Long Exposures and Bokeh

Long exposures have always fascinated me. It was the first style of photography that I was instantly drawn to, and showed me how versatile this craft can really be. When I started to apply bokeh more often to my work – not by choice really, more by accident – I wanted to see the results of combining long exposures with extremely shallow depths of field. I had expectations, but had no idea how intriguing the results would be until I went through several rounds of trial and error.

Autumn Trees

The main reason why I chose these two trees as my subject is not just for their symmetry, but also for their isolation from the forest in which they stood. They were distanced from the other trees, and easy to define against the sky in terms of color and value.

Isolation was important for this kind of photo. The autumn wind was very intense, and I wanted to use a long exposure to capture the moving leaves and tree branches. If I was in the thick of the forest, this kind of movement would be lost among the other trees.

Since I was working very wide – f1.4 – I had to use not one, but two ND400 filters, which gave me an image that was 18 full stops less than the unfiltered exposure. My shutter speed was 52 seconds, which gave me enough time to photograph the trees in constant motion, resulting in this painterly environment.

At 24mm on a full frame, this prime lens was wide enough to allow the other tree to be seen in the same shot. Another benefit to this focal length is that it will exaggerate the distances between elements – so more distance was put between the tree in sharp focus and the matching tree on the left. If they appeared to be closer, the tree on the right would not be as dominant and would change the overall balance of the image.

The framing of this shot was very unconventional. My camera was mounted within inches of the tree, and angled almost completely vertical. This allowed for a dramatic perspective, and the wide angle made the tree appear taller and travel further into the sky than in reality. The gradual narrowing of the trunks’ width was exaggerated, and added more visual interest. An added bonus to the very close focal point is that my depth of field became extremely shallow, which only added to the dreamlike environment that the long shutter speed and windswept tree tops provided.


  1. Steve Hadeen says

    Hi Christopher:
    Don’t know if it is the new site or my OS El Capitan but your photos are not showing up. Only the blue box with the ? in it. Just thought I’d let you know…

    • Chris O'Donnell says

      You are right Steve! There was an issue with the image earlier but I switched it out, should show up for you now but the change might be delayed. If you reload the page or try it later it should look a bit better :)

  2. cheryl says

    Chris, love your shot & colour tone. I’m really drawn to ‘creative’ (dreamy) compositions.
    Chris, wondering if the 2 small twigs (branches) 2/3rds up trunk on the left side bothered you?? they are showing up with a green tone (on my monitor). Think I find it bit distracting.

    Thanks for details of setting up your shot.

    • Chris O'Donnell says

      Hi Cheryl!

      Good catch – I did a lot of back and forth on the twigs and at the time, decided to keep them. But now coming at it with a fresher perspective, it might be best to remove them. I’m a bit more liberal with cloning and compositing now :)

  3. Jack Braudis says

    Nice photo, like the “Kodachrome” colours. Reminds me of the colours I would sometimes get shooting film with my Pentax back in the 60’s.

    • Chris O'Donnell says

      Good catch Jeff! That was a bit of both: I did some selective dodging to bring that out, but it was actually just interesting variations in the tree trunk.

  4. says

    Just love your bokeh shots. You were the inspiration in my acquiring a 24mm prime lens and have had so much fun with it! Every time I read one of your articles (have all the ebooks, I think), I learn or remember something new.

    • Chris O'Donnell says

      That’s great news Carol! The 24mm is my favorite lens, easily. There’s just so much you can do with that focal length, and the added bonus of the 1.4 makes it an incredible choice for bokeh shots like this :) Have fun and thanks for the comment!

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