What is Bulb Mode? Photography Definition, Tips, and Examples

What is Bulb Mode?

The bulb mode is a shutter speed option accessible in manual mode on your camera. The bulb mode allows your shutter speed to be as long as you want, one minute, five minutes, 15 minutes, it’s your choice! The bulb mode keeps the shutter of the camera open as long as you hold the shutter release.

Each camera has a limit to how long it can use the bulb exposure, the biggest factor is battery life. One of the longest bulb timers can last for 99 hours 59 minutes and 59 seconds.

Many photographers that use bulb mode will have an external shutter release button or use the timer feature. They will also use their tripods to decrease motion blur as much as possible.

bulb mode
Photo by Frank Cone

What Does Bulb Mode Do?

Previously in our shutter speed article, I explained about how your shutter speed will affect your photo. To easily recap, you need a fast shutter speed to capture fast moving objects. Slow and stationary objects can be shot using a slower shutter speed.

Shutter speed will help increase/decrease your exposure. The faster your shutter speed, the darker the image becomes. Longer exposures will help you take in more light, making photography at low-light conditions a breeze.

Since bulb mode allows you to use longer shutter speed, it helps you take sharp photos in low light conditions. It also helps you explore long exposure photography. Long exposure photography combines shooting stunning stationary objects complimented with trails of moving elements.

bulb mode shutter speed
Photo by Sourav Mishra

When Should You Use Bulb Mode?

Bulb/time mode is best used for long exposure photography. Although it can still be used for a faster shutter speed, it won’t be as effective and you’ll be better off by selecting your desired shutter speed.

You should only use bulb when you are in low-light conditions with your subject. You should also make sure that your subject/object isn’t moving too much. Moving too much will make them appear blurry and “disappear” in the final image.

Have you seen images that have funky light trails or trails of light made by fireworks around them? Well they are using long shutter speeds to get that effect.

bulb mode shutter speed light
Photo by Ivan

Why is it Called Bulb Mode?

The name bulb mode came from the time when people used to shoot using box cameras, view cameras and folding cameras (in the 1800’s). Those devices came with a detachable pneumatic pump/shutter release equipped with a rubber bulb on the end. The word “bulb” refers to the rubber bulb part.

If you search for images of those box/view/folding cameras, you’ll know what I mean. The part that looks like it’s made from rubber and squishy, yeah that’s the bulb. Pressing the pump will hold the shutter open and only close it after you release it.

Now that technology has improved, for some reason they decided to limit the shutter to 30/60 seconds max. Only after going through the specified time it’s called bulb mode, maybe because it bears some resemblance to how the bulb is actually used.

Press, hold and release it, that’s basically bulb mode.

Unfortunately, releasing the shutter button does risk shaking the camera. The shaking will probably give your image a slight blur, ruining all your time and efforts poured into that photo. You can use a wire cable shutter release, the wireless version, or even an intervalometer.

More information on how to use each of these below.

Bulb vs. Time Exposure Mode

With bulb mode explained, I guess it’s time to talk about its competitor Time Exposure Mode. You can call it the bulb mode, but better.

The feature is not available in most cameras, but some models such as the Nikon D5600 have it. The feature comes in handy, yet not every camera has it for some reason. But hey, maybe they just didn’t need it considering that there are remote release shutters.

Time exposure mode allows the user to simply press the shutter button to start and press it again to end it. That’s it, nothing more nothing less. It has all the benefits that the bulb mode has without the drawbacks, but this shouldn’t be a problem anymore if you already have a remote shutter release.

You can access this mode the same way you accessed bulb mode. Shift that shutter speed beyond thirty seconds and search for the time exposure mode labeled with a “T.”

adjusting camera settings
Photo by Pok Rie

How to Use Bulb Mode?

To access bulb mode, just set your camera to manual mode and shift to the longest shutter speed. After you go past the 30-second mark the “B” symbol should appear. Voila, you have now entered bulb mode.

In general, your DSLR and Mirrorless camera might have the bulb mode. The bulb mode is indicated with its “B” symbol. Maybe you’ve tried and used it for a little bit, but find it rather confusing. The bulb modes exposure will be based on how long you hold the button.

If you just press the shutter release button as you normally would, you’ll probably get a ½ a second of exposure or even less. Professional photographers will rarely use the bulb mode if they aren’t planning to use it for exposures longer than 30 seconds.

While using bulb mode, you will also need to worry about the camera shaking. Holding down the button while hand holding the camera for an extended period of time is tiresome. It’s next to impossible to keep it still for more than 30 second, which is why professionals bring their tripods and remote shutter release with them.

Almost every popular camera will have a compatible remote shutter release. Both Nikon and Canon cameras have their own wireless remote control, a quick search on the online market will reveal all of this info. If you own a different model, just type your camera model followed with “remote release” and voila.

bulb mode photography
Photo by PhotoMIX Company

Bulb mode is normally used in the following way:

  1. Remote/untethered Shutter Release:
  • Turn on your camera
  • Press the drive button located on the camera body
  • Press down on the multi selector and choose remote commander
  • Then press the centre part of the multi-selector

Always make sure that you’re pointing the remote control at the Infrared sensor at the front part of the camera to operate it.

This piece of equipment is considered a luxury since it does offer flexibility and versatility at the price of. Well expensiveness, although some are under 20 dollars. Also bring extra batteries, just in case.

2. Cable/tethered Shutter Release

  • After plugging it into your camera’s port, push the release down. This will lock it, leaving your shutter open
  • When the desired time has elapsed, simply release it.

The wired version is a much more affordable option for photographers. Purchasing this version requires you to choose its range/length, we recommend choosing the longer ones. Longer cables lessen the possibility of you shaking the camera.

Please note that there are remote and wired releases. Some may have other interesting features that you may not need if you just need it for bulb photography. There are specifically made remote shutters that trigger automatically when a lightning strikes, an animal passes by, and many more.

These specially made shutters will help you shoot scenes/phenomena that are hard to predict, doesn’t occur when you are present at the location, or has potential to disturb the subject.

Different release models will also have their own mechanisms (automatic locking mechanisms, one press to start another to end, etc.). Some cameras even allow you to trigger bulb mode from your smartphone.

If you have your remote release secured, you can now proceed to easily capture superbly sharp photos using extra-long exposures.

Can You Use Bulb Mode in Daylight?

The bulb mode is at its peak functionality when used in situations with little to no ambient lighting. Ambient lights are the lights that the photographer didn’t add, or simply just natural existing light.

Shooting using bulb mode in daylight holds almost no value and functionality (unless you have extremely good ND filters). The best time to try using bulb mode is at night.

Dark locations where everything is dark and only lit by the moon or street lights. If you force yourself to shoot using bulb mode in daylight, prepare yourself to witness the brightest photo ever. Unless you have those god tier ND filters that can block the ambient light.

Final Remarks

In this article we explained about the bulb mode definition and explained around bulb shutter speed. To recap this article:

  • Bulb mode is a setting used for long exposure photography. This mode allows you to have shutter speeds exceeding 30 seconds and up to as long as your battery can survive.
  • Bulb mode can catch huge amounts of exposure since you can open the shutter for so long. It can also leave a trail of lights via the magic of slow shutter speeds, giving a sense of movement to a photo.
  • I highly suggest using Bulb mode in low-light conditions. Using the mode in normal conditions will just result in a perfectly white image.
  • The name “bulb mode” originated from the old camera rubber bulb attachment that was used to hold and close the shutters.
  • Time mode is basically everything bulb mode has to offer without the drawbacks.
  • To use bulb mode, go to manual and crank the shutter speed to over 30 seconds. The Bulb/Time mode should appear. I also suggest using a tripod and a remote/wired shutter release to prevent shaking the camera.
  • And yes, you can use the bulb mode in daylight. Although it may not have good applications, it’s a good way to flex your expensive ND filters.

Keep on practicing and trying new photography disciplines, long exposure photography, bulb mode, experimenting with various shutter speeds will help you in your development. Practice and study diligently, your results will show soon after.

Have fun!

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