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. says

    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. says

    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?!?

  3. Brian says

    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.

  4. says

    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!

  5. Joe says

    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

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