If you're interested in creating photos with a surreal look and feel, you're going to need to brush up on your long exposure techniques. A change in shutter speed can take your photo from dramatic and exciting to surreal and dreamy.
Learn how to create surreal landscape photography through long exposure techniques.
Go long with your exposure times
Both of the following photos showing New Hampshire's Presidential Range have nearly identical compositions. In fact, they were captured minutes apart. Obviously, they are quite different in both look and feel, eliciting completely different emotions.
All that I needed to create the difference between the two photos was a change in shutter speed. The first image was shot with a shutter speed of 1/20th of a second. The second shot had the shutter open for 20 seconds. While the first photo is quite dramatic, the second shows dreamy smooth water and windblown clouds, adding a bit of surrealism and a more peaceful quality.
How long is a long exposure?
Generally, when I think "long exposure," I'm thinking 10 seconds or longer. Other than that, there really is no hard and fast rule. Let the dream in your head be the guide for the exposure time.
When creating surreal landscapes using long exposures, one thing you need is patience. With the extended exposure times required to render whatever moves with in the photo, long grass, clouds or water, you're going to need patience. During long exposures, I try to take in as much of the scene as I can, contemplating my next photograph.
What to photograph
When trying to create a surreal landscape photograph, one of the easiest methods is to have something moving in the scene as you're taking your pictures. It could be long marsh grass blowing in the wind, clouds streaking through the sky or water. It's no accident that the majority of the photos in this article are seascapes. Photographing the rolling surf or crashing waves along the seacoast while using a long exposure time is probably the easiest subject for making surreal images.
Filters and other miscellaneous tools
Remote shutter release
For exposure times of 30 seconds or less, you can get away with your camera's self timer. For anything longer, you're going to need a remote shutter release. Since you'll need to be shooting in bulb mode (where the shutter remains open as long as the shutter is pressed), you'll need a remote release to not cause any camera movement while the shutter is open. It should go without saying that you'll need a tripod to hold the camera steady during the long exposures.
Neutral density filters
Neutral density filters are rated by how many stops of light they prevent from making it through the lens to the sensor. By limiting the amount of light, you're able to increase exposure time. With the filter, you'll often being able to achieve longer exposures under brighter light. Neutral density filters are available with a fixed ratings, up to 10-stops. Variable neutral density filters, adjustable to reduce from 2-8 stops of light from reaching the sensor, are also available. Whether variable or fixed, the filters can be so dark that you may need to remove them in order to focus and compose the photo.