long-exposure photo of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge by Toby Harriman

Long-Exposure Photography of Toby Harriman

By Stefan Gruenwedel

While most photographers capture a specific moment in time, Toby Harriman prefers to capture many, many moments of time, resulting in an image that better conveys the ambience of a place. Instead of fractions of a second, think minutes or longer—plenty of time for a landscape to reveal its character, not just its presence.

Photo taken by Toby Harriman, in Bodie Ghost Town

"I shot this at Jeff Sullivan's Night Photography Workshop in Bodie Ghost Town [in Bridgeport, California]. When we first got there at 6 p.m. the clouds were just incredible but right at sunset, they blew up. So much color! I had three cameras time-lapsing all of it too. It was definitely a lucky evening for me."

Growing up in Aspen, Colorado, Toby spent much of his youth playing sports and being outdoors. He trained his Nikon 60D primarily on his family during ski trips. It wasn't until his senior year of high school that he finally took a studio photography class—and fell in love with working digitally and applying effects in Adobe Photoshop.

When he ventured out west to San Francisco, Toby started getting into outdoor photography in a big way and became fascinated with long-exposure shots. Not exactly knowing what he was doing, one night he drove out to a cliff in the Marin Headlands and, withstanding 30 mph winds, started taking 45-minute-long exposures while holding his tripod (and himself) steady. It was enough to get him hooked.

Considering his relative youth (he's 23), there's much to admire about the breadth and consistency of his work. Look for it on photography.tobyharriman.com.

When he's not in the Bay Area, Toby is on the road finding new locations to shoot. I reached him in Colorado.

A photo of Toby Harriman, taken in Big Sur, California

Toby Harriman shooting his long exposures in Big Sur, California (photo by Jim Weise, wiseguyvisuals.com).

A photo of the Golden Gate Bridge in fog, by Toby Harriman

"This was my first venture up to Slacker Hill in the Marin Headlands to shoot a sunrise. It was an incredible feeling to hike up the trail and pop through the fog near the top. I met up with Joe Azure, a buddy of mine. I've learned a lot from Joe; his pictures are always inspirational."


Stefan Gruenwedel: How did you become interested in taking long exposures?

Toby Harriman: I like creating something different. When the fog is low and the Golden Gate Bridge towers are peeking out, you can do a four- or five-minute shot, and it turns into a fluffy, milky blanket across the whole bay. The surreal look captivated me.

Gruenwedel: Did anyone inspire you early on?

Harriman: There was a group of photographers that I followed, but they weren't taking super-long exposures. The first really cool long exposures I remember seeing were my Apple wallpaper images.

When I started out, I followed Jim Patterson and Joshua Cripps, both Santa Cruz locals who had the coast covered. I'd look at their EXIF data on Flickr—exposure time, f-stop, ISO, what camera and lenses they used—and figure out what they were doing. I would set my camera to those settings or play from there.

You can get information ranging from the GPS location, which programs they use to process the photo, and how much of each slider they use. If it is available, the EXIF data has all the details. Some people delete it because they don't want other people looking at it.

Many photographers inspire me nowadays. Nathan Wirth and Steve Landeros do some awesome black-and-white long exposures.

Gruenwedel: Where else do you find inspiration?

Harriman: Everyone gets inspired by images posted on Facebook, Google+, 500px, Behance, Flickr, and many other sites. Since I only follow photographers, my [news] feeds are full of photos. I'll see a technique and try it out.

Now my last shot inspires my next shot. I've begun thinking about shots as a series. As I evolve my own style, it inspires me to create new methods and separate myself from others because there are so many photographers out there.

"This photo of Sherbet Bay, showing the San Francisco Bay Bridge, is a 150-second shot processed with Nik's Color Efex Pro and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom."


Gruenwedel: How much do you do in-camera?

Harriman: I never do anything straight out of the camera. I use the camera just as a tool to get me started. Cameras don't see what our eyes see. When people ask if they can get copies of pictures, I say, "Not until I process them." I'm a post-processor all the way.

My shots are not done until I run them through Photoshop Lightroom 5. I live out of it. I'll apply basic edits just to see how I like them. I'm always tweaking stuff. I try to keep a lot of it as natural as I can.

I use Nik Software's Silver Efex Pro to process my black and white, taking [my work] to a whole new level. Then I bring it back into Lightroom to add some of the radial filters to focus more on the center or wherever I want the eye to go.

Lightroom has almost everything I need, but I use Photoshop to stitch panoramas and get rid of heavy water spots. I'll also tweak other things, like blending and masking together the sky with the foreground.

A photo by Toby Harriman titled San Francisco All Tucked In

San Francisco All Tucked In


Gruenwedel: How much do you interact with the community of photographers?

Harriman: When I started out, there weren't as many photographers my age. Now that I've connected with people through social media, I'm inspiring a younger crowd to get into photography. They ask me questions all the time, and I try to help as much as I can.

It's interesting to see how people can learn everything through social media sites by asking people questions or picking their brains online. I watched an HDR tutorial from Trey Ratcliff. Once I joined Google+, a lot of people were really helpful. People will help you and tell you their process.

I also started going on photo walks and meeting local photographers and picking their brains to learn techniques. I'd go just to meet other like-minded people.

Gruenwedel: Do you prefer shooting solo or with a group?

Harriman: I like being with two or three buddies. I'd much rather go out in the middle of the night with somebody because you just sit there for two to three hours, listening—and every sound you hear is probably the bogeyman. But there are definitely times when I like going alone because then I know my buddy's not getting the same shot.

Photo of waves crashing on Marshall Beach near Golden Gate Bridge, by Toby Harriman.

Far left image: "This is definitely a personal favorite. I had just gotten all-new filters from LEE Filters after using a Cokin starter set for over a year, and I was blown away by the difference in quality between them. So I headed to my favorite beach, Marshall Beach next to the Golden Gate Bridge. It was one of the first times I got a seascape that I fell in love with."

A photo titled Just Follow Me by Toby Harriman

Near left image: Just Follow Me is from the Independence Ghost Town series.

Modern Moss


Gruenwedel: How much gear do you take with you, and how much time do you spend setting up?

Harriman: Six months ago, I would've given a very different answer. In the past few months, I've gotten into time-lapse photography that uses a track. On some shoots, I carry a backpack, a pack in front, and a shoulder pack.

After I set that up for about 20 minutes, depending on what I'm trying to do, the shot can take anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours. Sometimes I like having a second camera so I can take stills and keep myself occupied, or set up another time-lapse shoot.

I try to always have a camera with me. In Colorado, I have all my gear in my car. When I'm in San Francisco, I don't leave my gear in my car because you don't leave anything in your car in San Francisco.


Gruenwedel: Tell me more about your time-lapse photography.

Harriman: Time-lapse photography is like video, taking a picture in one-second intervals: it's picture, picture, picture—240 times. When I play that back at 24 pictures per second, that's 10 seconds of video. I don't know if you saw Adrift, the fog time-lapse video shot [by Simon Christen] in San Francisco that went viral recently. It's just a series of pictures, played back in video form. That's pretty much the gist of time-lapse photography.

When I started doing time-lapse photography, I'd shoot a steady time-lapse on a tripod—without movement or anything. Sometimes you're out there for three hours doing nothing, just waiting for the camera to finish. But once you're done, it's just really exciting to see what you've got and how you can play three hours back in 10 seconds. Now I have an eight-foot, motion-controlled track with a three-axis motor.

Time-lapse reel (2011–2013).

Gruenwedel: Is the track for moving the camera in a very slow, orderly way?

Harriman: Yes, the track allows you to capture really smooth parallax movement. For example, when shooting the Maroon Bells in Colorado, you can start the shot behind a bush in the foreground and then you have the mountain in the background. So the video starts behind the bush, and it's moving, it's moving—and then all of a sudden, there's this huge mountain. The track lets you do all these cool, hide-reveal moves.

Photo taken at Fort Funston, by Toby Harriman

Top image: "Some friends and I headed to Fort Funston to shoot these awesome posts. Right as the sun was about to go down, a few clouds rolled in."

Photo taken at Bodie Ghost Town, by Toby Harriman

Lower image: "Did I get lucky or what? I took Jeff Sullivan's night workshop at Bodie Ghost Town [in Bridgeport, California]. Not only did we see the most insane sunset ever, but it cleared up for the Milky Way once it got dark. My only complaint is the cloud in front of the Milky Way. I lit the foreground with a flashlight after finishing my time-lapse. Later I masked the two shots together in Photoshop and edited it in Lightroom 5." See his behind-the-scenes images.


Gruenwedel: When do you like to shoot?

Harriman: I like to shoot once the sun's down or right before—then I'll shoot the blue hour. Depending on the weather, I love doing night shots. I could shoot San Francisco all night, but I have to go at least an hour or two outside the city to shoot any stars.

Gruenwedel: How much planning does your type of photography require to get everything right?

Harriman: About two or three hours before sunset, I start following the webcams [in San Francisco] to see where the fog is and find out where the fog may be. One minute the fog could be there, and the next it could be gone—that's Bay Area fog weather.

If there are good clouds down on the coast, I may start heading toward Santa Cruz and get some nice seascapes. If the fog is going to be below the bridge or all the way into the city, I go up into the Oakland hills. If I look at the webcam and it's white, then I know the area is completely fogged in.

Sometimes I avoid looking at the webcams. Even if there is bad weather, you may get lucky. If the fog were too predictable, everyone would have beautiful shots of it, and it wouldn't be unique.

Gruenwedel: Do you usually know what you want when you start out?

Harriman: Yes, I usually know what I want. When I began, I thought if I could get the same shot as [someone I liked], I knew I was on the right track. Now I know what I'm going to shoot, or what to look for. I know I want a tree in the foreground and so I'll look around to find that single tree to comp in with the Milky Way.

I use [iPhone] apps to figure out where the Milky Way will be at a certain time. I research the sunset, sunrise, moonset, moonrise, how big the moon is, and when it is going to set. In the mountains, it's going to set below the mountains about a half hour before it really sets, so you've got to consider that, too.

If there's something I don't like, I'm going to try to create something out of it and make it into something that is interesting. I don't think, "Oh, I got bad weather."

Gruenwedel: So if you encounter bad weather, you just come back and try again?

Harriman: It depends on what you call bad weather. Bad weather could be lightning and thunder—and that's very cool to shoot.

I've been shooting the Golden Gate Bridge for three years. I've been trying to get a specific shot. I have taken thousands of pictures that people may think are awesome pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge. But there are certain levels of fog I try to get: high clouds and the city in view. I keep going back and shooting this bridge, trying to get that perfect weather situation. I'll go back, and back, and back until I get what I want.


Gruenwedel: Do you have any favorite shots?

Harriman: There's a difference between my favorite shot and my favorite moment. Sometimes my favorite shots are also capturing my favorite moments—those times when you remember the day more than you remember taking the photo, and the photo was just a bonus.

Don't Look Back is one of my favorites. I like how dramatic and silhouetted it is. I was in Hawaii this past June and rented a waterproof housing for my camera. But I didn't realize that being in huge swells in Hawaii is like being in an avalanche. I'm not an ocean person, so I just stayed onshore and took thousands of shots.

They didn't really excite me at first. Then I started processing them in black and white and making them really dark. I used the new radial filter in Lightroom 5 to bring in more focus on the surfer and right in the barrel. It looked like I was lighting the shot at night. It was one of those things where I tried processing one shot with a style I've used in the past. I never thought of using that kind of dark black-and-white style for surf photography.

long-exposure photo of a surfer by Toby Harriman

Don't Look Back (from the Modern Surf series).

I shot Gray Whale Cove Sunset in a small cove between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay. It's a 250-second shot with all my [optical] filters on. The water looks really milky, kind of surreal. You feel like you could skate across the whole ocean. There are no waves in the shot, no texture. I got lucky with the sun peeking through the clouds. I used my usual methods in Lightroom and then went into Nik Software's Color Efex Pro and back into Lightroom. In Photoshop, I got rid of one texture in the sky as well as a spot in the sky that the eye was too drawn to. I motion-blurred the sky to put the focus on that rock and the sun.

Gray Whale Cove Sunset

88 Light II


Gruenwedel: What's on your horizon?

Harriman: I want to do some three-year time-lapses where you put a camera in a weatherproof box and it takes a picture every hour for three years. It's all solar-powered. Those shots obviously take a while.

Architecture is something that I've always been interested in. I like looking at the details, the textures, and the patterns in the buildings. It's something I want to explore more deeply in the future.

I've been exploring a lot of different techniques. Some people might be more inclined to pick one and go that way. And photographers may get more successful by sticking to one style and going with that. But I don't like just one style; I like all these different styles. It's all fun.

As long as I'm out with a camera, in the middle of nowhere, or on some random street in San Francisco, I'm happy.

(Get tutorials—from novice to advanced—for editing images in Photoshop.)

October 1, 2013