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Creating Long Exposure Photography with Expanded Dynamic Range

People are often mesmerized by long exposures. Smooth water, the movement in clouds…it creates an artistic look in photographs that many people desire. About a year ago, I started to take my long exposures to the next level, by using neutral-density (ND) filters during the day. It allowed me to create photographs that had significantly longer exposures than I would have otherwise been able to take.

But sometimes, even using ND filters aren’t enough. Recently, I started playing around with using bracketing alongside my ND filters, to create long exposure HDR photographs.

The technique is simple. It combines bracketing — something I rely on heavily while shooting daytime architecture scenes — and long exposures. During the day, this allows you to create photographs in the bright sun that wouldn’t normally be possible. At night, it allows you to capture multi-minute exposures to really create a surreal look.

I went out and decided to shoot the Grand River in Grand Rapids, MI, in the afternoon. It was a (rare) sunny day, meaning I knew I’d get some cool building shadows to accompany the smooth water effect I was going for.

I started out by using a 10-stop Vü ND filter on my Tamron 24-70mm lens. Vü has long been my company of choice when it comes to filters, as they’re high quality and relatively inexpensive.

From there, I locked my ISO in at 100, and my aperture at f/11. For me, f/11 seems to be the sweet spot on my Nikon D750, but feel free to play around with higher apertures as well, especially if you want an even longer exposure time.

I played around with a few different exposure times, but the most successful were when it was bracketed at 6 seconds, 13 seconds and 25 seconds. Combining these would make for a 44-second exposure in the bright sun.

I brought these photos into Lightroom and did some basic editing to them, boosting the contrast slightly as well as getting rid of any minor spots.

Next, I send them over to Photomatix Pro, my tool of choice for HDR photography. My goal here was to create a surreal photograph of the city’s skyline, with the river in the foreground.

I decided to go with the Soft 3 preset, which put a slight vignette around the photograph. It looked realistic but was still surreal enough that I could create a dramatic photograph.

I took down the color saturation slightly, knowing the skies were a bit too blue. Ideally, I would have some clouds up there…but in Michigan, in late March, you can’t exactly be picky!

I also lowered my white point slightly, to take care of the white highlights at the bottom of the brick building on the right. Finally, I bumped up the saturation shadows a bit, to bring back some of the blue reflection on the taller buildings.

Satisfied with my results, I saved the photo and imported it back into Lightroom. Once here, I straightened out the image, and also took care of a few remaining spots at the top of the frame. I also added a bit more vignetting and cropped out the rock in the lower left corner (it was barely visible anyway). I also boosted my black levels a bit.

This technique is especially good for selective editing on your HDR images. The image below has three photographs associated with it, but not all three take up the full frame.

The areas surrounding the road are only two images together, while the street contains parts of a third image as well. This was utilized in order to get the police car lights shining as the car turned left. You could use the same technique to selectively light trees or other elements as you see fit.

Every so often I stumble upon a technique that is just plain cool. HDR long exposures is definitely one of those techniques. Whether it’s creating a long exposure in the bright sun, or selectively exposing certain elements of a photograph, it’s one technique I’ll continue to use with architecture and cityscape photography.

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