What is the BULB Setting and When to Use It

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.

22 responses on "What is the BULB Setting and When to Use It"

  1. I have canon 1000D and i have the Bulb as shutter speed and i want to change it back to normal.

  2. thanks for the nice tips!….getting a bulb on top of my head (ideas)!!

  3. Totally good info! I always wanted to know what and when to use that setting.
    Great job! Thanks for sharing this tutorial!

    I will be back for more… Or should I say, I will be searching for more tutorials on your site!

  4. Very very useful information. I’m going to try this out, thanks for sharing!

  5. @Yanik: Liked your article. I was googling for some information on Bulb setting and hit your site. It is nicely narrated here.

    @Vinny: 45 mins in Bulb mode !!! It is OK, but there is a triangle rule, that is regarding ISO, Shutter speed and aperture. Slower shutter gathers more amount of light and wider aperture allows more amount of light while Higher ISO makes the sensor more sensitive to dimmer lights. So when you decide for a longer exposure, keep your ISO to the minimum say 100 or 200. Keep the aperture narrower than f/8 , you may choose f/11 for example. Then decide. And before going for the long exposure and spoiling your image, try this same settings with a 30s photo. It should come dark, else you have reduce the aperture further, for example to f/22. When you are satisfied with a darker 30s shot, exploit your camera to go to bulb mode. Remember, it eats out the life of your sensor, so use it judiciously.

  6. I shoot in bulb mode tonite for the first time for 45 mins I think it was to long for startrails any tips I use a canon rebel xsi the photo came out bright white then when I did just 30 sec exposures my star trails were just dots not trails any help would be great ! I read your post but still not working for me

  7. very informative, and this may be a dumb question,but what shutter speed should we use for a ightning storm,etc.?

  8. I ended up rining the Nikon helpline, they were very good and managed to talk me through the steps. Th person that I spoke to told me to press the 2 bottons on the camera near the on/off control with the green dots ie. the AF and +/- simultaneously until the display screen goes blank, this basically re-sets the camera. I had tried this before without success, this time it worked! so I am now off bulb setting.

    I hope this helps.

  9. im right with you.. I have the d90 and can’t change it!!! help!!!!

  10. Thanks, I have tried this. For some reason, I can lower the shutter speed, but it will not take it off bulb setting, when I take the shutter speed up it just goes up to bulb setting.

  11. @A

    It has to do with your shutter speed dial. Make sure you’re in S or M mode and turn your shutter speed dial.

  12. I have accidently got into bulb setting on my NIkon D80, can anyone please please tell me how to remove this setting.


  13. How can you be sure to not over or under expose the shot? I have a D80 and am new to photography, so usually use A or S modes so that I control 1 setting and the camera calculates the other.

  14. Yanik, tq so much 4 all ur tutorials. it’s like magic 2 me. 😉

  15. Well, i didn’t get too deep, but your software from CD, that you got with your camera, should do the magic. There was also said that just new models are capable of it, but i don’t know what models/manufacturers. I have a friend, who has Nikon D80 and he told me, that he has the oportunity to set it on PC.

  16. @ Gaboss

    Great! What’s the software and where can we get it?

  17. Hey guys, yesterday i read an article with an information you might not know yet and might find it interesting. You can use a software that comes with your camera to set a Bulb exposure time and control it on your computer. So you wouldn’t need any “expensive” remote controllers or anything. This could be useful if you plan to shoot something or when shooting at own garden or anywhere you can/want take your laptop to.
    And Yanik, THANKS for all your tutorials, i’ve read them all and they’ve been quite helpful. I came here a month ago and i’ve been looking forward to your new tutorials since then. Keep it going 😉

  18. @ Mike

    There’s no set formula for aperture/ISO. I always start at my camera’s lowest ISO setting and an aperture of around f8. then I adjust accordingly. 🙂

  19. Any suggestions on aperture/iso settings when shooting something without a set shutter time like the fireworks or lightning?

  20. WOW! Thanks Yanik, I’ve been anxious to try this, I read it in my manual, but it’s complete now that I see what and when to use it for! Thanks!

  21. just a quick note Yanik, for DSLR bulbers…most digital cameras will only expose for a maximum of 30 secs at a time, longer exposure may fry the sensor.You can of course get away with this by using multiple exposures 😉

  22. I have Nikon ML-L3 Remote Control Transmitter which is the cheapest and do the job well with my D70. Also it costs only $18.


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