Why 30 seconds?
Take a closer look at the above photo. It has lots of mood and atmosphere. That’s down to the time of day (sunset) and, just as importantly, the 30 second shutter speed I used to take it.
A 30 second shutter speed blurs the water and anything else that is moving within the frame. The motion of the waves is smoothed out and the water takes on a misty, ethereal feel. Yet, unlike long exposure photography where the water is completely smooth, in this photo it retains interesting textures.
If you look carefully, you’ll see some shadowy figures on the rocks below. They are fishermen, and their silhouettes have blurred because they were moving during the exposure.
You can create blur with slower shutter speeds, but the effect is different. There seems to be something special about the quality of photos taken with shutter speeds of around 30 seconds.
Another reason for selecting a 30 second exposure is that on most cameras it’s the longest available built-in shutter speed. You need to use the Bulb setting to obtain longer shutter speeds. While the Bulb setting isn’t complicated to use, setting a shutter speed of 30 seconds is easier.
I made all the photos illustrating this tutorial with a shutter speed of exactly 30 seconds.
What equipment do I need for 30 second shutter speeds?
Another advantage of using shutter speeds of around 30 seconds is that you don’t need any special equipment. The only essentials are a good tripod and cable release (required for any type of landscape photography). If you shoot in the late evening, use a low ISO of around 100, and set a small aperture of f8 to f16, then you’ll naturally find yourself using shutter speeds of around 30 seconds as the light levels fall.
A polarizing filter cuts reflections from the water and reduces the light entering the lens by a stop or two. This helps you achieve those longer shutter speeds.
If you have them, neutral density filters are also helpful earlier in the day when there’s more light. I have a set of three neutral density filters – 3 stops, 6 stops and 9 stops. You can combine filters if you need to and together they cover you for just about any situation.
Which exposure mode should I use?
Your choice of exposure mode in this situation is personal. Feel free to experiment with using Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual Mode to see which suits you best.
For example, you may prefer to use Aperture Priority mode so you can set a small aperture to get the wide depth of field needed for landscape photos.
Or, especially considering the nature of the exercise, you may decide to use Shutter Priority, set a low ISO and let the aperture take care of itself. You could even lock in the shutter speed and aperture and use Auto ISO to let your camera set the exposure.
Alternatively, you might just find it easier to use Manual Mode, lock in your settings, and adjust them as the light levels change.
Set yourself creative challenges with 30 second shutter speeds
Here are some creative challenges to make this exercise more interesting.
Find an unusual viewpoint
In this Instagram driven age of photography you often see photographers over-photographing locations that have become iconic. Sometimes it’s more about trophy hunting than it is about creating photos that are original or personal.
There’s great value in avoiding over-crowded or over-worked locations and finding your own places to shoot. You won’t be competing for tripod space with other photographers and you’ll create images that don’t look the same as everybody else’s.
For example, I shot the photo below in a nearby suburb when I lived in Auckland. Not only is this definitely not an iconic location, but I was able to use the lines painted on a boat ramp to create a more interesting and unusual composition.
Shoot a selfie
If you can keep still for 30 seconds then it’s a great opportunity to take a self-portrait of yourself in the landscape. Sometimes the inclusion of a person in the composition is helpful for providing human interest or a sense of scale. Combining a person with a long shutter speed and blurred water creates an unusual and eye-catching effect.
Tip: Use your camera’s ten second self-timer to give yourself time to get into position.
Shoot in black and white
Black and white seems to be the treatment of choice for many long exposure photographers, and there’s no reason why you can’t use it to add interest to your photos when working with 30 second shutter speeds. Black and white is ideal for emphasizing texture in rocks, cliffs and water.
Tip: Set your camera to a monochrome color profile and make sure you’re using the Raw format. Now you’ll see the scene in black and white when you use Live View, and, if your camera has an electronic viewfinder, in the viewfinder. This helps you see how the scene will come out in black and white.
Look for subjects that are suitable for an abstract or graphic composition. This is probably the hardest challenge of all because you may really have to search for a suitable subject. The photo below is a perfect example. The water is running down a giant plug hole that drains water from a reservoir. The concentric circles form a beautiful pattern ideal for a black and white photo.
Have fun experimenting!
I hope you’ve found these hints and tips useful, and feel better prepared to head out and experiment with using shutter speeds of around 30 seconds for your photos. Give it a try and you’ll be rewarded with some dramatic and moody photos!
Mastering Exposure ebook
Have you ever wondered why your digital camera has so many exposure modes, and what each one does? Or why it’s so easy to under- or overexpose your photos even with the latest cameras and most advanced evaluative or matrix metering modes?
Our best-selling ebook Mastering Exposure teaches you how to get the best exposure every time, no matter how tricky the light.