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.

 

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. Parth says

    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?

  2. Stephen LeMay says

    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.

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