What is Bulb Mode and 5 Ways to Use It (Long Exposure Photography)
Bulb was used to take this photo of star trails
Today’s post is the result of a question from Eric Thant via the “Ask a Question” page. Eric asked, “How do I shoot the bulb mode? I am using Nikon 10-24 lens with D90.”
What is bulb mode on a camera?
That’s simple. Bulb mode simply allows the photographer to take a picture for as long as the shutter is depressed (that means pushed down, not sad…). You can use bulb mode by choosing manual mode or shutter priority, then start scrolling your selector wheel all the way to the end of the shutter speeds. After 25″, 30″, it will show “bulb” or simply the letter “b” on some cameras. Now you’re in bulb mode. This means the camera will keep taking a picture until your finger comes off the shutter button.
Bulb mode is used for long exposures at night. The main advantage is that it allows the photographer to achieve shutter speeds longer than the 30 seconds (displayed 30″ on the camera) that is allowed on most DSLRs.
No one in their right mind would stand next to the camera with their finger pressing down the shutter button for an ultra long exposure. Bulb mode is always used in conjunction with a cable release. You can pick up a cable release for about $10 for most DSLRs on Amazon. It is simply a wired remote control that allows the photographer to lock the shutter button to take LONG exposures without actually standing there and holding the button down.
5 Situations Where Bulb Mode Rocks!
Bulb Mode Idea #1: Taking pictures of lightning. Bulb is great for shooting lightning because it allows the photographer to stop the exposure when needed based on changing conditions, without being locked into a 30 second exposure. When I shoot lightning, I set up the camera on a tripod, set the DSLR to bulb mode, plug in my shutter release, and start an exposure. The camera keeps taking a picture as I watch the lightning and imagine how the different lightning bolts will appear on the final image. Once the picture in my head of the different strikes looks about right, I stop the exposure. This way I can end right after the last lightning bolt instead of waiting around for the 30 seconds to end and hoping another bolt doesn’t strike in the same place as another one did.
Bulb Mode Tip #2: Star trails. Shooting star trails is really fun. Since the Earth rotates, the stars change their position in the sky. By using bulb mode and an exposure of 20 minutes or more, you can capture beautiful star trails at night. The stars look like they are all streaking falling stars. For a more detailed explanation of how to shoot star trails, you might want to check out my book, Improve Your Night Photography.
Bulb Mode Situation #3: Light Painting. Light painting is when a photographer sets the camera on bulb mode and then paints light with flashlights on the subject in a dark location. For more on this technique, check out my night photography book or read this old post.
Bulb Mode Tip #4: Shooting fireworks. For the same reasons as for shooting lightning, it’s nice to be able to control when the picture will stop.
Bulb Mode Photography #5: For you historical folks, it is said that bulb mode originated with the OLD cameras that used flash powder that was lit on fire to illuminate a photo. Obviously, it was not always easy to predict when the flash of light would go, so bulb mode was a necessity. True? I have no idea, but it sounds cool enough to spread the rumor.
How to Photograph the Milky Way
Last week, I took a photo of the Milky Way above an old schoolhouse building in Idaho. I posted the photo on our Facebook page, and it received 1,548 likes, 177 comments, and was shared 84 times. I was pretty happy (okay, fine… I was ecstatic) that so many of you said such nice things about my picture.
MANY of you asked how the photo was taken, and wanted a tutorial on photographing the Milky Way. Your wish is my command.
If you are subscribed to this website via email and don’t get the videos associated with my posts, be sure to check out the on-location video of me photographing the Milky Way here.
Milky Way in Idaho
Camera Settings for Night Photography of the Milky Way
Shutter speed – 30 seconds: For this photo, I shot most of the night using a 30 second shutter speed (meaning that a professional tripod is necessary to keep the camera rock solid). I find that if you use a shutter speed that is too long, the stars in the sky start to look oblong because of Earth’s rotation. 30 seconds of shutter speed only makes the stars look BARELY oblong, and you really only notice it if you zoom way in on the computer.
However, don’t take 30 seconds as the perfect answer for taking pictures of the stars that aren’t star trails. The longer the lens you use, the shorter the shutter speed will need to be. If you shoot on a crop sensor camera with an 18mm lens, you probably won’t be able to use a shutter speed longer than 15 or 20 seconds, because the stars will appear larger in the frame, so the streaking is far more noticeable.
Aperture – f/2.8: Normally, you would want to use a high aperture for landscape photography to achieve maximum depth-of-field. Photographers often get tricked into thinking they need a very high aperture since the stars are far away, but remember that depth-of-field is about how much of the picture is sharp, not where the sharpness appears.
So the correct aperture for this photo is–the lowest f-stop you have available to you on your lens. By focusing on the stars, you’re focused to infinity (the furthest out the lens can focus), so you can use a low f-stop to capture the dim star light.
In this photo, I had a lens (the Nikon 14-24mm lens) that could go down to f/2.8, so that’s the aperture value I used to take this picture. The trouble with using such a low aperture value is that I chose to take this picture with a large foreground element, the old schoolhouse, so when I used f/2.8, the house was blurry since I was focused on the stars. Knowing that it would be impossible to shoot a photo in such low light with an f-stop like f/16 that would have afforded me more light, I chose to shoot one picture of the stars at f/2.8 and one picture focused on the house at f/2.8. Then I simply combined the two in Photoshop. If you’re a “get it right in the camera” zealot, this may not sound like an attractive way to take this photo, but I promise you that it is also the ONLY way to take this photo. Yep, the only way. You need a high f-stop for the depth-of-field, but a low f-stop for light gathering… so you have to use post-processing.
If you take a photo out in the woods or the desert or another open location with nothing in the foreground to worry about, then you could easily just shoot at f/2.8 and forego the Photoshop bit. But if you’re shooting a photo just like mine, there is no other way with current technology.
ISO – 3200: Normally, photographers like to keep the ISO as low as possible to prevent the photos from becoming grainy. However, many types of night photography require high ISO values. Such is the case here, where I shot with an ISO of 3200. If you have a camera made in the last couple years, it will likely allow you to choose an ISO as high as 3200 or even higher (I shot some photos this same night at ISO 6,400).
Since I shot at ISO3200, there is definitely some noise in the picture I took. Frankly, that is unavoidable with current technology, but there are quite a few things you can do to at least mitigate the noise in the photo caused by the high ISO and long shutter speed. One of those methods is long exposure noise reduction.
Long exposure noise reduction is available on all DSLRs (that I know of, anyway) that were made in the last few years. On a Nikon, you’ll find “Long Exposure NR” in the shooting menu of the camera. On Canon cameras, go to your menu, then go to custom functions, and browse through them until you find long exposure noise reduction (it’s a different custom function on each Canon model). This feature uses a technology called dark frame subtraction that I explain in the video associated with this post.
How to Focus for Night Photography
All autofocus systems require some amount of contrast in order to find proper focus. When shooting at night, there is rarely enough light outside for your camera to autofocus properly. The best way to solve this problem is to look around you for a street light or other light that is the same distance away from you as where you want the focus to be. Then, autofocus on that light, and slide the focus mode switch on your lens to “manual” this will keep the focus where you last set it as long as you don’t accidentally twist the manual focus ring at the front of your lens.
If you’re taking a picture of the stars and don’t have to worry about focusing on anything in the foreground, then you may want to rack your focus all the way out as far as it will go, and then come back just a slight bit. This will focus your lens to infinity (as far as it focuses), which is always the proper focus for shooting the stars. If the moon is bright enough, you could also focus on the moon and then you’re set.
If I need to focus on something closer to the camera, like how I focused on the schoolhouse for one of the photos, then shining a bright flashlight or laser pointer on the building will help your camera to find focus. One other technique is to simply show up to the location where you’ll be shooting before it’s actually night time. Then you can adjust your composition before it gets dark, and lock down your focus while there is still enough available light.
How to See the Milky Way
Most people never see the Milky Way with their naked eye. Usually, the artificial lights from houses and streetlights are too bright for our eyes to see the faint glow of the ring around the Milky Way at night. However, by using the amazing light gathering ability of newer DSLRs, the Milky Way can usually be captured in a picture.
I intentionally waited to take this picture until a night that did not have a bright moon. This lessens the amount of light in the sky to make the Milky Way less visible. Also, I drove 1.5 hours away from the nearest major city to get rid of all of the city lights. In this rural location, I could see the Milky Way with my naked eye, which was intensified when I took a picture and gathered the light with a 30 second exposure.
Frankly, I’m not much of an astronomer to tell you if the Milky Way is visible, or even to point you to a resource where you might find out when and where the Milky Way will be visible. But in Idaho, I find that it’s visible most all of the year for most of the night. I just go out and shoot a couple times to know where it will rise and set, and approximately what time of night. For this shoot, I knew the Milky Way became visible as soon as it was FULLY black outside, and was directly overhead around 2PM. Perhaps someone in the comments can point us to a good resource to check the sunrise time/location for different parts of the world.
Photos like this don’t happen by accident. It takes a lot of practice and planning to take a photo of the Milky Way, but the payoff is huge! Although it was quite cold outside taking this picture since I didn’t bring a proper jacket, the time I got to spend out in the middle of nowhere looking at the brilliant stars for a few hours last week was incredibly soothing.
Night Photography Tips [IP37]
In this week’s episode we talk about night photography and share tons of night photography tips.
Tip #1: Use a solid tripod.
Any little bit of wind during a long exposure can make photos extremely blurry when doing a long exposure.
Tip #2: When light painting, think about the hardness and softness of the light you create.
The larger the light source, the softer the lighting. When doing light painting, photographers tend to forget that principle. If you physically move around while light painting, you create a softer light than if you stand in the same place and simply shine the flashlight around.
Tip #3: Don’t be afraid to step in front of the camera when light painting.
You won’t show up as long as the light doesn’t shine on you.
Tip #4: Do not trust the LCD screen on your camera when shooting at night.
Screens are a group of little lights that make a picture. When it is dark at night and you are looking at the back of your camera, the screen makes the photo seem much brighter than it really is. When you get home and look at the photos on your computer, you often find that the photos are dramatically underexposed. Use the histogram when shooting at night–every time!
Tip #5: Don’t worry about cheating down on your aperture at night.
While photographers generally want to use high apertures like f/16 for landscape pictures to get full depth of field, at night this simply isn’t practical because there is not enough light. Night photographers often shoot photos at f/4 or f/5.6. If this isn’t enough depth-of-field, you can simply take a picture for the foreground and another photo for the background and stitch them together in Photoshop.
Tip #6: Go on location before it gets dark.
Try getting there right at sunset. This will give you time to scope out the scene, get a good composition, and practice a bit with your focus. Find some interesting foreground elements to include in your photo while you still have enough light to see where you’re walking. Just this little bit of extra planning will make a big difference in your photos.
Tip #7: Don’t fall for the red light myth.
You may have heard that red light improves (or doesn’t destroy) your night vision. The evidence for this is really tenuous. In theory, using red light could actually improve your night vision, but in a practical sense it really doesn’t make any difference.
Tip #8: Use a cable release.
This is really helpful for a few reasons: 1) A cable release helps you keep your camera in the same, exact spot which is really great for multiple exposures. 2) If you are going to use an exposure longer than 30 seconds, a cable release is mandatory in bulb mode.
Tip #9: Use long exposure noise reduction.
When you use this setting, the camera takes a second (completely black) picture and subtracts the noise it sees on the second picture from the first picture. This cuts out a lot of the extra noise you will see in your night photos, especially when using a long exposure.
Tip #10: Focus to infinity.
You might think that using f/22 will make your night photos sharp. But beware – when you are photographing something so far out (like the moon and the stars), even an f/22 aperture isn’t going to get your photo in sharp focus. Instead, you need to manually focus your lens to infinity. On some lenses, this is done by racking the focus all the way out. But on most, it isjust before that. An easy way to focus to infinity is to auto focus on something far away (a light off in the distance, the moon) and then switch your focus over to manual to lock the focus.
Tip #11: Use HDR tone mapping to deal with the high contrast at night.
For night photography, HDR really is a useful technique because we often have a huge dynamic range in the photo. The sky is pitch black so any light source that you can see is going to be really bright. HDR is a great technique for controlling that.
Tip #12: Bring a spotlight.
You will want this light so you don’t trip in the dark, but you will also want it to light up your photo. If you are shooting the Milky Way and you happen to have a building in the foreground, the light from the Milky Way simply isn’t going to be enough to light up the building. You’ll need some extra light. You can see a video of Jim’s Milky Way shot here.
Tip #13: Shoot in RAW.
Remember that shooting in RAW will give you a lot more control over your image. There is a lot you can do in post processing if you’ve been shooting in RAW.
Tip #14: Think about the lighting in terms of how light changes during the night.
Lighting at noon is terrible and a landscape photographer wouldn’t go out to do a shoot then. The same principle applies to night photography. When the moon is directly above you, the light isn’t good for photography. Think about the lighting in your night photography just like you would if you were shooting in the sunlight. This will really help you get better photos.
Tip #15: Think about how the aperture is going to affect light sources.
Often, there are a lot of different light sources in your night photo. If you stop down your aperture, it is going to take a longer time to get the photo, but it will also create a star-burst around the light instead of just seeing a large light blob. This can make a huge difference in your photos.
Tip #16: White balance.
When you change the white balance in your camera, you can get better color in the sky of your photo as well as see some detail that may have been lost in a totally black-looking sky.
Capturing photos at night always created a problem of underexposure for an amateur like myself. Listed above are tips and tricks I found that would be helpful, I and would like to try out. There are descriptions of camera settings for proper night exposure,techniques for revealing the colors of the milky way, and explanations of bulb mode shooting. Bulb mode I found very interesting. Using a cable release, you can keep the shutter open for as long as you want to capture star trails or different strikes of lightning. I believe this information would be helpful for anyone.