How to Increase Sharpness in Long Exposure Photography

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The art of long exposure photography is a stunning way to capture your environment in a surreal way. It’s one of the only photographic styles that gives you the creative control to transform a scene in a way that is not visible to the human eye.

Whether your subject is seascapes, astrophotography, or simply experimental – long exposures require an added set of rules to retain image sharpness throughout the entire exposure. If you find that your photographs are still not sharp – even with a tripod – there may be other elements at play that are adding some unwanted camera shake.

Long exposure of autumn leaves swirling down a stream in Acadia National Park. Photo by Christopher O’Donnell

Manual Focus

When you’re performing a long exposure, you typically come across two situations: either you’re using ND filters to reduce your exposure during the day, or you’re photographing at night with little to no available light. In either instance, you are most likely photographing with very little visibility through your viewfinder, which makes it difficult for your camera to find a solid focal point.

When you use auto focus to select your focal point – whether you do it with the assistance of a flashlight or before you put your ND filters on – you need to switch into manual focusing mode afterwards. If you keep you focus on auto, your lens will seek for a new focal point when your press down on your shutter, and it will not be able to lock in…giving you a blurry image. This becomes very problematic, especially when working with wide apertures.

Long exposure image of a hand-made boardwalk extending over marsh with windswept wheat grassPhoto by Christopher O’Donnell

Disable IS/VR

If your lens comes equipped with image stabilization, vibration reduction, or some other feature that helps to reduce any unwanted effects from camera shake, you should disable it. If your camera is already properly mounted, then not only is this feature redundant, but it can actually decrease your camera stability.

The ideal situation to use this feature is when your camera is handheld and you’re trying to get a few extra stops out of your lens – it’s not designed to help when your camera is already stationary. Since you’ll always have your camera mounted for a long exposure, this feature will only be counterproductive to image sharpness.

Long exposure photo of the ocean at Reid State Park after Hurricane Earl - Georgetown, Maine.Photo by Christopher O’Donnell

Mirror Lock-Up

Locking your internal mirror is one of the easiest ways to increase your long exposure clarity and sharpness. When you take a photo, the mirror inside your camera flips up, which produces some vibration. Under normal circumstances this will not affect your sharpness, but long exposures have a different set of parameters to work with – especially when it comes to eliminating camera shake.

Most digital SLR cameras have a feature that will flip your mirror long before the shutter opens, so any vibration from your mirror will have dissipated long before you start exposure. When you take a photo with mirror lock-up enabled, you’ll actually be pressing the shutter twice – once to flip your mirror, and again to open your shutter. Your camera manual will show you exactly how to enable this very helpful feature.

Long exposure coastal photo of Block Island, 15 seconds, by Dave NoonanPhoto by Dave Noonan

Remote Cable Release

Any kind of vibration can affect your long exposure – even the simple act of pressing your shutter button. With a remote cable release, your hand is physically away from the camera, so vibrations should be at a minimum.

Actually, a remote cable release is rather necessary if you’re working in bulb mode – meaning the camera isn’t automatically programmed to close the shutter after a certain amount of time. In bulb mode, the shutter is open for as long as you’re holding the shutter down since most digital SLRs can only be programmed for up to 30-second shutter speeds. Most long exposures can extend well past 30 seconds, so with a cable release, you can lock the shutter in place and let the camera do the work for you – especially since it would not be wise to hold your shutter down for minutes at a time.

Long exposure of towering trees during an extremely windy fall dayPhoto by Christopher O’Donnell

Environmental Factors

A solid tripod or camera mount is the most important (and well-known) factor in retaining image sharpness during long exposures, so I won’t go into too much detail about that. Many entry-level tripods are made of flimsy materials, and are not designed to distribute the weight of a DSLR properly. This instability can make it extremely difficult to keep your mount sturdy, so you should never just assume that a tripod will always equal 100% camera stability.

However, what is commonly overlooked is not so much the tripod itself, but environmental factors that can add instability to your seemingly solid camera mount. If you’re experiencing a lack of sharpness in your long exposures, think very critically about your environment. Is there a strong wind that could be moving your camera? How about vibrations – passing traffic, footsteps, leg instability – what could possibly be moving your tripod?

For example, one of my first long exposure shots was of a pine tree against the ocean, which put me in the middle of a field that had not been cut the previous summer. This was a super long exposure – about 400 seconds (over six minutes during daylight!). The first few frames were very soft and rather unusable, and I had no idea why until I looked down and realized my tripod was sitting on top of some matted tall grass. Every time I moved my foot or shifted my weight, the grass would move – and in turn, so would my tripod. Simply pushing the tripod legs further into the grass solved the problem, and an important lesson was learned.

Long exposure photograph of Maple Juice Cove in Cushing, Maine, 400 seconds

The 400-second long exposure above was the result of a simple tripod adjustment, which gave me a more secure foothold. This was one of my first long exposure attempts, and although I would make improvements today, the sharpness was greatly increased.

So although your tripod may be of high-quality construction, environmental elements can also affect your image sharpness. A bit of critical thinking about your surroundings can go a long way when it comes to a solid mount.

Adjust Your Aperture

While this isn’t specific to long exposures, it’s definitely worth mentioning if you’re having issues with image sharpness. Each lens has a “sweet spot” f/stop where a certain aperture will produce the sharpest image – any aperture wider or smaller than this ideal f/stop will gradually chip away from the sharpness, with the most noticeable difference being at the extreme ends of your f/stop range. Although it varies for each lens, this sweet spot is usually either f/8 or f/11. So if you continually see your images looking a bit soft, try shooting at these apertures to see if it makes any difference in your clarity.

Of course, the quality of your camera lens will come into play as well – which may or may not be something you can control. However, if you follow these steps, you will definitely see an improvement in your overall sharpness of long exposure images.

And for some great inspiration, make sure to take a look at Kieran O’Connor and his outstanding long exposure seascapes (as seen below).

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  • Comments
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  1. Evan Skuthorpe

    Great shots and article!

    • Reply
  2. Matthew Gore

    For what it’s worth: the effect of diffraction is a function of the size of the sensor/film being used. The larger the sensor, the less important it is. So, with an APS-C sensor, the optimum sharpness tends to occur around f/5.6, rather than f/8 – 11. f/8 is usually ideal for the 35mm frame size.

    - Matt

    • Reply
    • Christopher O'Donnell

      Matt that is a great point – I work on a full frame so I like working in the f/8 to f/11 range, and will often push it to f/16 with a negligible difference in sharpness. Thanks for mentioning that :)

      • Reply
  3. Cole @ FourJandals.com

    Great tips for any photographer. Didn’t know about the sweet spot. Now just need to find it for my lens.

    • Reply
  4. Marian Majik

    Very good article Christopher, I’m doing to try it now.

    • Reply
  5. Ishizawa

    Thanks for the great tips. Id like to try the way.

    • Reply
  6. SebiMeyer

    Using the self timer function along with mirror lockup will also lower the risk of a camera still asking from you having pushed buttons.

    • Reply
  7. Michael G. Clark

    For older IS lenses it is a good practice to turn IS off when using a tripod. Most of the newer Canon IS lenses, however, can sense when the camera is tripod mounted and adjust automatically. And Canon’s super telephoto lenses have an IS mode that senses a tripod being used and focuses on eliminating mirror slap, shutter and tripod vibrations.

    • Reply
  8. Michael G. Clark

    Matthew – Pixel size (or grain size in the case of film emulsions) is what actually determines DLA (Diffraction Limited Aperture). Sensor size is only significant in the sense that the pixel pitch is dictated by how many pixels are arranged on what sized sensor. In general, higher resolution sensors will give more detail well beyond the DLA than lower resolution ones. There is eventually a point called the Diffraction Cutoff Frequency but only a larger view camera will normally have a lens even capable of such a narrow aperture.

    For example, the full frame EOS 1D Mark II had a DLA of f/13.2 because it only had 8.2MP spread out over an APS-H sized sensor and that allowed each pixel to be 8.2 microns wide. The 12.8MP 5D had a DLA of f/13.2 as well. The larger full frame sensor allowed 4.6M more 8.2 micron pixels to fit on it. The current 1D X, 6D, and 5D Mark III range from f/11 to f/10.1 DLA for their 18.1MP to 22.3MP sensors. (Pixel sizes range between 6.9 and 6.25 microns.) In contrast, the sensor shared by the 7D/60D/T4i/T3i/T2i has 18.1MP (4.3 microns wide) packed onto an APS-C sized frame for a DLA of f/6.9.

    • Reply
  9. Greg

    Thanks for the article, a few more tips.
    - Back button focus, try it! Easy and solves the AF/refocus issue described at the beginning.
    - IR remote – I use a cheap ($3) remote to trigger long exposures as well as open/close the shutter in bulb mode. My Canon DSLR supports these scenarios, YMMV.
    - Self timer is also great for triggering long exposures.

    • Reply
  10. Urban Photo LA

    I’m going camping in a few weeks and plan to get some photographs in. Thanks for the tips, definitely have to try them out

    • Reply
  11. Vic Zubakin

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for an informative article on a subject that I’m interested in & just starting out. I’ve recently purchased a Hoya NDX400 ‘black glass’ filter for trying long exposures. I use a Nikon D7000 – does using the live view mode on the LCD screen put the camera into mirror-up mode as well or do I need to use the mirror lock mode?

    • Reply
  12. James Acheh

    Canon cameras can do back button focusing too – you don’t have to push down the shutter twice. You focus with the back and then it locks the focus so you can still use AF and not worry about it changing when you finally press the shutter down.

    • Reply

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