 10-stop so that I can stack them for some nice long daytime exposures. It is possible to buy a variable ND filter, which varies in strength as you rotate it, but this is a filter type that usually demands top dollar to avoid quality pitfalls. Read reviews carefully, and make sure you understand the return policy carefully so you don't get stuck with a bad apple.

Dragon's EyeDragon's EyeThis particular ND filter imparts a rosy warmth to images that I actually like, but can easily be corrected with custom WB setting. With the exception of the tripod, this kit will take minimal space in your bag and barely add any weight. It's easy to just leave them in there all the time, providing the freedom to create long exposure shots whenever you desire. Depending on your tripod selection, you can easily get started with just a few hundred dollars - far less if you already own a tripod. Please take a moment share any of your favorite items for long exposure photography in the comments or share this list with your fellow photographers.


2.MoLiMo Photo by Raffaella
Rachel, thanks for reading & I'm glad you like my photos! I use the black card to either balance the light and dark halves of a scene, or to allow an in-camera double exposure. Colors are complex and of course the type of light is a huge factor. The same color can look dramatically different based on the lighting. I'd suggest reading some books to improve your understanding of the technical side so that you can achieve what's in your mind's eye. You don't need expensive gear, it's much more important to understand how everything works and know how to apply that.
I like photography though I don't have professional gadgets and experience; mostly I use photoshop to enhance the colors of my work and most of them aren't appealing at all. I wonder how black card works exactly? I think if I could do it properly, then I would be able to create a decent photo. Thanks for these tips, and your photos are awesome.
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