Mastering the art of long exposure in black and white

Discover where, when and how long exposure photographer Stephen McNally captures his mesmerising monochrome landscapes.
A black and white image of the ruins of a building, shot with a long exposure to blur the clouds in the sky.

Stephen McNally has mastered black and white long exposure photography, having multiple exhibitions under his belt, and his appetite for the genre has only grown over the years. Working as a hairdresser, his photography forces him to get outside, to seek out new locations, to see familiar places with fresh eyes, and gives him enormous satisfaction.

Many choose black and white photography for the way it can emphasise drama through contrast and tone. The absence of colour makes you look at a photo differently and focus on composition, subject and shape. Pair black and white with long exposure and there's an additional layer of intrigue. As Stephen says: "Long exposure photography creates an ethereal world that the eye can't see, but the camera can capture.

Here, we find out how Stephen's work has evolved in terms of process and kit – and why he's so enthusiastic about the technique.

Why black and white long exposure?

Tree stumps and their roots emerge above water in an ethereal landscape.

"I went to Blakemere Moss at Delamere in England to shoot the tree stumps in the lake, as the forestry commission has felled the trees to return the land back to a natural body of water," says photographer Stephen McNally of this image. "The felled tree stumps make an excellent abstract minimalist image when shot with a long exposure technique which isolates the subject. The long exposure flattens out the water, so it appears as if it's a sheet of ice." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 40mm, 7.3 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Stephen McNally

A broken-down boathouse is captured with clouds seeming to swirl above it.

Stephen took this photograph of a long-forgotten boathouse during a visit to Anglesey in Wales. "When I saw that boathouse, I was drawn to the grain and the detail on the doors, and the contrast with the very dark seaweed at the bottom. There are so many shades of grey, then I could envision the whites appearing in the clouds above it," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 16mm, 4 sec, f/7.1 and ISO100. © Stephen McNally

Stephen started out shooting popular subjects such as seascapes at sunset and sunrise, but decided to change to something he found more challenging. "I just got fed up with doing that, everyone was doing it. I wanted to challenge myself more, and do more with the camera," he explains.

As well as creating a surreal element to a photograph, a huge part of the appeal of long exposure is the element of surprise – you don't know what the image will look like until you close the shutter and see the screen. When the camera shutter is open for a long period of time, a trail of movement created by naturally moving objects such as water, clouds or even people is captured. This part of the image contrasts with the still subjects in the scene, which remain pin sharp.

As Stephen puts it: "The ethereal feel to the photograph draws me in. Long exposure photography flattens the sea, even though the eye can see huge waves coming in and out. You can pause all that in a long exposure photo – that's the magic of it."

Ideal locations

A lone tree is pictured in focus against a lighter background, the clouds caught in movement above.

The success of a black and white photo, according to Stephen, is all to do with a variety of shades. "I work on a principle that in a black and white photograph, I've got pure white to pure black and then different shades and grains. In the editing software, the numbers at the bottom from 1-12 show me all the shades, and if I've got all 12, then it's a perfect black and white shot." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 20mm, 30 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Stephen McNally

The ruins of an old farmhouse, with trees and a field in the background and clouds caught in motion above.

"Always take a test shot, to see what your histogram says, and from there, you know how to set your shutter speed," suggests Stephen. "I have my blinkies [over/under exposure warnings] switched on, so I can see when the highlights will blow out. If you expose the photo as much as you can, then you know you've captured as much data as you can. If the highlights are too blown, there will be no data to recover." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 16mm, 38 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Stephen McNally

Stephen returns time and time again to the same places in the North West of England. He has his favourite trees and likes to see how they change through the seasons. When he's somewhere new, he scopes out the landscape first and takes a mental note of spots he plans to return to.

If you're shooting seascapes, "you've got to research the tides," he urges. "I normally photograph an outgoing tide. If you photograph an incoming tide, you'll find your camera moves during the exposure, so your images won't be sharp. It's a lot firmer on an outgoing tide.

Stephen tends to shoot in the autumn, as it's better to have an overcast or even cloudy day to capture a long exposure of a sky, as you naturally let in more light to your camera. "I don't shoot in the middle of summer as I'd have to leave at 2am, so I usually start in September as dawn is about 6am. I research my locations, when the sun will come up, and where the light will be cast. If it's murky and partly cloudy, I know I've got something to work with," he explains. He starts by looking at a histogram on his camera to work out the available light and how much time he'll have.

There's a melancholic atmosphere to Stephen's photos which is partly due to the subject matter. He tends to focus on industrial landmarks or abandoned buildings – places now neglected that were once full of life. "I'm drawn to old buildings," he says. "When I was in Anglesey in Wales recently, I stumbled upon this old farmhouse (see right image above), and I thought, how long has this farm been in ruins? And why did they have to give up maintaining it? Where are the people who lived and worked there?"

These reminders of the past are also wonderfully suited to monochrome. "With black and white photography, the composition becomes the focus, it has to be strong," he adds.

Kitbag favourites

The ruins of a building stand out against a light sky, the clouds blurred in movement.

When capturing the ruins of this Victorian porcelain works site, Stephen acknowledges that "the workers would've had to walk for miles because there's nothing else around. They'd make porcelain and china and then the boats would come in and take it away." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 16mm, 86 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Stephen McNally

A mound of earth on a cliff edge, with a calm sea in the background and clouds frozen in motion above.

While the weather and the light conditions are right, it's best to take as many shots as possible. "The cloud or water movement isn't always predictable, but that can make or break your shot. I took over 100 photos in Anglesey, but I've only processed 20, the rest I've discarded," says Stephen. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 16mm, 55 sec, f/11 and ISO160. © Stephen McNally

Upgrading his camera allowed Stephen to adapt his process. He started out with a Canon EOS 450D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 850D), before moving to a Canon EOS 60D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 90D) and most recently, the Canon EOS R6. Despite switching to mirrorless, Stephen is still able to use his favourite EF lenses with no impact on quality with the Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R.

"I love the touchscreen on the Canon EOS R6, it's so intuitive. You can just touch the screen to alter your f-stop or ISO," he says.

Stephen often shoots in Bulb mode, which enables him to hold the shutter open for as long as his finger is on the shutter-release button. Using a cable release means you can avoid any camera shake caused by holding down the shutter. "Bulb mode is essential for keeping the shutter open for long periods while shooting in the dark or with a 10- or 16-stop ND [neutral density] filter," he says.

Stephen frequently takes multiple cameras on a shoot with him as a way of passing time. When he's taking a 20-minute exposure on his Canon EOS R6, he can set up another camera from a different angle and this keeps him busy while he's waiting.

The final tool in Stephen's kitbag is his editing software. He shoots in RAW and in colour, so it gives him more information to work with when editing. He then converts his image to black and white before editing in software such as Adobe Photoshop or the free Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP). "I adjust the levels and curves and add some gradients. If I'm working on a file for more than 10 minutes, it gets deleted. I want to avoid too much editing, so I try to get it right in the camera," he explains.

Getting the perfect shot

A lobster pot in the foreground of a landscape, the water appearing still and the clouds caught in motion behind.

Nature doesn't always provide a perfect composition, so Stephen recommends intervening slightly to create balance in an image. "The lobster pot was positioned at the side of the frame, but I moved it closer to the centre. I always try to have foreground features – I've used a piece of driftwood before, and I like to create quite abstract scenes." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 16mm, 71 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Stephen McNally

Tree roots emerge from still, light waters, giving the image a sculptural quality.

Stephen finds peace while photographing his low-light long exposures. "While you're waiting for the light to appear, it feels like the world is standing still. Nobody is around. It seems like you have the world to yourself," he enthuses. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens at 80mm, 36 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Stephen McNally

The quest for low light and excellent long exposure photography is quite a challenge. "Nine out of 10 times it's not a success," explains Stephen. "The best thing to do for those wanting to explore this genre is to experiment and get out at first light," he adds.

"Having an ND filter, at 10-stops or above, will be useful. Alternatively, shoot in low light, just before dawn. You'll get exposures of up to 50 seconds before dawn, which should produce excellent results. I use reverse grad ND filters too when it's darker on the horizon, as that's going to be the lightest spot when the sun comes up."

Find a spot, research your location, seize the early morning and try Stephen's technique of capturing long exposure black and white photos. Stephen's final piece of advice is to: "Devour as much information as you can and then put that into practice. You'll never get what you want if you don't put in the effort."

Written by Natalya Paul

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