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Urban Nature: Blended Moments

By May 4, 2023No Comments
Waves wash over rock jetty at sunset Atlantic City Beach Atlantic City, NJ (8-second exposure) © F. M. Kearney

Misty waters around rock jetty on Atlantic City Beach (8-second exposure) © F. M. Kearney

Using Extremely Long Exposures to Dramatically Transform Your Images

By F. M. Kearney

Traditional photography is the art of capturing a moment in time… a moment that never existed before and will ever exist again. In sports photography, this is critical in order to capture the most pivotal and decisive moment of activity. However, nature photography is a little different. Timing may be more crucial if you’re shooting wildlife, but when it comes to flowers and landscapes, there aren’t many situations where the shot will be lost if you don’t push the shutter at a precise moment in time. In fact, there can be several moments, which, when blended together, can transform an ordinary nature image into something truly magical.

Neutral Density (ND) Filters

Besides a polarizer, the only other types of filters I always carry in my bag are neutral densities (ND). These are basically just dark filters that block light – allowing you to use larger apertures or slower shutter speeds in daylight conditions. A larger aperture will reduce your depth of field and soften the details in a busy background. But the focus of this article will be the effects ND filters have on shutter speeds. ND filters are available in different strengths, and most block about 2-3 stops of light. However, for the most extreme effects, you will need an extreme filter like the Big Stopper – made by Lee Filters, it blocks a full 10 stops of light. If that’s a bit too extreme for you, the Little Stopper is also available – blocking 6 stops of light. Both filters are very dark, so you will need to compose your shot prior to attaching them to your lens, via a special holder. They’re also very expensive, but worth the cost if you love their effects. Also, don’t worry about having to make complicated exposure calculations. Both filters come with handy exposure guides that show you what any given shutter speed should be changed to when using the filter. Also, it’s worth noting that extremely long exposures are far more forgiving than “normal” exposures. In other words, the difference between a 45-second exposure and a 1-minute exposure is almost negligible. But the difference between a 1/15 sec. exposure and a 1/250 sec. exposure is literally like night and day. So, you don’t have to worry too much about exact exposure times when you’re dealing with several seconds or minutes.

I don’t remember whether I used a Big or Little Stopper filter for the opening photo. Regardless, I was able to achieve the results I wanted. As the late-day tide was coming in, the waves were constantly crashing upon this rock jetty on Atlantic City Beach. The 8-second exposure rendered the surf as a soothing mist – more conducive to the soft, evening light. Also, keep in mind that if you’re using an ND filter to show motion, you need to have something in your shot that’s actually moving. This may seem like an obvious point, but it’s something that can easily be overlooked. The winds were very light and the clouds barely moved during the exposure. The surf was also calm. Had I not included the rock jetty, it might not have been immediately evident that this was a long-exposure image.

Two versions of waves crashing upon rocks at sunset Atlantic City Beach, NJ. One shot with a shor exposure time (1/20 sec) and one with a longer (45 sec) exposure.

PHOTO A (left): Busy surfside scene (1/20 sec).      PHOTO B (right): Calming effect of the Big Stopper ND filter (45 secs). © F. M. Kearney

Calming a Busy Scene

Music may sooth a savage beast, but a strong ND filter can definitely calm a busy image. I shot Photo “A” on the same beach as the opening photo. Once again, it was late in the day and the surf was crashing upon the rocks. There were more clouds in the sky as well. The lighting was very harsh – leaving the bottom portion of the scene in the shade. It was quite a chaotic scene. However, just six minutes later, the sun dipped below one of the large casino/hotels behind me and dramatically improved the lighting. The harsh contrast was now gone and the lighting was flat and even. I zoomed in for a tighter shot of the rocks and used my Big Stopper ND filter. This lengthened my initial 1/20 sec. exposure to a full 45 seconds. The rough waves crashing over the rocks were transformed into a soft, billowy mist.

Urban Effects

Big/Little Stopper ND filters can be just as useful with urban scenes as they are in nature. If you live in an urban area and enjoy shooting cityscapes (as I do), these filters are practically a necessity. Of course, they will have absolutely no effect on the cityscape itself, but it’s quite a different story if you include clouds and/or bodies of water in the shot. Clouds streaking across the sky can enhance the aesthetics of a photo, but the effects of a long exposure on water can bring out details you might not realize exist. Photo “C” is an image I shot of the Lower Manhattan skyline at sunset. It was a clear evening with a cloudless sky. Normally, I wouldn’t waste time using an ND filter (much less, a Big Stopper ND filter) on a shot like this, because it would be pointless. But, I wanted the reflections in the water to be more pronounced. At 1/15 sec. (the normal exposure without a filter) the moderately choppy waves broke up the reflections to barely discernible levels. But, when I used the Big Stopper and increased my exposure to 15 seconds, the waves were smoothened out – allowing the reflections to better retain their shapes.

Tw versions of the Manhattan skyline from New Jersey. One is at 1/15 seconds; the other at 15 seconds. © F. M. Kearney

PHOTO C: Normal (1/15 sec) exposure breaks up reflections.                 PHOTO D: Big Stopper ND emphasizes reflections (15 seconds). © F. M. Kearney

Precautions with Long Exposures

The main thing to keep in mind when shooting long exposures is that you will significantly increase the noise (grain) in your photos. If your camera has Long-Exposure Noise Reduction, you should definitely use it! The downside is that it will double the length of your exposures. A 1-minute exposure will become a 2-minute exposure when this feature is on. The reason is because after the initial exposure is taken, the camera takes another “dark frame” exposure. It differentiates the noise in the dark frame from actual subject and removes it from the photo. It works remarkably well, but it can be very time-consuming – especially if you’re shooting at twilight when time is of the essence. I once thought that I could save time by foregoing this step and simply take out the noise in post… BIG mistake! The image looked pretty good after using the standard NR features in Camera RAW and Photoshop. But, when I magnified the view for a closer look, I discovered dozens (if not hundreds) of tiny red spots all over the place. I later learned that these spots were called “hot pixels” caused by very long exposures. I don’t know if dedicated NR software programs are capable of handling hot pixels, but standard programs certainly cannot. I spent far more time painstakingly spotting them out in Photoshop than I would have spent had I simply waiting for the in-camera NR feature to work. Ever since then, I’ve learned to always use the Long-Exposure Noise Reduction feature when shooting exposures longer than a couple of seconds.

Another consideration with long exposures is the subject matter itself. If your goal is to show movement, make sure you don’t include objects in your shot that shouldn’t be moving, i.e., celestial bodies. You certainly don’t want an elongated sun or moon in your shot. Also, be aware of tree branches and bushes, which might appear as a blurry mess in the final photo. Of course, when it comes to creative photography, nothing is absolute. I said they might appear as a blurry mess, but they could also appear quite intriguing. Sometimes, you get lucky and capture unique movements that give your image an artistic and/or abstract look. On a particularly windy day in New York, I went to Central Park in search of such abstract creations. But windy days aren’t without risks. After shooting a few long exposures of billowing branches, I heard a loud cracking sound. I turned around and saw that a large tree had fallen just a few feet away from me. Needless to say, I kind of lost interest in doing anymore shooting that day.

High winds may not always be life-threatening, but they can wreak a lot of havoc nonetheless… specifically, with your equipment. I use a Gitzo, carbon-fiber tripod. It’s lightweight and easy to carry, but that also makes it more susceptible to getting blown over in the wind – something that has happened on at least one occasion. Luckily, my camera wasn’t attached at the time. If you experience this problem, there are a few things you do. Hang a weight from your tripod’s stability hook. What’s a stability hook? It’s that strange little hook on the bottom of the centerpost. Its purpose is to support a weight and stabilize the tripod in windy conditions. A ready-made weight that all photographers have on hand is their camera bag. Just make sure that it doesn’t exceed the maximum weight capacity your tripod can support. If your tripod doesn’t have a stability hook, try to avoid extending it to its maximum height. Having a lower center of gravity will make it more stable.

Blending special moments in time isn’t just for creating silky-looking waterfalls or dramatic cloudscapes (as seen in the 1-minute exposure in Photo “E”). As usual, a little “out-of-the-box” thinking can really boost your photographic creativity.

Cumulus clouds over Dickenson Bay St. John's, Antigua West Indies (1-minute exposure)

PHOTO E: The Big Stopper ND really brought out the drama in
these fast-moving clouds on this Antiguan beach.
© F. M. Kearney

F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit He can be contacted at, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).