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Creative Long-Exposure Photography Using Bulb Mode

Chris is a photography enthusiast and blogger. He enjoys learning new photography techniques and practicing old ones.


Long-Exposure Photography

One of my favorite creative activities to do with a camera is take long-exposure photos. In particular, as soon as I discovered the bulb mode function, I was able to take some really interesting long-exposure photographs.

Without this function, you will likely not be able to take a photo of lightning unless you are extraordinarily lucky. It will allow you to do some amazing light painting projects. Photographing the night sky becomes a beautiful possibility. Long-exposure landscape photography using a neutral density filter can be useful in this setting.

All these techniques are possible with a little practice. Discovering this mode in your camera will unlock many creative ideas for your photography.

What Is Bulb Mode?

Back in the day, the photographer would squeeze a bulb to open the camera shutter. As long as the photographer squeezed the bulb, the shutter would stay open. Today's cameras have shutter speed capabilities anywhere between 1/4000th of a second to 30 seconds. Giving that range, one might ask what is the point of holding open the shutter manually when you can simply dial in how long the shutter should stay open.

It is about control. Having the ability to open the shutter manually and keep it open for as long as one wants gives one an impressive amount of control for creative purposes. It is possible to keep the shutter open for one minute, three minutes, 10 minutes, or longer. The only thing that would limit the time the shutter could stay open is the battery life of the camera.


How to Set Up Your Camera

It seems every camera has a different means of accessing this function. On some cameras, you simply put it in manual mode and just start dialing back your shutter speed. The indicator will show progressively lower shutter speeds; one second will be indicated as 1”, 10 seconds as 10”, and so forth. When the shutter speed gets to 30” it will either stop, or the next setting lower will be indicated as the speed you are looking to set.

My Canon has a button on the top dial indicated as “B.” That is the bulb mode. Most DSLRs have something similar.

I have a mirrorless Panasonic that frankly took a little effort to figure out this position. I typically shoot in “silent mode.” This switches the shutter from mechanical to electronic. In silent mode, the lowest the shutter will go is one second.

In order to get to bulb mode, the shutter has to be switched back from electronic to mechanical. Then when the mode dial is switched to Manual the shutter speed dial will have various new options ranging from two seconds, four seconds, 15 seconds, 30 seconds, to even 60 seconds. One more turn of the dial puts it on “B,” which is the correct position.

One caveat: This setting eliminates the light meter. Exposure settings are no longer able to be adjusted as normal. Figuring out what ISO and aperture to use will take a whole bunch of experimentation.

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Uses of Limitless Shutter Speed

Once the shutter has been set, the next thing to do is simply give the shutter button a press and hold it. The camera will make a noise as the shutter is opened, and only when the shutter is released will a sound be made that the shutter is closed.

See how easy that is?

Put the camera on 'B,' dial in the ISO and aperture that is required, frame the shot, press the shutter button, and after however long is deemed necessary, release the shutter button.

Now it is time to be creative.


Tripod and Cable Release: Two Items Need for This Type of Photography

Camera shake is to be avoided when taking photos in this mode. There is a rule that is common in photography tutorials to plan on using a tripod if the shutter speed drops below 1/60th of a second. It's a good rule and doesn't really take into account image stabilization. But that is a good place to start. Now think about a 2-minute shutter speed. There is no viable way to handhold a camera and get sharp images at that speed.

A tripod or sturdy surface is an absolute must.

In addition to the tripod, a cable release is also very handy. It is possible to keep a finger pressed on the shutter button for as long as the shutter needs to remain open. However, the possibility of introducing camera shake with even the slightest movement of your finger is a decent possibility. That is why a shutter trigger is the best option to get a sharp photo.


Ways to Utilize Long-Exposure Photography

Now to the fun part. Here are some suggestions for creative ways of using long-exposure photography.

Thunderstorm Photography

Whenever a thunderstorm rolls up, I inevitably grab my camera and begin taking long-exposure photos in the hopes of capturing lightning. It is fairly simple, though it has to be at night for the best results. Compose the photo toward the storm, press the shutter button until a lightning bolt strikes, then release the shutter. If lucky, there will be a nice capture of lighting exposed in your photo.

Light Painting in the Dark

Another favorite technique is light painting in the dark. I have a string of LED lights that I simply wrap around a long pole. I grab a wide-angle lens and compose the area where I want to shoot. With my daughter's assistance, I have her walk or run with the strand of lights while I have the shutter open. After 30 or 45 seconds, I release the shutter. The result is usually an interesting stream of continuous lights streaming across the photo. The creative possibilities for light painting are endless.

Steel Photography

I also enjoy the ever-popular steel photography. I have a small metal basket that I place steel wool in. I attach it to a length of lightweight chain. I light the basket of steel wool and begin spinning it around my head. The effect is a crazy, blazing stream of light spraying everywhere.

Other techniques in long-exposure photography include night sky photography and landscape long-exposure photos using a neutral density filter. Incidentally, shutter speeds are virtually useless during the day with an ND filter.

Long-Exposure Photography Requires Patience, but It's Worth It!

Bulb mode is an interesting and enjoyable means of long-exposure photography. With a little practice and creativity, there are many photographic projects that can be accomplished. Once it is understood, the only thing in the way of fun long-exposure photographs is patience. The result will be worth the time spent.