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

long exposure using bulb

Bulb was used to take this photo of star trails

Today’s post is the result of a question from Eric Thant via the “Ask a Question” page.  Eric asked, “How do I shoot the bulb mode?  I am using Nikon 10-24 lens with D90.”

What is bulb mode on a camera?

That’s simple.  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″, 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 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 always 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.

5 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.  For a more detailed explanation of how to shoot star trails, you might want to check out my book, Improve Your Night Photography.

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.

Bulb Mode Photography #5: For you historical folks, it is said that bulb mode originated with the OLD cameras that used flash powder that was lit on fire to illuminate a photo.  Obviously, it was not always easy to predict when the flash of light would go, so bulb mode was a necessity.  True?  I have no idea, but it sounds cool enough to spread the rumor.



  1. Carl Cosby

    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. Mike S.

    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. warren.ireland

      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. Laura

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

  4. Brian

    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. warren.ireland

      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

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  6. Joe

    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. Ip Khera

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

  8. Parth

    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. Stephen LeMay

    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. Ahmad Dahlan

    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. Michael Davis

    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.

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