Since the start of the year I've been taking part in a competition run by online photographic retailer Wex called #WexMondays. The challenge is to tweet an image every Monday that you have captured during the previous week with the hashtag #WexMondays. There are points and Wex vouchers to be won every week for first, second and third placed images with £1500 of Wex vouchers being awarded to the photographer with the most points at the end of the year.
I recently entered a long exposure image of a disused crane near Leith Docks and the judges have asked me to write a piece about the techniques used to create the final image below.
These disused cranes sit by Leith Docks and are about a 10-15 minute walk from where I work as a digital artworker for graphic design agency in Edinburgh. The docks themselves are not open to the general public but these cranes are actually situated right on the periphery of the dock area and next to a casino car park. Although this makes for access easy it’s not the most photogenic of locations so I chose to get in close and shoot looking upwards to crop out the surroundings.
I have photographed them before, several years ago, but as the rules dictate that images have to be taken in the preceding week, I thought’d I’d have a go at re-shooting them. I’ve also recently started a project called Lunchtime@Leith where I try to post images online that I’ve managed to capture while on my lunch hour at work.
From the outset I knew that I wanted this shot to be a moody, long exposure mono shot with a dark sky and some cloud movement behind the cranes, I think it’s important to have an idea of how you want the final image to look when shooting. The forecast for the week looked good – dry and windy with plenty of cloud – ideal for some long exposure work. However, I ended up making three visits to the cranes before I got something I was happy with. On the first two occasions the white cloud which had been happily blowing over all morning suddenly disappeared, leaving me with clear blue skies – which although very nice, was a bit boring and not what I had in mind.
As I said, the cranes are only a 10-15 min walk from the office (even less if you drive), so that only leaves approx. 30 minutes of shooting time and, although that may sound like plenty of time for one shot, when doing long exposure work that time passes very quickly. The good thing was that by my third visit I knew where to stand, what my composition was going to be and had a pretty good idea of the camera settings I was going to use.
As it was the middle of the day, to achieve the desired long exposure I was going to be using a Lee Big Stopper (+10 stop) filter – which is basically a very dark piece of glass that fits over the front of the lens and allows you to take very long exposures, even in bright daylight. My process for taking long exposures images with this filter is to start by taking the shot as ‘normal’ with no filter attached to work out the basic exposure settings. In this case that turned out to be ISO100 / 1/60th / f16.
The Big Stopper comes with a handy exposure conversion chart that told me that a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second with the filter fitted translates to 15secs. Without the filter an exposure of this length in daylight would be horribly overexposed. I also have an app for the iphone that gives me the converted exposure time and acts as a stopwatch when timing exposures beyond 30 secs, which is the maximum time I can set my camera to before I have to go in to bulb mode. This is where the extra set-up time comes into play as you have to be very methodical and careful to set the camera up for the long exposure. Due to the length of the exposure a good tripod is of course essential as any movement during the exposure will ruin the final shot, so a remote release or self timer is also required for triggering the shutter. Because the filter is so dark, the camera cannot meter or focus when the filter is attached, so it is effectively blind, it’s important at this time to lock the focus on the lens and put the camera into manual mode. If using a DSLR, it’s also essential to cover the viewfinder as light can also creep in there during the exposure. The new desired settings can then be dialed in which, is this case, were: ISO100 / 15 secs / f16. In other words, the only thing that has changed is the shutter speed, from 1/60th of a second to 15 seconds.
It’s really a case of taking several exposures at this point as the cloud movement effect can be a real hit or miss depending on the wind speed, so experiment with different exposure times until you achieve the desired effect.
As you can see, the image at this point is still a long way from the final mono image I created. The slight blue colour cast to the image is caused by the filter so it’s important to always shoot in RAW format so you can adjust this in post-processing. However, as I was going to change this to mono the white balance isn’t critical but I would still recommend always shooting in RAW format to give the best image quality and flexibility when it comes to editing.
I began my importing the RAW images into Lightroom so I could choose the best image from the set in terms of cloud movement. I would normally then go ahead and develop the image in Lightroom but, in this case, I opened the RAW image into Silver Efex Pro – which is a Lightroom plug-in specifically designed for black and white conversions. There are many presets in Silver Efex Pro for basic conversions but as I had a specific low key, moody image in mind I made all the adjustments manually. The options in Silver Efex Pro are endless and would take too long to go into here. Once I was happy with the black and white conversion the saved image was automatically transferred back to Lightroom where I could make final adjustments like adding a bit of film grain. You can add grain in Silver Efex Pro but you can’t go back and change it later, so I prefer to add it in Lightroom where it can be adjusted or even removed again if required. I didn’t time how long the editing process took me but I’d say the total time spent between Lightroom and Silver Efex was about 30-45 mins
Overall, between the shooting and processing, I would place the difficulty of this technique around 8 out of 10. It does require a bit of patience to get right and also a certain amount of expensive kit and a good working knowledge of camera settings, so I wouldn’t say it’s for suitable for outright beginners, but hopefully it’s given some help to those looking to advance their skills.
You can find out more about the competition here: http://www.wexphotographic.com/blog/have-you-got-what-it-takes-to-be-the-wex-photographer-of-the-year-2015