Shooting Long Exposures on Film with Less

With many things in life, simpler is usually better. Not over-complicating a thing can usually return an increased sense of enjoyment. This includes photography.

For many photographers, myself included, collecting cameras and different lenses, or just fondling photo gear is all part of the fun. I get it. But before you camera bag packers start fist-pounding about simplifying, just hear me out- all I’m saying is that sometimes it’s not necessary to bring 5 cameras and 27 different prime lenses with you on a trip. Even if you plan to shoot long exposures.

Planning Your Result

The key to paring down your gear is to pre-plan and pre-visualize your trip. Make a decision before you leave the house about what you’re in the mood to shoot and the types of images you’re hoping to come away with. How many times do you haul extra things ‘just in case’ that never actually get used? I’m guilty.

Say, for example, your goal is to find some interesting abstract lines and shapes within buildings and architecture. Okay, grab one telephoto lens. Do you feel like wandering the city to search for some impromptu street scenes? Glue a prime lens to your camera.

A few days ago I went out hiking at a State park that I visit occasionally, and I had a general idea about the types of images I was after. I envisioned scenes of water rushing through some rocks. So, in my case – the go-to lens was a wide-angle zoom.

It may seem like having a lack of lens options would limit your creativity, but it’s actually the opposite. Being forced to work within a specific pre-determined focal range actually frees up mental bandwidth making fewer decisions and allowing me to be ‘in the moment’ and more aware of my surroundings.

But wait! You said you’re shooting long exposures on film, so you’ll DEFINITELY need a bag full of equipment.

No, not really.

Everything I brought with me I could have easily carried in my pockets and a shoulder strap;

  • One camera (Nikon F3)
  • An 18-35 Lens
  • One roll of 35mm film (FomaPan 400)
  • A Tripod
  • Hoya ND400 Filter
  • Sekonic 308 Meter
  • Shutter Release Cable

Simplifying Exposure

The process of shooting long exposures on film can sometimes involve a bunch of math and trial and error. But if you use the KISS method (keep it simple, stupid) and develop a system, it can be pretty painless.

What I’ve found works for me in most situations is using my handheld meter to calculate the ambient light, then subtracting how many stops of light I’m losing after adding an ND filter. That’s it. Done.

For long exposures in daylight, a HOYA ND400 works great. It has a 9-stop reduction, so I’ll take a reading with my meter and adjust my shutter time accordingly.

Using a lower iso film is beneficial if your goal is to convey movement in your images. Lower iso films are less sensitive to light, which equates to longer shutter times. On this trip, I brought a roll of Holga (Foma Pan) 400 that I rated at 100 iso.

If my meter reading for a shot was f8 at 1/125 sec with the ambient light, I would set my camera to f8 at 4 seconds after adding the ND400. It’s worth mentioning that not all cameras give you the option to manually control the shutter time, but most will have bulb mode, so with a cable release you can achieve the same result.

Something to keep in mind is that you won’t see much through an ND400, so it’s important to get your shot set up and composed first.

And just a heads up that if you’re shooting with a camera that has TTL metering built in, don’t trust it! In-camera meters are not very reliable once you start significantly reducing the amount of light through the lens using filters.

Increasing Your Hit-Rate

With film, you don’t get that immediate feedback from a screen that you would from a digital camera (that’s part of the fun, though, right?) But with this in mind, bracketing is your friend.

I’ll usually bracket each shot +/- 1 or 2 stops to make sure I get the proper exposure if it’s a composition that I really want to come away with. I would much rather use up a few extra exposures if it means I nail a shot that I want. Hell, I’d even waste an entire roll for one image if I knew I wanted it on my wall. Doing some quick math, that’s 10 bucks for a negative that I could print and display forever. Seems like a bargain to me.

Random Helpful Tips

If you set aside the extreme minimalism for a moment and want to be a little more prepared, having a roll of electrical tape or a piece of gaffer tape and a fresh set of batteries on hand can’t hurt when you’re shooting long exposures.

When you’re positioned with the sun shining over your shoulder and against the back of the camera, taping over your viewfinder is a good precaution against light streaks. These are diagonal lines of light that show up on your image (but are more of a concern when taking several minute-long exposures). The reason these light streaks appear is due to the mirror box not being completely light-tight while the mirror is up and the shutter is open. Placing a small piece of tape over the viewfinder is a quick and easy solution.

This last suggestion may seem obvious, but having a set of spare batteries on hand for your camera if it has an electronic shutter is a always good practice to have. Long exposures create more drain on the batteries because they are holding the shutter open for longer, so your batteries will die quicker. I can recall at least two occasions where dead batteries had me packing up early.

Did I Regret Packing Minimal?

Were there additional shots I could have taken with a lens I wasn’t carrying? Maybe. But I feel like I had a more enjoyable experience than usual while I was out photographing things on this trip, and I’d attribute that to being a bit less distracted than I normally would be fiddling with gear choices.

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2 thoughts on “Shooting Long Exposures on Film with Less”

  1. Anthony Plescia

    Great info, Chris. Need a clarification. Did you meter the initial scene without the filter at ISO 100 rather than the box speed of 400? Then you counted 9 stops up with the time? I think that’s what you did but wanted to be sure. Also I’m not savvy on the time / stops measurement. I’m used to halving the ISO per decade for expired color film for my stops increase. Here’s what I think you did for the 9 stops time increase:
    Meter reading: f8, 1/125 sec
    Counting up 9 with the time:
    1 sec
    2 sec
    4 sec

    Don’t laugh as I’ve never done this before. Did I get it right? Thanks Professor Chris. ‍

    1. Hey Tony. Yep, that’s absolutely what I did- the roll of Foma 400 was rated at 100, and that’s where I took my base iso from. I only briefly mentioned it in the gallery description, so it wasn’t very obvious from the post. Good catch, thanks! I’m going to update the article to make that a bit more clear.

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