Explaining Olympus’ Live Composite Mode

The Olympus OM-D Cameras have some very interesting long exposure “Live” modes. “Live” refers to the fact that in each of those modes you can see the long exposure building-up “live” on the LCD screen.

The first of these modes is “Live Bulb” which may sound weird to many of you; what the heck is this “Bulb” about? Bulb is a very old term that comes from the film days and before electronic flashes appeared. In those days if you wanted flash you had to use single-use flashbulbs that would basically explode in a flash of light. The problem with those bulbs was that they were slow and hard to synchronise with your exposure. So camera manufacturers created the “Bulb” setting which basically kept the shutter open as long as you held the shutter button down. You would press the shutter button, fire the flashbulb then release the shutter button. These “Bulb” modes still exist on most cameras today and they are simply a way to do long exposures: you hold the shutter button for as long as you want your exposure to be. The Olympus “Live Bulb” mode is simply a “Bulb” mode where you have the great luxury of seeing your exposure build on the LCD screen allowing you to know exactly when to stop it. In the past you basically had to use trial-and-error for long exposures so “Live Bulb” is a nice creative feature.

“Live Time” is essentially the same as “Live Bulb” with one small but important difference: you do not need to hold the shutter button, you press the shutter once to start the exposure and again to end it. This is much more handy and because of that it’s pretty safe to say that “Live Time” will probably be used much more than “Live Bulb”.

Image by PETER BAUMGARTEN
Image by PETER BAUMGARTEN

“Live Composite” (LC) is the most interesting and innovative of the “Live” modes and the one I will spend the rest of this article talking about. “Composite” refers to creating a single image from multiple shots by compositing (stacking) them together. This mode combines long-exposure with compositing and it is incredibly useful and easy to use. The range of possible applications for LC is really quite large: star trails, Milky Way, auroras, light painting, light trails, streaming clouds, fireworks, low-light multiple exposures, etc. The LC mode is a creative goldmine and you are only limited by your imagination.

How does LC work? In a nutshell, it works by first taking a base image and after that first exposure it takes a series of further exposures while registering only the parts that have new bright pixels in them. When done, the camera merges all the files together to produce the final image. So the first exposure would be the base composition that you want, like a landscape with a house in the foreground for example. The rest of the shots would register only new light, which could be fireworks, lightning strikes or light painting for example. One of the big advantages is that the main scene of your photo will not get overexposed as the camera will not register more light in that part of the image. This is quite challenging normally as the longer you expose, the more your image’s foreground will get overexposed, forcing you to take multiple images and merging them later in Photoshop.

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Example of Light Painting using Live Composite mode.

So how do you use it?

  1. Mount your camera on a tripod or a steady surface. I recommend you also use a remote shutter cable to avoid camera shake, but it isn’t absolutely necessary.
  2. Set your camera to manual focus and compose and focus your scene. You may want to take a couple of automatic exposure shots to double-check your composition and get an idea of what ISO, aperture and shutter speed you actually need. If you will be shooting something like star trails or fireworks, you may want to look-up some guidelines for properly exposing those.
  3. Set your PASM mode dial to M and scroll the shutter speed all the way to the left past 60 seconds then Live Bulb, Live Time and finally to Live Composite.
  4. Set your ISO and aperture according to what you figured out in step 2.
  5. While in Live Composite mode, hit the Menu button and up will pop the Composite Settings menu (also available through the E/Exp. menu item). Here you will set your shutter speed to a value between 60 seconds and 1/2 second. This is where your experimenting in step 2 comes in handy. Keep in mind that the camera will be shooting continuously so you do not need a very long exposure to do things like light trails or star trails. This setting is more about getting the right exposure.
  6. Hit the shutter button once to take the base exposure. This will be your foreground or ambient shot.
  7. Hit the shutter again and the camera will start shooting continuously in silent (electronic-shutter) mode at the shutter speed you set in step 5. The camera shoots continuously until you press the shutter button again to stop it or until it reaches the 3 hour limit.
  8. The camera will now stack all the shots together and produce the final composite image.

“Live Composite” really makes some types of long exposures like light painting, star trails and lightning very easy to do. It also opens up some really interesting creative possibilities.

Image by PETER BAUMGARTEN
Image by PETER BAUMGARTEN

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