The Beauty of the Blur

Into the Night

On Saturday night I shot the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and night shooting amusement park rides is one of my favorite things to do. Long exposure shots of rides can produce some beautiful images and with today’s world of digital photography you can see the results right there as you shoot.

I’ve found most amusement parks, carnivals, fairs, etc. always very receptive to photography. Even with a tripod.

So to get a shot like this, you first need a tripod. You don’t have to have a cable release (you can use the timer on your camera) but a cable release is pretty helpful. In terms of cable releases I just use a fairly cheap but functional one, the Canon Remote Switch RS-80N3.

In terms of tripods I recommend that people don’t cheap out on these. Bad tripods break easily. I personally like the quality of the Manfrottos, but you will pay up for these. In any case, seriously consider a ball head tripod over other types as they are much easier to work with.

The reason why you want to use a cable release or at a minimum the timer setting on your camera is because there is an almost imperceptible amount of movement to the camera when you actually push the shutter with your finger. So even if you don’t have a cable release. Heck, even if you don’t have your tripod and have to position your camera sitting on a fence or railing or table or anything else solid, at minimum use your timer setting to get your shot.

So the key with a shot like this is to not over expose the lights. What this means is that you are going to be shooting in manual mode almost entirely. Typically I’ll want to shoot a lot of my night stuff at 100 ISO. 100 ISO of course doesn’t work at night with hand held shooting. But on a tripod it’s fine. You will also want to bump up the aperture. In terms of the shot above I was shooting at f/11. My exposure time on this shot was one second.

Now typically what I do when I try and get these shots is use the cable release to try all kinds of different times. I’m doing it by touch and feel so I’ll just keep firing a ton of shots off. Half a second, one second, 2 seconds, 10 seconds. After a few shots you get a feel for where the timing is right. Then I’ll shoot maybe 30 shots of the same image to have a wide selection of shots to choose a final exposure from later.

To see some other cool blur photography check out the blur tag sorted by awesomeness on Zooomr!

So that’s kind of the basics on how I get a shot like the one above. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments and I’ll try and answer them.

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14 Comments

  1. Chris says:

    Do you use the mirror lockup for something like this or don’t you worry about it that much?

  2. mpmb says:

    awesome shots!

  3. kelly says:

    been an RSS subscriber to your posts for over a year now and can’t tell you how pumped I am to actually finally get a “how I shot this” from you. For a novice photographer trying to learn the ins and outs, it’s great to get this detail! Kudos and thanks for having the best photo blog on the net! (and don’t forgot “this is how I shot this photo!)

  4. Thomas Hawk says:

    Do you use the mirror lockup for something like this or don’t you worry about it that much?

    Nah, I don’t worry about it. The mirror snapping doesn’t produce enough motion on the 5D to worry about it in my opinion.

    But, if you get blur from the camera motion you might consider even on a tripod you might consider this on whatever DSLR you are shooting with.

    been an RSS subscriber to your posts for over a year now and can’t tell you how pumped I am to actually finally get a “how I shot this” from you.

    Thanks Kelly, I’ll try to do more of these in the future.

  5. Jon says:

    I’ve tried some night ride shots handheld and don’t recommend it either. You just can’t get low noise and a steady pattern of the lights moving without a tripod.

    Thomas, do you have any recommendations for a cheap but decent tripod? I want a ball head and some strength but I’m not ready to spend hundreds and hundreds. I picked up a wireless remote for a few bucks and this is a really handy accessory.

  6. Bob says:

    Great shot. I too appreciate the “How To”. I like reading how others are getting their shots.

    Thank you.

  7. Andy Frazer says:

    I’m glad to hear the the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is now allowing photographers to use tripods. Years ago I got politely asked to “cease and desist” shooting there with my tripod at night. The guards politely told me that the management did not permit unauthorized professional photography, and they were told to identify the pros by the fact that they used a tripod. The guy was very sympathetic to my “but, but, but” ‘s, but he told me that those were the rules he was forced to follow.

    Now, I need to go back there and reshoot.

    Andy Frazer

  8. Thomas, great article! You should write this type of tutorials more frequently. 🙂

  9. Scotty says:

    I’m with Kelly and the rest. Great shot and I love the “how to’s”. Keep em coming Thomas.

  10. Os says:

    Great How-To!

    Thanks for the tips Thomas!

  11. jeremy says:

    So that’s kind of the basics on how I get a shot like the one above. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments and I’ll try and answer them.

    Yes, actually, I do have a question: How do you focus? In my experiences with night/low light photography, the autofocus tends to hunt and never converge. (No matter if I am using a tripod or not. Actually, the tripod isn’t even the issue, given the low contrast of the scene itself.)

    I can see how f/11 might help, as you have a larger DOF. But even still, what do you do about the focus? Do you turn off AF and set it manually? If so, how do you know when your focus is spot on?

  12. Thomas Hawk says:

    Hey Jeremy, I answered this question with a blog post here.

  13. jeremy says:

    Cheers!

  14. asymtote says:

    > After a few shots you get a feel for where the timing is right.

    How do you get this feel? Just by looking at the image and/or histogram on your camera’s screen or do you actually bust out a laptop and look at the images there?