Bulb Shutter Release

What is Bulb Mode and 5 Ways to Use It (Long Exposure Photography)

 

Today’s post is the result of a question from Eric Thant, who asked “How do I shoot the bulb mode?”

What Is Bulb Mode on a Camera?

Bulb mode simply allows the photographer to take a picture for as long as the shutter is depressed (that means pushed down, not sad…).  You can use bulb mode by choosing manual mode or shutter priority, then start scrolling your selector wheel all the way to the end of the shutter speeds.  After 25″ (25 seconds), 30″, it will show “bulb” or simply the letter “b” on some cameras.  Now you’re in bulb mode.  This means the camera will keep taking a picture until your finger comes off the shutter button.

Bulb mode is mostly used for long exposures at night.  The main advantage is that it allows the photographer to achieve shutter speeds longer than the 30 seconds (displayed 30″ on the camera) that is allowed on most DSLRs.

No one in their right mind would stand next to the camera with their finger pressing down the shutter button for an ultra long exposure.  Bulb mode is usually used in conjunction with a cable release.  You can pick up a cable release for about $10 for most DSLRs on Amazon.  It is simply a wired remote control that allows the photographer to lock the shutter button to take LONG exposures without actually standing there and holding the button down.

I took this photo in Chicago while I was there speaking at a conference. I used bulb mode to hold open the shutter as soon as I saw a few cars coming by. I let go of the bulb shutter as soon as the cars past. The lights from the cars created cool streaks of light in the foreground. I could have done the same thing with a long timer for the shutter (20 second shutter speed), but I wanted the flexibility to end the exposure right when the cars all passed me, and the overall brightness of the photo won't change much by adding or removing one or two seconds when we're already shooting for 20 seconds overall.

I took this photo in Chicago while I was there speaking at a conference. I used bulb mode to hold open the shutter as soon as I saw a few cars coming by. I let go of the bulb shutter as soon as the cars past. The lights from the cars created cool streaks of light in the foreground. I could have done the same thing with a long timer for the shutter (20 second shutter speed), but I wanted the flexibility to end the exposure right when the cars all passed me, and the overall brightness of the photo won’t change much by adding or removing one or two seconds when we’re already shooting for 20 seconds overall.

Bulb Shutter Release

Used under Creative Commons License. Accessed via Wikipedia. Copyright Judson McCranie 2015.

Why Is It Called “Bulb”?

On the old school cameras, there was a pneumatic valve bulb that was used as a cable release for the camera.  It looked somewhat similar to the little pump on a blood pressure cuff.

It worked by sending a blast of air from the bulb.  As long as the bulb was pressed, the shutter would stay open.  When the bulb was released, the shutter would close.

Nowadays, cable releases work differently.  It would be a real pain to have to stand out in the cold all night holding down a bulb for the shutter to stay open, so modern cable releases have a “lock” function that allows the photographer to press the button that starts the bulb exposure and then lock it for as long as you want.  When you’re ready to stop the exposure, you simply slide off the lock and the shutter ends.

4 Situations Where Bulb Mode Rocks!

Bulb Mode Idea #1: Taking pictures of lightning. Bulb is great for shooting lightning because it allows the photographer to stop the exposure when needed based on changing conditions, without being locked into a 30 second exposure.  When I shoot lightning, I set up the camera on a tripod, set the DSLR to bulb mode, plug in my shutter release, and start an exposure.  The camera keeps taking a picture as I watch the lightning and imagine how the different lightning bolts will appear on the final image.  Once the picture in my head of the different strikes looks about right, I stop the exposure.  This way I can end right after the last lightning bolt instead of waiting around for the 30 seconds to end and hoping another bolt doesn’t strike in the same place as another one did.

Bulb Mode Tip #2: Star trails. Shooting star trails is really fun.  Since the Earth rotates, the stars change their position in the sky.  By using bulb mode and an exposure of 20 minutes or more, you can capture beautiful star trails at night.  The stars look like they are all streaking falling stars.

Bulb Mode Situation #3: Light Painting. Light painting is when a photographer sets the camera on bulb mode and then paints light with flashlights on the subject in a dark location.  For more on this technique, check out my night photography book or read this old post.

Bulb Mode Tip #4: Shooting fireworks. For the same reasons as for shooting lightning, it’s nice to be able to control when the picture will stop.

How to Get a Cable Release For Your Camera, so You Can Use Bulb Mode

The good news is that cable releases are usually quite inexpensive.  They usually cost less than $30.  However, you have to get the right cable release for your specific camera.  They are not universal.

The best way to find one is to go to Amazon and simply search the model of your camera and the word “cable release.”  You’ll see that the Canon, Nikon, Fuji, or other name brand releases typically cost more.  In my experience, they are NOT worth the money.  A cable release is a very simple device, so just get the cheapest one that has decent reviews.

I took this picture down in Arizona while doing a meetup with 70 readers of Improve Photography. I had to use a very long shutter speed to capture this picture (over 3 minutes) in order to expose the river and mountain. Most cameras only allow a timed shutter speed of 30 seconds, so I had to use bulb mode to go longer. I blended in a photo of the Milky Way in Photoshop, because the stars would streak out at this long of a shutter speed. There is a video of me making this shot on the Improve Photography Youtube channel.

I took this picture down in Arizona while doing a meetup with 70 readers of Improve Photography. I had to use a very long shutter speed to capture this picture (over 3 minutes) in order to expose the river and mountain. Most cameras only allow a timed shutter speed of 30 seconds, so I had to use bulb mode to go longer. I blended in a photo of the Milky Way in Photoshop, because the stars would streak out at this long of a shutter speed. There is a video of me making this shot on the Improve Photography Youtube channel.

 


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.

Comments

  1. Hi jim,

    How do you actually paint the light? I’ve read your books but they don’t explain how exactly it is done. Do you point the torch and click it on for a second, 2 seconds, 3 etc…..? Do you switch it on at a certain position and drag it to another quickly or slowly? Does the camera record the beam of the flashlight? Where do you position yourself from the camera?

    Thanks and kind regards

  2. I was wondering if anyone knew how to use the BULB mode on a Fujifilm HS20EXR past the 30s mark. Even when holding the shutter button, it still closes after 30s…
    I’m out of ideas and in dire need of help… so, help?!?

    1. at the moment i am doing experiments with the infrared remote and bulb settings and hav2 so far succesfully taken a 20 min exposure so tonigtht i will try to shoot star trails without gaps in the stars track my exposure will be bulb @f22 and i will leave it switch on till the battery runs flat….im using a nikon d5100 and a 18 mm .

  3. Would it work with a remote shutter release or just with the cable one? I can’t find anything about that…

    1. Yep – That’s what I use. You obvioustly need to make sure the beam hits the sensor to actuate the shutter, but otherwise works fine!

  4. I believe you explanation for bulb mode is close to being correct. Certainly the era is right. In the old days (long before my time, film emulsions had very low sensitivity and long exposures were the norm. Often the camera lacked a shutter; the photographer just removed the lens cap and counted out the number of seconds required for an exposure, then replaced the lens cap.
    Later cameras had shutters but often wanted to stand a distance from the camera. A pneumatic valve bulb was used to activate the shutter and as long as the photographer held the bulb squashed, the shutter stayed open. Cable releases (mechanical) were a later development but bulbs remained useful for situations when the photographer would be a long distance from the camera. Back in the 70s I actually had and used one of these devices. If the shutter speed was set to a defined time such as 1/30 s compressing the bulb was just like pressing the shutter release. Actually it mechanically pushed the release. Bulb mode, denoted by a B allowed the photographer to manually open and close the shutter as described in the article.

    1. im one o those who used to use flash quite a lot…..ie; to photograph a long factory , inside we would set up the camera at one end and wait till nigtht time so we would not be in our own photo and then we would open the lens to bullb and walk down the full length of the factory…both sides and fire the flash across the building as we went highlighting the important parts of the building and making sure not to cast a shadow into the picture.

      there are many interesting uses for flash off the camera for instance captain frank hurley once laid a trail of gunpowder all around their snowbound sailing vessel , open the camera shutter and then set alight the gunpowder ,thereby lighting up the whole ship in the middle of the ant-artic winter

  5. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your webpage?

    My website is in the exact same niche as yours and my users would certainly benefit from some of the information you
    present here. Please let me know if this alright with you.

    Thanks a lot!

  6. Jim Great website !! When I finish doing my Exposure on Bulb ..is it okay to turn the camera off right away or do you have to wait a certain period
    Any help appreciated

  7. What you do is put camera in 10 to 30 second shutter speed then you basicaly draw with thee light source

  8. Hey, it was a wonderful presentation. I just have one query regarding the star trails. I have got bulb mode in the camera, but i have Canon RC6 wireless remote with no option of shutter lock. So can I use that in night photography by setting camera to bulb mode?

  9. I use a Nikon D5100.
    When in Bulb Mode, I can set my camera to be triggered by an IR Remote.
    When I press the button on the IR Remote, the exposure begins and will not end until I press the button on the remote again.
    When taking long exposures, it’s a good idea to use a “Dummy Battery with an external power source.

  10. do you have any suggestion about bulb model for women photogrpahy,.. i took somes pictures but i could not got clear image of the model… thank you

  11. Last year my wife and I traveled across Canada and the train had vista domes on it. I would set my camera on bulb mode while we were sitting at the front of the dome and rest it on the little flat area in front of me, when nearing crossing lights and rail lights that turn red when the train gets near them. With the shiny metal of the top of the train reflecting the lights, I would press the shutter down when getting close to the light source and release after about five to ten seconds. Some of the images I got were incredible. No one I showed the images to could figure out how I got them. If your ever in that situation as we were I recommend trying it, you won’t be disappointed.

  12. When I use bulb mode on my Canon 600D it seems to go over 30 seconds, however it seems to stop at about 1minute but immediately starts a new photo, when i looked on my photos there were about 4 photos where the exposure was only about 1 minute as i held it down for about 4 minutes, is there a way to stop this and let it have the shutter open for as long as i am pressing the shutter down?
    Thanks

  13. Seems like every time I try and do an exposure longer than 30 seconds its always over exposed, Im not in a heavy light polluted area but there is still some. Do I need to stop down my lens, I usually shoot at f2.8. would really love a tutorial about shooting in bulb mode.

  14. Dear Jared. Try to use higher f-stops , however bear in mind that for all lenses the picture quality gets really bad from f11+ , so another way is to use filters. Hope this helps.

  15. What would you say a good time frame is for a good photograph of stars? Not the trails. But just a nice picture of stars.

  16. I read a blog recently about taking photos of meteor streaks during a shower. The photographer set the lock on the remote but set the exposure time on his camera to 15 sec. He says that this caused the camera to continuously take 15 sec exposures for about two hours (when the camera battery finally died). Have you ever tried this? I was surprised that it worked and in fact a remote of my own creation does not duplicate these results. I set mine to bulb mode for 100 sec and the camera exposure time to 5 sec and it takes only one exposure. I am wondering why his works and mine doesn’t. My camera is a 5DMII and he was using a 6D. I guess I’ll just have to order a remote like his and try it.

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