A previous post on Photography’s Basics: Shutter Speed, I promised a post on using long shutter speeds to make abstractions. When the world blurs together on a memory card or film magic happens. Thing we see in real life are reimagined when the shutter is open for a long time. Light streaks. Motion blurs. Water becomes glistening snowflakes or diamonds.

Stretching time

One of my absolute favorite things to play with in photography is a moving camera with an open shutter and colorful lights. This all started when I was shooting film. I would put a camera in the dashboard of my Ford Pinto. I’d set the shutter to the bulb setting. Bulb keeps the shutter open as long as the shutter button was depressed. I used a locking cable release so I could pay attention to driving. When I came across interesting street lights, I pushed down the plunger. The shutter opened and when the film came back it was magical. The original film is in my archives. Here’s a version I made when I got my very first DSLR that really out did the quality of film. I was so excited that I had to make streaks driving along the Buford Highway Connector in Atlanta.

2203-Canon 1DsII play
Canon 1Ds Mk II Canon 24-70m f/2.8 ISO 400, 5 sec. f/10

Another moving slow exposure photo opp is the window seat in an airliner. It’s a lot safer than shooting while driving. Runway lights along with a bouncing plane during takeoff make great abstracts.

Sketchbook Light Streaks
Canon 1Ds Mk III, EF24-70mm f/2.8 @ 51mm ISO:100 2 sec. f/2.8

When the plane begins making its turn onto the active runway, take a long shutter speed photo.

2413-Sketchbook 01 2008
Canon 1Ds Mk III, EF24-70mm f/2.8 @ 62mm ISO:100 8 sec. f/5.6 The shutter speed is 4 times longer than the previous photo. A 2 stop adjustment to the aperture kept the exposure consistent.

Rotate the camera during a very long exposure to show take off in a whole new way.

Sony NEX-7 E 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 OSS ISO: 100, 15 sec. f/4.5

Explore a subject thoroughly

Long exposure light trails are compelling. While you might think from the previous photographs that they are happenstance, deliberate application of long exposures results in compelling work. During a winter trip to Denmark, I discovered during an afternoon off in Copenhagen that Tivoli Gardens had just opened for the holiday season. There was no way I could pass up a tour of this famous Scandinavian entertainment destination. I discovered a Zeirer Wave Swinger lit exclusively with tungsten bulbs. Here’s a video that shows the movements the ride makes. When I saw it start up, I had to play. This photograph was made the day after I discovered it.

Red Hearts in the Trees
Canon 1Ds Mk II EF 24-70mm ISO: 400 1/60th, f/4.5

When the wave swinger ride begins, its lights blur together.

Canon 1Ds Mk II EF 24-70mm ISO: 50 1.6sec, f/22

The first time I went to the park in late afternoon, forgetting that in Denmark the sun in winter is gone by five. The sky was completely dark. The Wave Swinger’s lights were captivating. I used long exposures. Sometimes I held the camera still. Other times…

Canon 1Ds Mk II EF 24-70mm ISO: 400 1/4th, f/32
Canon 1Ds Mk II EF 70-200mm ISO: 400 1/4th, f/32
Canon 1Ds Mk II EF 24-70mm ISO: 400 1/4th, f/32
Canon 1Ds Mk II EF 70-200mm ISO: 50 1.6sec, f/32
Canon 1Ds Mk II EF 70-200mm ISO: 50 4sec. f/32
Canon 1Ds Mk II EF 70-200mm ISO: 50 4sec. f/32

Go back the next day

I downloaded the day’s work that evening in my hotel room. Reviewing the photographs, I realized that while the black sky was dramatic, a blue one would compliment the warm color of the ride. I went back the next day only much earlier in the afternoon.

As the ride raised from its base a long exposure shows the process in a dazzling way.

Visiting Denmark
Canon 1Ds Mk II EF 24-70mm ISO: 50 3.2sec, f/22

I held the camera at the top of the carousel for about a second then tilted the camera up. This made the streaks look like they are chasing the ride’s spinning disc.

Visiting Denmark
Canon 1Ds Mk II EF 24-70mm ISO: 50 3.2sec, f/22

Having explored moving the camera up and down to make streaks, it was time to move it in a circle with the shutter open.

Visiting Denmark
Canon 1Ds Mk II EF 24-70mm ISO: 50 6.0sec, f/22

Anytime I feel like I’m coming up short creatively, I grab a friend to drive the car and go out with different lenses to see what streaks the lights and movements will make. These are patterns anyone can do. Go. Have fun. Create!