I was shooting long exposures the other day in my studio and I accidentally went into the infamous BULB mode while selecting my shutter speed on my D300. As I was getting out of BULB mode, I got a flash (no pun intended)! This would make for a great tutorial!
So… In this tutorial, I’ll look at what BULB mode is, the equipment needed to get great long exposure shots and some ideas for when to use it. So let’s get right to it, shall we?
What is BULB mode?
BULB mode (or BULB setting) is a shutter speed setting that gives you complete manual control of the duration of your shutter speed. Most often it’s used for shutter speeds of more than 30 seconds. Please refer to your instruction manual on how to set BULB mode. For most DSLRs, you first have to be in manual (M) mode to set BULB. Once in manual mode, dial down your shutter speed all the way to 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, dial it down once more and you’ll find BULB. Once you have it set, you’re ready to go!
In most cameras, BULB works by pressing and holding the shutter release until you’ve had the the desired shutter time (or when you finger gets tired!), then let go to close the shutter. You can image that if you want a 5 minute exposure, you’ll need to find another way.
That’s where remote triggers come in very handy. I showed you a variety of trigger options in my Intro to Macro Photography tutorial but you don’t need fancy wireless options like the Canon LC-5 or the Nikon ML-3. I would suggest a wired option like the Nikon MC-30 or the Canon RS-80N3. Depending on the trigger you purchase, you’ll have the option of locking it so all you need to do is press, go have a double mocha latte mochino cream thing-a-ma-gig, come back and press again to close the shutter. If you don,t have that option, gaffer tape is a cheap alternative. Another advantage to remote triggers is that they prevent camera shake when pressing the shutter button.
Needless to say that another very important piece of equipment is a tripod. If you’re shooting outside and you’re leaving your camera unsupervised, I would suggest a heavier tripod or adding sand bags… just in case.
One of the downsides of shooting digital is battery life. Long exposures take lots of battery juice. Just one long exposure can drain a fully charged battery! No kidding. So if you’re planning on doing lots of BULB shots, you might consider investing in a vertical grip like the MB-D80 for Nikon D80 or D90 bodies or the BG-E2N for Canon 30D, 40D and 50D. What the vertical grip does it that it lets you put 2 batteries in it for double the juice.
When to use BULB mode?
The most obvious reason to use BULB mode is for exposures of more than 30 seconds like shooting night skies to get the star trails or dramatic moving clouds.
But it doesn’t always have to be for exposures of more than 30 seconds. It could just be for total control of when the shutter opens and closes. Great examples of this are shooting fireworks. The timing needs to be just right to get the best looking “bangs” and “poofs”.
I had the pleasure once to witness a lighting storm at the cottage one summer evening. Out came the tripod! I used BULB mode, off course. I would open the shutter and once the lightning would strike, I would close it.
Another time to use BULB mode is if you’re light painting. Open when you start, close when you’re done.
There are surely more ways to fully exploit BULB mode. Your only limit is your imagination! I invite you to share you ideas and link to your BULB photos in the comments.