How to Take Long Exposure Photos

In Beginner Tips by Stefano CaioniLeave a Comment
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Do you want to learn how to take long exposure photos?
What if I said that long exposure shots are not only easy to take but that by learning this technique, you’ll improve in other areas of photography as well?

Long exposure photography helps you obtain dreamy effects such as smooth water, car light trails, motion blur, and deliver breathtaking images. It’s based on the use of a slow shutter speed to make objects in motion appear blurred.

In the past few years, thanks to the Internet and social media, long exposure photos, with their magic vibe, have become very popular also among amateur photographers.

Using a long exposure works perfectly for outdoor and landscape photography but also for sports and night photography. 

Taking long exposure shots is one of the most satisfying techniques to learn for a photography enthusiast.

Despite the relatively straightforward approach, it takes a bit of practice to take amazing long exposure photos. If all the following steps are not applied correctly, it’s not uncommon that the end results will be far from expectations.

Follow this guide, and you’ll quickly master the long exposure technique!

What is a Long Exposure Photo?

A long exposure photo is obtained by slowing down the shutter speed.

To learn more about long exposure, let’s see first what the exposure is. It’s fundamental for everyone serious about photography to know this essential concept.

You can skip this section if you already know what the exposure is.

The exposure determines how bright or dark your photo will be.

We talk about correctly exposed vs. overexposed on underexposed photos.
An overexposed image will be too bright, while an underexposed picture will be too dark. Intuitively your goal is to have a correctly exposed image.

What Affects the Exposure

The exposure is affected by the aperture of your camera, the shutter speed, the ISO value, and it can be altered from the value chosen by the camera, with exposure compensation.

The exposure triangle

Exposure Triangle | Pixinfocus

A convenient way of visualizing how the three variables, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, interact with each other is the exposure triangle. 

This is really important to understand how to adjust them relative to each other.

All three variables are settings of your camera that have the job of manipulating light and will affect your long exposure photo.

Your goal is to find the right balance in the exposure triangle to achieve good results.

The amount how light that hits the sensor (thanks to the aperture), for how long (shutter speed), and the sensor sensitivity (ISO) are three crucial settings of your camera.

Knowing how they work will make you master the long exposure. 

Shortly you’ll understand why.

How to Take Long Exposure Photos?

In this article, you’ll use mainly the aperture setting. I know it seems counterintuitive because I’ve said that a long exposure is obtained by slowing down the shutter speed.

Let’s see why.

You have to set your camera to aperture priority mode (A or Av).

In aperture priority mode, you’ll let your camera decide the right shutter speed.

The “trick” is to be in specific light conditions and find the correct aperture value.

Another advantage of working on the aperture value is that you’ll directly control the amount of light needed, and your camera will choose a shutter speed.

In low light conditions, the shutter speed is going to be slow enough to balance the exposure. The slower the shutter speed, the more blurred objects in movement will be.

What about ISO?

I’ll get to ISO soon.

Long Exposure Photos: Camera Settings and Examples

You’ll learn best by seeing some examples and camera settings for long exposure shots of various subjects.

First, as I mentioned, set your camera to aperture priority mode (A or Av)

Notice how, by choosing a higher aperture value (smaller f-stop number), your camera slows down the shutter speed (longer time). 

The camera does so to balance the final exposure.

Some of the examples of long exposure that I’m going to give you are just an overview, and they would require a more in-depth explanation. 

Long Exposure Photos in Daylight

Basic equipment needed:

  • Tripod
  • Wide angle-lens
  • Camera: MFT, APS-C or full-frame camera
  • ND Filter

During the day, you have a lot of light, so photos are usually taken with a short exposure. So for long exposure in daylight, you need an ND filter. Otherwise, by using a slow shutter speed, you will end up overexposing your picture.

Since you are shooting in aperture priority, you’ll notice that your camera won’t pick a slow shutter speed since there’s plenty of light. Even if you set the smallest aperture f/22 and base ISO.

An ND filter or Neutral Density filter will stop a considerable amount of light from entering your lens and hitting the sensor. This results in darker images and forces the camera to a long exposure. 

A 6 stops or 10 stops filter is what you need for long exposure shots in daylight.

To avoid using an ND filter during a long exposure in daylight, try to shoot during a cloudy day to have more optimal conditions.

Long Exposure Photos of Water and Waterfalls

Basic equipment needed:

  • Tripod
  • Wide angle-lens
  • Camera: MFT, APS-C or full-frame camera
  • ND Filter optional

Best time of the day:
Day-time

Long Esporure Photo waterfall

A common (and beautiful) subject for long exposure photos is water.

As a general rule, when shooting landscape photography, try to use the lowest ISO your camera allows you. Is it 64 or 100? Is it 200? Use it. 

Low ISO will avoid adding noise (grain) on your photographs.

Related article: Understanding ISO

Another general rule to speed up your process in landscape photography is to choose an aperture value of minimum f/8 to a maximum of f/16. Those values will give you sharper images.

I try not to get to a small aperture of f/22. 

The smaller the aperture, the more visible all the impurity on your lens and sensor will be. 

Again this is a general rule, and you should try and use the best values for your lighting conditions.

Shoot at different aperture and see how long the exposure is to get a smooth, creamy water as final result. 

Once you’ve captured the waterfall, check the image. See if the trees and foliage in your composition are sharp or blurred. 

When doing a long exposure shooting of a waterfall, with the smallest breeze, trees and foliage might be blurred. If they are, you’ll need to bracket your image, which is taking two (or more) photos at different exposures, and back home, you’ll need to blend them in Photoshop.

Long Exposure Photography of the Night Sky (Star Trails)

Not the most beginner-friendly technique, but one of the most rewarding.

Long Esporure Photo start trails

Basic equipment needed:

  • Tripod
  • Wide angle-lens with large aperture
  • Shutter cable release (or remote)
  • Intervalometer (if your camera doesn’t have it built-in)
  • Camera: full-frame cameras will introduce less digital noise
  • Extra batteries

Long exposure photography of the night sky, with star trails, is obtained thanks to the Earth’s rotation. With a very long exposure of 5 to 15 minutes, your camera can detect this movement and form star trails. 

Pretty cool effect!

Bring a tripod and a wide-angle lens with you.

For this photography style, you need to abandon aperture priority mode and set your camera to bulb (B).

Compose your shot.

Set the camera to manual focus and focus at infinity.

Set your camera to a large aperture, f/2.8 or wider.

Use base ISO (64, 100, or 200 depending on your camera) to avoid digital noise.

Now my suggestion is to take multiple shots with the same exposure and blend them together in Photoshop.

Press the shutter cable release to open the shutter. After 30 seconds, press the shutter release again and check the results. Repeat for longer exposure, for example, 1 min.

See how the results are different. Now input the settings in the intervalometer.

Choose an elapsed shooting time of 30 sec to 1 min and a total number of photos of 50 to 100. 

Long Exposure Photos of People (Street Photography)

Basic equipment needed:

  • 35mm to telephoto lens
  • Camera: MFT, APS-C or full-frame camera
  • Tripod optional

Best time of the day
Mainly day-time

Long Esporure Photo of people

Getting a long exposure in the street and producing motion blur of people walking on the street is always fun.

Depending on the light, a 1/10 of a sec exposure should be enough to obtain this effect. You should be able to get to that value with an aperture of f/11 or f/13 depending on the available light

Long Exposure in Sports Photography

Basic equipment needed:

  • 35mm to 50mm
  • Camera: MFT, APS-C or full-frame camera
  • Tripod optional

Best time of the day
Any time (it depends on the sport)

Long Exposure Sports Photography

With a long exposure in sports, you can create magical sceneries. For example, if you capture dancing ballerinas. 

Set your camera on a tripod and making sure the subjects are well-lit.

Suggested aperture f/11 with a shutter speed of 3-second.

Always adjust as needed.

External sources of light pointed at the performers might be needed.

Traffic Light Trails Photography

Basic equipment needed:

  • Tripod
  • Wide lens to telephoto
  • Camera: MFT, APS-C or full-frame camera
  • Shutter cable release
  • ND Filter optional

Best time of the day
Blue hour or night-time

Traffic light trails photography is another technique I really like. 

To shoot car light trails, set your camera on a tripod and choose the base ISO.

With an aperture ranging from f/11 to f/16 and a shutter speed of at least 30 sec, your camera should be able to capture traffic light trails.

You can blend multiple images together the same as you would do for the star trails long exposure technique.

Related article: How to photograph car light trails.

Best Tips for Long Exposure Photos

Harbour Bridge Sydney Australia - Long exposure Tips

Long Exposure Photos Tips: Finding the Right Subject

As you now know, a perfectly static object is not adapt for long exposure pictures. 

If there’s no motion in your scene, there won’t be any motion blur effect.

One of the reasons why I love shooting long exposure photos is that I love nature, the ocean, and I love a good hike to reach a waterfall. 

In fact, water was the perfect subject for me when I started.

Keep in mind, though, that not everything in your composition should be in motion. Otherwise, all you will see is an entirely blurred image.

You need static elements such as trees, or standing people to be part of your scene. Thus that the contrast between moving and static objects will accentuate the illusion of motion in the still image and make for a really appealing photograph.

Find the ideal subject for you among the ones mentioned above, and when you’ve mastered that topic, jump on the next one.

Plan and Scout the Location (if you can)

In long exposure photography, certain subjects such as waterfalls, the ocean, or star trails, for example, require a bit of planning. 

It’s time to choose your location and explore it.

I like improvisation and shooting by heart. But if you are a new starter, and when you don’t know a location, planning a shot almost always results in better long exposure photos.

When you don’t know the scene, it will likely be hard to understand where is the best spot to position your camera.

Positioning your tripod, composing, setting up your camera, and filter takes time.

Not knowing where to take your long exposure photo from could result in missing the perfect light for the shot.

In fact, remember to plan not only the location but also the time of the day. 

The golden hour (the time shortly after sunrise and before sunset) is ideal when you want to take long exposure photos of the ocean with a beautiful light.

At this time of the day, you get longer shadows, the colors have more contrast and images look much more 3-dimensional.

There are a few different ways you can plan your shoot:

My Favorite way

If you can, you need to go on location the day before, possibly around the same time of the day you plan on shooting. You will likely have a similar light, and you can decide where to position yourself and what are 3 or 4 possible compositions.

Bronte Beach tidal pool. Long exposure photo

The day after, you’ll be more prepared, which is essential to avoid missing a shot, especially if you’re capturing a sunrise or sunset when the light changes rapidly.

The Easy way

Just use Google Maps and Instagram, 500px, or any other photography platform on the web. Looking at other people’s work online is not a sin.

This way, you study a place and check possible angles for your long exposure shot that other photographers have chosen.

Additionally, remember, in some popular locations, you will be surprised by how many people you can find even in the early hours of the day. That’s why you always want to study plan properly and have alternatives compositions in mind.

Lastly, my pro tip about planning a long exposure photo is…. to arrive early!

Best Equipment for Long Exposure Photos

Since you could use any type of interchangeable lens camera and different lenses depending on the subject, I’m going to skip those.

Tripods

Your camera will be set to a slow shutter speed to create motion blur in the scene. So you need to avoid camera vibrations of any kind, or you’ll go home with shaky images.

My advice is to look for a tripod that’s small but sturdy enough to avoid shaky images due to possible wind. Don’t underestimate how wind can affect your final image if you have a less than stable tripod. It doesn’t need to be a massive one, even a small travel tripod can be enough (with some limitations).

Good tripods for new starters:

Mactrem PT55 Travel Camera Tripod Lightweight Aluminum for DSLR SLR Canon Nikon Sony Olympus DV with Carry Bag -11 lbs(5kg) Load (Orange)
  • HIGH QUALITY ALUMINUM ALLOY TUBE AND ENGINEERING-PLASTIC. CONVENIENTLY LIGHTWEIGHT. weighs: 2.6 pounds, load: 11 pounds
  • EASY TO STORE: Compact tripod fits perfectly into the provided carrying case for safe storage
  • WAY PAN HEAD: 360-degree swivel function. Double holder for optional panhead. Keeps your camera safe by remaining steady
  • UNIVERSAL QUICK-RELEASE PLATE: Attach and detach your camera in seconds. It makes fast transitions between shots and quickly moving from spot to spot possible
  • SECTION, LEVER-LOCK LEGS: With the four-section lever-lock legs, can effortlessly accommodates custom set-ups in uneven terrain when you needed to frame the shot just so. The Center is gear driven to extend, and rubber feet help ensure stability on different surfaces
Sale
Victiv 72-inch Camera Tripod Aluminum T72 Max Height 182cm- Lightweight Tripod & Monopod Compact for Travel with 3-way Swivel Head and 2 Quick Release Plates for Canon Nikon DSLR Video Shooting - Blue
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FOR TRAVEL - Compactness when stored and weighs only 3.97 lbs/1.8 kilograms, easy to move around with a strapped carrying bag; Flip leg lock for SUPER FAST SETUP. Great for a vlogger and YouTuber
  • VERSATILITY OF FUNCTIONALIT - Height from 21"-72" can use it with binoculars for star viewing, family and home movies; 4-section column legs are able to stretch out to be tall enough to find the right height
  • UPGRADED SOLID CONSTRUCTION - Made of aluminum alloy, THICKER leg tube than the ordinary tripod, sturdy adequate for long exposure work and keep the camera steady. Using it in the field and yard for photos
  • TRIPOD AND MONOPOD COMBINED UNIT - Takes about 30 seconds to go from the tripod into the monopod and reduces the weight of travel. Pay one, get two functions. Perfect for amateur photographers and travelers
  • SMOOTH 3-WAY SWIVEL HEAD - 360 degree panning and titling with horizontally and vertically, easy to change directions at different angles. A EXTRA UNIVERSAL ARCA SWISS MOUNTING PLATE AS A GIFT to easily swap cameras

ND Filters

A Neutral Density filter (ND filter) reduces the amount of light hitting the camera sensor. As we’ve seen in some situations if you want to master the long exposure technique ND filters are your best friends.

Always remember to lock your the before you mount your filter on your camera. A 6 Stop or 10 Stop ND filters are too dark for the camera to be able to focus when you place them in front of the lens.

The trick is, focus using auto mode, then switch to manual mode to lock the focus so that it won’t change when you press the shutter release.

It’s very important that you remember to switch to manual focus before shooting with the filter mounted. If the camera is set to autofocus (AF), it will try to focus again when you press the shutter release and with the filter mounted it won’t be able to focus.

This can cost you losing a chance of capturing the perfect light. So remember to switch to Manual focus before mounting the filter.

Now take a couple of test shots to make sure the image is sharp before using a filter.

Good filters can be very expensive, I use a NISI System which you can find on Amazon here. This is a professional system and it’s quite excellent.

But you don’t need to break the bank, check these:

Sale
K&F Concept 72MM ND Filter ND1000 10 Stops, Neutral Density Lens Filter HD 18 Layer Neutral Grey ND Lens Filter with Multi-Resistant Nano Coating for Canon Nikon Lens
  • Note: The filter 10 Stop exposure correction,it is not variable. 72mm ND1000 Filter made with premium Japan Optics glass, top level of transmittance, no color cast; Aviation aluminum alloy frame,super slim and lightweight, avoiding vignetting on wide angle lenses. Extra tough frame ensuring durability and jamming prevention
  • Neutral Density Filter reduce the amount of light by 10 stops, long-time exposure edge tool;Multi-coated nano filter, effectively reduce the light refection of the surface, improve image quality.
  • 18-layer multi-resistant coating technology significantly reducing lens flare and ghosting while making the filter anti-scratch, water repellent, oil & dust resistant fit for the rigors of adventure photography.
  • Hard coated multicoating process suppresses ghosting, flare and reflections, and increase light transmission; Can be used to achieve super slow shutter speeds in daylight to render moving subjects invisible.
  • Enables slow shutter speeds to be used to record movement in subjects such as waterfalls, providing a silky smooth affect to flowing water.

Shutter Release Cable

If possible use a shutter release (cable or remote) to reduce camera shake and have a sharper image. If you don’t have a shutter release, your camera has a self-timer that can be used for this purpose. A 2 seconds self-timer would be enough to avoid accidental vibration due to your finger pressing the shutter on your camera.

AODELA N10 Shutter Release Cable Remote Control for Nikon Z6, Z7, Coolpix P1000, D90, D600, D610, D3100, D3200, D3300, D5000, D5100, D5200, D5300, D7000 Digital SLR Cameras
  • Shooting Mode: Single Shooting, Continous Shooting, Long Exposure
  • Prevent vibration during long exposures, close-ups or continuous shooting
  • Shutter release button lock : A shutter release button lock is available which for long exposures shooting and continuous shooting
  • Compatible with: Nikon Z6, Z7, Coolpix P1000, D90 D600 D610 D3100 D3200 D3300 D5000 D5100 D5200 D5300 D7000 Digital SLR Cameras
  • No battery required

Useful Apps for Long Exposure Shots

App Photographers Ephemeris

It’s great to know in advance what the sky is going to look like.
A cloudy sky can be a great addition to your long exposure shot, it will give it more depth and make it more dramatic.

Besides, clouds move.

If your exposure is around or longer than 30 seconds (and clouds are moving fast enough), you will obtain a beautiful streaky sky.

Knowing the position of the sun and the direction the light is coming from is also fundamental. Don’t forget that the secret of a great photos lies in your ability to manipulate light.

As we’ve said, aim to be on location for the golden hour and know where the sun is rising or setting.

Long Exposure technique at Maroubra Mahon Pool. Sydney.

Here are some websites you can use to check the weather conditions and position of the sun.

By no mean a complete list, but a good starting point:

Time to Compose Your Long Exposure Photo

Composition is something that doesn’t depend on your camera, lens or equipment but on your personal taste.

The reason why I always say that you don’t need to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on expensive gear is that photography is made of light, great composition and how you can combine and manipulate the two to obtain a visually compelling image.

You can check my article on the rules composition and apply them to your long exposure shots.

Find it here Rules of composition in photography

You don’t have to apply all the rules all the time. They need to be used as guidelines to gain more control of the final result. One of the rules I always try to apply is the use of background and creating layers.

If you frame your shot in a way that your foreground has some eye-catching elements such as sharp rocks or trees, your image will become automatically more interesting.

Being able to create layers and separation between foreground, middle and background will convey more depth to your picture.


Last Check, Shoot, Rinse and Repeat

One more thing.

Make sure you cover the viewfinder to block any light passing through during the long exposure because it will affect the image. This is especially true is you use a DSLR. For mirrorless cameras, the Electronic View Finder (EVF) is isolated from the shutter so you will be fine.

Here you go, well done!

Wanaka Tree, New Zealand. Learn Long Exposure

If you’ve gone through all the steps in this guide you’ll obtain great results. Try different angles, try different settings and subjects.

Get familiar with your tools.

Do it again and again and you’ll become a master of long exposure photography.

As a bonus step, I highly recommend learning how to edit your photo.
If you want to learn post-processing in Lightroom, read my article here How to edit photos in Lightroom

Thank you for making it to the end of this article.
Comment below if you have questions on how to nail this technique and obtain beautiful long-exposure photographs!

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