You know these shots with silky smooth water and brushed out skies right? These are mostly made with ND filters to increase exposure time. However, if you have a Sony camera these are very easy to make without using any filters. Sony has a neat little app for their Sony Alpha cameras that is called ‘Smooth Reflections’. This creates a similar effect of a long exposure by stacking a lot of photographs taken with a 1-second interval together. It stacks all of the shots in a single RAW file. The biggest advantage of this technique is that you can make long exposures with lenses that can’t use an ND filter. Think of extreme wide angle lenses or fisheye lenses. Or if you simply don’t want to buy any ND filter, this app is great too.
So here’s a little guide on the Smart Reflections App.
First off, buy the app from the store. It costs $4.99. I personally think these kind of apps should just be free, but it still beats the price of any ND filter. After buying and installing the app it pops up at your Application List
Start the App and choose 'custom'. Sony put some presets in their to make it easier for the general audience, but I always choose custom as I’d like to use my own settings. The most important setting in this little app is the amount of ‘Smoothing’. Smoothing determines how much shots the camera will take & stack together. The minimum amount is 2 shots and the maximum amount is 256 shots. With an interval of 1 second that is a little over 4 minutes exposure.
In this example I am using a smoothing of 128 shots. The red pixels on the screen are displaying my focus as I have ‘focus peaking’ turned on.
I am using the manual Samyang 14mm f/2.8 lens without a filter.
By pressing the shutter button the camera starts it’s shots. After 128 shots (roughly 2 minutes) the camera automatically stacks all the shots together instantly and shows you the result. As can be seen, the clouds and water look very washed out. Exactly the result I was going for. Here’s a processed result:
Again, this is a single RAW file without he use of any filter. Pretty impressive, right? Here’s a single shot from the same scene without the Smooth Reflections App to show you the difference:
Note that there isn’t a better or worse shot, it’s all a matter of preference on what look you are going for.
By using different amounts of smoothing you can determine how sooth you want the clouds and water to be. Also note that I had a perfect wind direction towards me in these shots. To plan this: simply check the wind direction on the weather forecast.
Here’s a (processed) shot I took a bit later. I only used a smoothing of just 32 shots here to still show texture in the clouds but in the mean time still showing a ‘vortex effect’.
As you can see it’s all pretty straight forward and easy. Note that this particular technique is nothing new. You can also do everything manually without using any app (if you don't have a Sony camera for example). You do this by taking a lot of shots manually and stacking them in photoshop. However, Imagine stacking 250 raw files in Photoshop. For the people familiar with this technique they know how much time and computing power it costs before you have a final raw file to work with.
So here’s the advantages of the Sony Smooth Reflections App summed up:
- Make long exposures without the use of any filters. Especially useful for extreme lenses like fisheye.
Instantly get a RAW file, no waiting (processing) time after the shots are finished. So it takes the same amount of time as doing a long exposure with an ND filter. Photoshop would take ages to stack 250 shots.
- The exposure of the final image is always how you want it to be, as you can see it on your live view beforehand. Use of 10+ stop filters can be a guessing game sometimes.
- No colour shift/difference.
So why would you not always use this app? There are a few drawbacks. The biggest one being it eats shutter clicks. It takes 256 clicks to take 1 photo (if you use 256 smoothing). That’s a lot of clicks for one photo and not all shutters might be built for it. However, modern cameras have shutters that last so long it doesn’t really matter.
- Eats shutter clicks. Shutter gets old quicker if you use this technique too much.
- Costs 5 bucks. I personally think this is a feature that should be free. Olympus has it (for free) on their cameras as well. However, the price is still nothing to high quality ND filters.
Things that could be improved via an update:
- Focus Magnify. I can’t use the focus magnify option while I am in the App. I don’t know why. I always manual focus with focus magnify and I have no idea why that function is unavailable inside of the apps in general (it’s also not available in the Timelapse app).
- There is no realtime update of the stacked shot. Olympus has this function where you can see the stacked shots in real time to determine when you want to stop.
- That brings me to the next point. It would be nice to start stacking without an end in mind, and just stop it with a remote when you think the stacks looks good. This would require realtime update on the screen.
- I can now only select smoothing from 2 to 256. It would be nice to have a ‘manual’ option where I can just put the exact number I want.
- EXIF is not displayed correctly. The EXIF only displays the EXIF data of a single shot from the stacked exposures. This looks weird as you have a very smooth image that is basically 256 seconds, but it shows the EXIF of one shot (for example 1/25s). It would be nice to have an option to put the amount of smoothing as seconds in the EXIF, to make it more ‘realistic’.
Feel free to ask me any questions regarding the app or the manual workflow in Photoshop.