Shooting series #2: Big Stopper effect

Explore setting up your camera for a ‘big stopper’ effect with landscapes, as well as exploring stacking in post-production to both enhance and emulate the effect.
Shooting Series #2: Big Stopper Effect

Let’s take a look at how to achieve a ‘big stopper’ landscape effect. The general idea is to present what would usually be a static landscape scene, but have elements like the sky that are blurred and suggest motion. This juxtaposition actually lends images a ‘calmer’ feel.

Watch the video above to see live footage examples of how to set up your shot for a successful result.

For this effect, we need to work with long exposures, and the best way to get those when shooting well-lit landscapes is to use strong neutral density filters. In the video I use both ND1000 and ND2000 fixed strength filters in order to get the kind of reduction in light you need for these exposures, which can be anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds.

I also look at stacking multiple long exposures together to exaggerate the ‘big stopper’ effect, and then finally I experiment with stacking images that aren’t long exposure (i.e. normal shutter speeds like 1/250) to see how it turns out—the effect is actually quite convincing.

Gear-wise, you’ll need the following to get the ‘big stopper’ look:

  • Camera with a delayed shutter option (or a remote trigger).
  • Camera that allows long exposure times (e.g. 30 seconds or 1 minute), or alternatively has Bulb shooting mode for use with a remote trigger.
  • A strong Neutral Density filter (sometimes referred to as a Big Stopper)—at least ND1000 or ND2000 strength.

Here are some key tips and things to look out for when you’re trying this technique:

  • For long exposure shooting, a tripod (or form of stabilisation) is a definite requirement. If you’re not keen on a tripod, consider a mini-tripod like the Manfrotto Pixi series. They’re lightweight and fit quite snugly in a camera bag, but you will have to find a solid surface to rest it on, and your shot composition options may be more limited.
  • Try and keep your ISO at its base value (e.g. 100 or 200)—you shouldn’t need to raise it anyway, as you’re trying to achieve slower shutter speeds. Long exposures heat up the camera’s sensor and will likely result in hot pixels and more noticeable noise, so be prepared to tackle both during editing.
  • Make sure you compose your shot and check focus before you put the ND filter on. Strong filters severely limit the light reaching the lens, so they will also darken the viewfinder and make live view tricky to see as well.
  • Use a remote shutter or timer mode on your camera to minimise the risk of camera shake. You’ll want to have a suitable time gap between you pressing the shutter button and the shutter firing—long enough for any micro-vibrations to settle. I tend to use a 2 second timer, but if you have a lightweight tripod that’s prone to wobble you may want to consider a longer delay (e.g. 3-5 seconds).
  • Sometimes, windy weather will cause a tiny amount of camera shake, imperceptible to us but enough to ruin the final exposure. If you’re struggling, try weighing down your tripod; most tripods come with a hook underneath the middle column where you can hang your camera bag or other heavy items.
  • Finally, if you’re trying the stacking technique with regular length exposures (e.g. 1/250), you can try this handheld in a pinch. Its success is somewhat dependent on your image editing software being able to align the handheld images. If possible, though, I’d recommend using a tripod for less hassle during editing.