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Creating A Long Exposure Look Without The Wait (or ND Filter)

Great-Smokies-2634

Water has a life, rhythm and romance which, when trying to capture it in a still image, can be a challenge. Photographers have long tried to interpret that smooth blurring of water’s motion and to communicate its flow.

Blurring the Lines of Fast Moving Water

To technically achieve our goals for this long exposure look we must set a slow enough shutter speed so that movement of the water in our frame appears to softly blur during our exposure time. However, settings must also be determined so that the meter will not overexpose our image or, if ancillary motion such as a leaf moves due to a breeze, other elements in the frame will not shift and thereby lessen overall image sharpness.

Nikon - At the heart of the image

To achieve our desired long exposure look there are a few ways to work: we can lower our ISO, close down our lens to its smallest aperture, add a neutral density filter (up to 16 stops now), or work with a combination of these with the goal of slowing down that shutter speed to smooth the water. All of these are good options to create that soft blur look, but it may still take a little adjusting and trial and error to get things balanced.

I have just learned about a simple technique that, in a snap, lets you create the look of smooth and softly blurred water, something that typically requires a long exposure on a tripod. It is as simple as turning ON the Multiple Exposure setting in our camera, then tapping the shutter.

Using the in-camera Multiple Exposure function, a long exposure look can be achieved quickly without the need to resort to ND filters. On the left, a single photo taken with the Nikon Df using the normal photo taking process. On the right, the same scene captured with the Multiple Exposure function (several photos combined instantly in camera), yielding a long exposure look.  Photos by Moose Peterson.

Using the in-camera Multiple Exposure function, a long exposure look can be achieved quickly without the need to resort to ND filters. On the left, a single photo taken with the Nikon Df using the normal photo taking process. On the right, the same scene captured with the Multiple Exposure function (several photos combined instantly in camera), yielding a long exposure look. Photos by Moose Peterson.

Putting Multiple Exposure to Work

The Multiple Exposure function (located in the Shooting Menu) has a couple of sub-settings to know about. The first one is the number of exposures. In cameras like the Nikon D4s, Df and D810, you can select up to 10 exposures. In cameras like the Nikon D750, you can obtain three exposures. I like to use the biggest number that the camera offers.

When setting the exposure count you will see an option for Auto Gain. Keep that on. That’s the key to the camera being able to combine all the exposures and then produce the right exposure for this technique. Lastly, you will see options for Series or Single. I like Series the best. This is because when I shoot “blurs” I want to take a lot of them as no two are alike. I select my favorite one back at the computer. I like this technique so much that I have created a customized setting for it in My Menu.

Setting the camera to Aperture mode, and choosing a small aperture (f/22), along with a low ISO of 100,  a photo that has the flowing water look can be created even under extremely bright conditions that prevent using a slow enough shutter speed, by using the Multiple Exposure function. Photos by Moose Peterson.

Setting the camera to Aperture mode, and choosing a small aperture (f/22), along with a low ISO of 100, a photo that has the flowing water look can be created even under extremely bright conditions that prevent using a slow enough shutter speed, by using the Multiple Exposure function. Photos by Moose Peterson.

Putting this technique to use is simple. Start by taking a test shot so that you can get a starting point for fine tuning camera settings. Frame up your scene. In this example I show a creek in the Great Smokies that I created using the Nikon Df and AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED placed onto a tripod. The ISO is 100 (no need to lower it). I set f/22 (to preserve depth of field) and used Aperture Priority. I then relied on the camera to focus on the scene—pressing down the shutter halfway for the camera to lock-on my focus.

Without moving the camera, I carefully turned off the Auto Focus (AF). I dialed in some exposure compensation. The amount to dial-in depends on you and your subject matter. I generally start at -2/3 and may go all the way up to 2 f/stops.

The cool thing is that I was shooting in full sun. You will not need to find shade for this technique to work. I then took my test shot to check out the pattern of the blur in the water. I fine-tuned composition and exposure, then lock down the tripod head to turn on Multiple Exposure. Once I hit the shutter, the camera takes 10 photos in rapid succession, then combines all image files into one exposure. Bam—you have your blurred water shot neat and clean.

Nikon Df on a tripod set to capture and combine multiple photos with the Multiple Exposure function. Photo by Moose Peterson.

Nikon Df on a tripod set to capture and combine multiple photos with the Multiple Exposure function. Photo by Moose Peterson.

Waterfall Mechanics

How well does this all work? The camera will produce better colors this way, compared to combining all the individual images in post. But how the camera actually combines all the single photo file “blurs” to create a gorgeous “blur” in one photo is a bit of a mystery to me. You could systematically and individually photograph the same number of photos then combine these in software, but the Multiple Exposure method works well every time, plus it’s far faster and easier.

Nikon - At the heart of the image

Here’s an extra tip to this really, really simple technique for making such dynamic photos. Earlier on I suggested selecting the Series option in the Menu. Place the camera into Continuous High (CH) shutter speed and use a remote firing device like the Nikon WR-T10. You want no movement of the camera while shooting, plus you want to take multiple photos as no two water blur photos are ever the same.

You will hear the camera fire off 10 times, but with the Multiple Exposure turned ON, what’s delivered is only one photo. Ensuring no camera movement between those ten shots is essential. When you’re all done you have one gorgeous .NEF file of your scene. I simply love this technique because it frees us from needing filters, plus it permits us to shoot big time blurs even in full sunlight.

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About The Contributor

Moose Peterson-15

Moose Peterson

Moose Peterson’s true passion has always been and remains photographing the life history of our endangered wildlife and wild places. Since 1981 he and his wife Sharon have dedicated their lives to this pursuit. Educating the public about our wild heritage is their hallmark. In recent years Moose has added aviation photography to his pursuits with the same goal of preserving our aviation heritage, pictorial and oral for future generations. Along the way Moose has been honored for his photographic passion: a Nikon Ambassador, Lexar Elite Photographer, recipient of the John Muir Conservation Award, Research Associate with the Endangered Species Recovery Program, just to name a few. He’s part of Epson’s Finish Strong ad campaign. Moose is creative producer/photographer of his acclaimed film: Aviation Photography: Warbird and The Men Who Flew Them. He shares his knowledge through his writing, being published in over 143 magazines worldwide, author of 28 books including his latest, Photographic FUNdamentals, Taking Flight and best seller Captured. He lectures across the country to thousands upon thousands of photographers every year. One of the original Nikon shooters to receive the D1 in 1999, Moose embraced this new technology, becoming the only wildlife photographer in the world to shoot strictly digital in the early years. While a beta tester for all the major hardware and software manufacturers, Moose continues being a creative innovator of new techniques both behind the camera and the computer, which is the driving force behind his photography and goals. To See more work by Moose, visit his blog: http://www.moosepeterson.com/blog


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  • Carol Smith

    I love this. But why did you turn off Auto Focus? Will the moving water cause the camera to lose focus?

    • Ray Christian

      Anything could happen that may accidentally cause the camera to try and refocus would interfere with the shot. A wind blown leaf in front of the lens would do it etc. With auto focus turned off you need not be concerned with focusing or having the camera “search” for the subject because you are sort of “locked in” and can now rest easy to fire the shutter off. That is just my opinion of course.

      • http://twaynesdomain.com/ Twayne

        That’s an article with good information and something I here-to-fore had no awareness of.
        Although I appreciate the original, fully focused picture and think it offers its own vision of movement better than the techniques described, I will still give it a try: Perhaps there are other, better uses for this newly discovered feature on my camera. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jim Urzykowski

    After reading this fantastic article I checked my camera manual for my Nikon D90. It too is capable of doing multiple exposures on a single frame. Thanks Moose!

    • Ani

      Works to with older cameras like the D2X as well, great article indeed!

  • Anuj

    Great ! Thanks for sharing.

  • anim8tr

    Thank you! I had no idea that setting was available on my camera…

  • Geoff Jackson

    More than 3 exposures on an in camera single frame does not seem possible on a D610. Am I correct?

  • DesertPatriot

    Great technique Moose! You da man!

  • David Fleurant

    Hi Moose, With regard to auto focus on or off. I find it more useful to take focus control away from the release button and auto focus the camera via the body button on the back of the camera. Set the camera in continuous focus mode and you will have the best of both worlds. Press the back button and release and you have an locked focus, hold the button down and you now have focus tracking. Of course not all cameras will allow for back button focus but it is great on those that do. I use this tech. on a d800.
    David

  • Photo Guy

    While this article addressed Nikon models, Canon has a similar feature in at least some of their models, my 5D Mk III and 7D Mk II also have this feature. I haven’t checked other models. I’ll have to try it out on flowing water.