If you’re a photographer who is interested in long-exposure photography, you need to familiarize yourself with your camera’s Bulb Mode feature. What is Bulb Mode?

This guide takes a long look at Bulb Mode — what it is, how to access it, and when you should use this valuable setting.

bulb mode
Photo by Genessa Panainte on Unsplash

What is Bulb Mode?

Most of today’s digital cameras have a maximum shutter speed of 30-seconds. Bulb Mode is a setting on DSLR and mirrorless cameras that lets you use any shutter speed you choose — one second, 60-seconds, 13 minutes, or any other amount of time.

The way Bulb Mode works is that the shutter stays open for as long as you press the button. It’s named after the way shutters were opened back in the early days of photography. Long before digital cameras with their computers and precise mechanics, photographers would squeeze a small bulb to open the shutter and release it to close the shutter.

The only difference today is that, instead of squeezing a bulb to open the shutter, you press and hold your camera’s shutter release button. And, instead of releasing the bulb to close it, you release the button.

Why and when to use Bulb Mode

As we mentioned above, most cameras limit their maximum shutter speed to 30-seconds. However, many times with long-exposure shots you’ll find yourself wanting to keep the shutter open for much longer than that.

For example, star trail photography takes a minimum of 60-minutes and often much longer. You’d never be able to capture the image below if you were limited to a 30-second shutter speed.

star trails
Photo by Andrew Preble on Unsplash

Bulb Mode is also useful for shooting lightning and light painting. And, while you may not need a shutter speed longer than 30-seconds for either of these scenarios, using Bulb Mode gives the photographer control over exactly how long the shutter is open.

This mode is most useful when you’re shooting long exposures in low light. 

It can be used for many types of photographs:

  • City lights;
  • Light trails;
  • Lightning;
  • Fire spinning;
  • Fireworks;
  • Seascapes;
  • Star trails;
  • And many more!
light trails shot with Bulb Mode
Photo by Robert Tudor on Unsplash

How to set your camera to Bulb Mode

The method of setting your camera to Bulb Mode will vary slightly from one brand to the next, so check your camera’s manual for instructions for your specific make and model. However, here are some basic instructions for setting your camera to Bulb Mode:

  • Canon: turn the shooting mode dial to “B.”
  • Nikon: Set your shooting mode to M and then set the shutter speed as long as it will go, to “B”.
  • Sony: Set the mode dial to M. Turn the rear dial clockwise until “BULB” is indicated.

How to use Bulb Mode

As we’ve previously mentioned, when shooting in Bulb Mode, your shutter stays open for as long as your finger is pressing the shutter release button. However, if you’ve ever shot with long exposures, you know that even the vibration from pressing the button could result in motion blur in your photograph.

For that reason, you should use a remote shutter release button or wireless trigger instead of actually putting your finger on the button.

Additionally, a remote will give you the option of setting the amount of time to keep the shutter open so you don’t have to physically keep your finger on the trigger. That comes in especially handy for multiple-hour exposure times!

long exposure
Photo by Angel Santos on Unsplash

Tips for taking photos in Bulb Mode

  • Put your camera on a tripod. A sturdy tripod is an absolute necessity any time you’re shooting long exposure photography. This will help you avoid blur and achieve sharp photos.
  • Use a remote shutter release. As we mentioned above, a remote trigger will eliminate the vibration of touching the camera to release the shutter. It’ll also allow you to step away from the camera during very long exposures.
  • Set your camera to the lowest ISO possible. Your camera’s ISO setting determines its sensitivity to light. Since the shutter will be open for a very long time, the sensor will be exposed to a lot of light, so it should be set as low as possible. Higher ISO will result in an overexposed image and will introduce noise. On the contrary, if you’re shooting star trails, you’ll probably need to increase your ISO to capture them.

Final thoughts

From fireworks to star trails, there are so many great reasons to use your camera’s Bulb Mode. The best way to learn how to use it is to practice using it yourself. So, the next time a thunderstorm rolls in, try using Bulb Mode to capture lightning strikes.

Or, try your hand at light painting, light spinning, or shooting light trails. At the end of the day, mastering Bulb Mode is just another way to improve your skills as a photographer.