The maximum shutter speed in most digital cameras is in the ballpark of 30 seconds; this isn’t always enough when you’re experimenting with long exposure photography. That’s where Bulb Mode comes in.
When scrolling past the 30-second shutter speed option, you’ll arrive to a setting called Bulb or Time. You might have seen this already but do you know what it means? It’s actually a highly valued setting among landscape photographers using long exposures techniques.
What is Bulb Mode?
So, what is this beloved setting?
As mentioned, the maximum allowed shutter speed in most DSLR cameras is 30 seconds. How is it then possible that photographers use shutter speeds of minutes or even hours? Bulb Mode is the answer.
In simple words, this setting keeps the shutter open for as long as the remote is triggered. (Obviously, pushing the trigger for minutes isn’t ideal but I’ll come back to how you can handle that in a moment.)
Technically, the camera is taking an image as long as you’re pressing the trigger. This could be infinite but I doubt that the batteries or camera would last that long…
There’s no point in using Bulb Mode if you plan to use a shutter speed of 30 seconds or less as these shutter speeds are predefined in the settings.
Note: Working with slow shutter speeds can give stunning results, especially when working with moving elements. If you’re not familiar with this technique have a look at our Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography before reading further.
How to use Bulb Mode
Bulb Mode is only available when photographing in Manual Mode. This means that you won’t access the setting in Auto Mode or any of the Semi-Automatic Modes.
If this is your first venture into Manual Mode, welcome! There’s nothing to fear and you’ll get the hang of it soon.
Use an aperture of somewhere between f/7.1 and f/11 and an ISO of 100 as a starting point when photographing landscapes. The shutter speed depends on the situation you’re in and is adjusted accordingly.
Recommended Reading: Introduction to Fundamentals in Landscape Photography
There are two requirements for working with exposures over 30 seconds, which is what you’re most likely to do when using Bulb Mode:
#1 Use a tripod
Unless you are some sort of statue, I sincerely doubt you’re able to hold the camera completely still for more than half a minute. A rule of thumb is to use a tripod whenever your shutter speed exceeds 1/focal length (i.e. 1/14s for a 14mm and 1/200s when using a 200mm). This is to ensure as sharp of a result as possible.
The tripod doesn’t need to be the most expensive but I recommend buying something that’s durable. I’ve used enough cheap ones through the years to have seen that none of them has lasted more than a few months. Landscape photographers need something that can handle harsh conditions and not blow away when there’s a little wind.
Having a solid tripod is also important when we’re using shutter speeds of minutes as we want to minimize as much movement and camera shake as possible. A sturdy tripod that isn’t affected by a little wind or other elements is essential in capturing razor-sharp images.
So, a tripod is considered a requirement when using Bulb Mode and photographing long exposures.
#2 Use a remote shutter release
Manually pressing the camera’s shutter release for several minutes is a bad idea. As you might imagine, this will create a lot of camera shake. Try zooming in on the file see how the details are blurred; that’s the result of vibration in the camera.
This is why another essential tool for using Bulb Mode is a remote shutter release. This doesn’t need to be the most pricy model; you’ll just need it for its shutter function. Obviously, the more expensive models have functions that you might find useful but they are not essential for this purpose.
One of the benefits of purchasing a medium- to high- priced remote shutter release is that they have a small display showing the time of your exposure, which I find very helpful. However, if you have a cheaper release there’s no problem in also using a timer on your phone.
When to use Bulb Mode
You should now have an idea of when to use Bulb Mode but let’s recap a little:
The Bulb Mode (known as “Time” on Canon), is intended for exposure times that exceed the maximum predefined shutter speeds. This is 30 seconds in most cameras.
It’s possible to use Bulb Mode for shorter exposures but it would be much easier to just select the predefined desired shutter speed.
So, to summarize this topic: Bulb Mode is most commonly used for Long Exposure Photography. There are many scenarios when this technique is used such as star trails, night photography, seascapes, car trails etc.
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