Long Exposure Photography (outside a car)
I have just finished working on a project which I always wanted to shoot but never had enough courage, knowledge and the right equipment. Finally, the day has come and, together with a good friend of mine, we teamed up and mounted a camera on the bonnet of his car. Below you can see the results.
First of all, if you decide to capture similar images, make sure you get help and advice from professionals with experience in attaching things to structures. Steeplejacks and/or rock climbers usually have some experience in working with ropes and other equipment. If you have little knowledge of this craft, do not attempt to mount the camera yourself as you may seriously damage your equipment. Remember, if you damage your equipment you cannot hold anybody responsible apart from yourself.
At first we thought it would be a good idea to mount the camera on a tripod and then strap the tripod to the bonnet. However, later we realised that it would take up too much space, it would be difficult for the driver to stay focused on the road and it might damage the bonnet. Finally, we decided to attach a tripod head to a block of wood with long screws, and then we strapped the wooden block to the bonnet, using strong polyester straps. The straps went around the bonnet from both directions, keeping the camera stable and immobile. We also placed a piece of a sleeping mat between the wooden block and the bonnet just to make sure the structure doesn’t move or scratch the bonnet. In the end, we also used zap-straps (the plastic straps that Police officers sometimes use instead of handcuffs) just to make sure the camera won’t fall off the bonnet even if the tripod head fails. We could have also used a suction cup, instead of the block of wood, but we didn’t have enough time to find one. Whichever way you choose to mount the camera on the bonnet, remember that the whole structure has to be stable and cannot move in any direction. If you are using straps remember that you will have to tighten them from time to time as they tend to become loose after a while. Also, it’s a good idea to wrap the camera is some kind of protective material. Again, we used several pierces of a foam mat to protect the camera from wind, cold, water and pieces of debris that can damage it. The camera was facing the windscreen so it wasn’t necessary to protect the lens itself. However, if you are worried about your lens use a UV filter just in case.
During the project we experienced three types of problems.
At first, we couldn’t set the right exposure as the light conditions were constantly changing. The first few pictures, we took as a test, were extremely overexposed. Then we stopped on the side of the road which was quite well-lit and corrected the settings. Than we realised that we shouldn’t worry about it too much as it’s almost impossible to achieve perfect exposure in these light conditions. Take a few test pictures and then stop to see if you are getting the right exposure. Finally, remember to shoot in RAW and you will be able to tweak the exposure in post-production.
Then, we had a problem with triggering the shutter. You can use a remote cable shutter switch (if you manage to find one which is long enough) or you can use the infrared controller. We decided to use the infrared controller, but we had to make some adjustments to the protective cover of our camera as it was blocking the infrared sensor. As the camera is facing the windscreen, make sure it has an infrared sensor not only at the back but also in front so you can trigger the shutter from inside the car. If your camera doesn’t have a front sensor then the remote shutter cord is the only option.
Finally, the camera shake also proved to be a big issue. Depending on the state of the roads in your city, you will need to decide where the best place to shoot is. Work closely with the driver and maybe even agree on a route beforehand. This will help you to identify the best spots in terms of the road as well as interesting lights around.
Now, let’s get down to the camera settings. Here we used a Sigma 8mm fisheye lens on a Nikon D7000. The wider the lens the more lights you will be able to capture. However, with a fisheye lens on a DX camera, you will need to use additional software to straighten your images such as PTLens. We also used relatively low ISO 200, in order to avoid noise, and a small aperture of f/8, to get a sharper depth of field. Generally, there was enough light around us to extend the shutter speed to 4 seconds. You have to remember that if you use a slower shutter speed, you will achieve longer trails of light and more interesting patterns. However, your camera has to be really stable and your driver has to drive slowly, watching out for bumps in order to avoid camera shake. Again, it’s good to plan the route in advance.
Last but not least, post-processing is also an important part of this kind of photography. You shouldn’t expect all images to be perfectly exposed and have interesting light patterns. The pictures above are composed from several images stacked together in Photoshop. Simply, select the images with the most interesting patterns and stack them as layers in Photoshop using the ‘lighten’ blending mode. Then, work on the curve, increase clarity, contrast and colour saturation. Due to slow shutter speed, you won’t be able to get a sharp image of both the driver and passenger. These had to be takes separately with a faster shutter speed and when the car was not moving. Then, they were integrated into the final image. You can also use additional lighting inside the car to lit your subject better.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this post and will try to capture similar images yourself soon.
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