By using long exposure times for exposing water in movement, its possible to achieve a very nice silky effect. Typically an exposure time of 15-60 sec is enough to turn a moving water surface into a flat silky looking surface. Depending on the conditions you may need to expose up to a couple of minutes.
To achieve this long exposure time for a night shot, simply by selecting a smaller aperture like f22 and f32, may not be the best solution. Lens diffraction at these apertures has a significant negative influence on the contrast and the sharpness of the final image.
You will achieve a much sharper image, if you use a lower f-stop in the range f8 f11. To ensure the right exposure time, try using high quality Neutral Density (ND) filters instead.
The image above shows a zoom into the central part of the image without any image adjustments added. The same image is shot at both f=8 and f=22. It is obvious using f=22 decrease the sharpness and the local contrast significantly. You can hardly read the Gulf logo.
Tripod and manuel focus
Sometimes, it’s a good idea to make an aperture sweep to learn more about the behavior of a specific lens. It’s necessary to use a very sturdy tripod and manual focus in order to not be influenced by variations in the autofocus system.
The 4 images above are 200% zooms into to central part of an image. With this zoom level we can see how the lens diffraction effect gradually decreases the sharpness of the image. At f11 we still have great sharpness, but at f16 an obvious loss of sharpness appears. At f22 we really lose a significant amount of sharpness and local contrast.
Lets take a look at the surface of the water and observe the effect of using long exposure time for the shoot.
In this case, the 15 sec exposure gives the wanted silky look of the water surface. For the best result, I should use a neutral density filter giving a 15 sec exposure at f8 or f11. The image is shot with a wide-angle lens, so there’s be no problem with depth of field when I use f8 or even f5.6.
If I don’t have my ND filters with me, and I still want the silky water look from the f22 shot, I use the Clarity tool in Capture One 7. This will help me improve the lost local and also improve quite a bit on the loss of sharpness.
A 100% zoom into the central part of the image. The Clarity tool from Capture One 7 has been used in the image to the right. I use Clarity=40 and Structure=20 for this image. These settings bring back the loss of local contrast and improve the perceived sharpness of the image.
With the Clarity tool we have been able to dramatically improve the loss of quality due to lens diffraction at f22. A better solution to achieve the 15sec exposure time would be to use a high quality ND filter and an aperture between f8 and f11.
All the best,
The Image Quality Professor
The digital pioneer, Niels V. Knudsen, is Phase One’s Image Quality Professor and founder of the IQP blog. Moreover, he is responsible for breakthrough advancements in image quality both in Phase One’s medium format camera systems and in Capture One Pro.
This is one of the things you learn in college, and take for granted! In the film days it was almost impossible to see this, but with digital it is obvious and can be viewed instantly in Capture One. I would urge every photographer to test this for themselves – you will be as amazed as I was when I photographed a ruler with lens tilt at various apertures – do test it!