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.
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.