Long Exposure Photography

In Landscape Photography, Ultimate Guides by Stefano Caioni Leave a Comment

Have you ever looked at an image of a flowing waterfall and wondered how the photographer made time stop? The water looks as though it lives in a fairytale. So majestic and magical. Pure utopia comes to mind. 

Images like fairytale waterfalls do exist, and you can create them with a little bit of help. Landscape photography is all about timing, technique, and prep. There are also opportunities for happenstance. Sometimes you can be in the right place and the right time and capture something magnificent! 

Long exposure photography is one of my favorite techniques. Long exposures helps you create dreamy effects. Images like smooth water, car light trails, and motion blur deliver breathtaking images. It is based on the use of a slow shutter speed to make objects in motion appear blurred.

Long exposure is helpful in so many different areas within photography. Landscape, sports, and night-time photos are the beginning. The long exposure technique takes practice with a few camera settings and creativity. 

In our age of technology, social media and the internet are popular places to showcase photos. Long exposure images are at the top of the list! What a great way to find different images to review and be able to show off your work! Mastering long exposure photography will take your pictures to the next level. 

Long exposure photography is one of the most satisfying techniques to learn. Photography enthusiasts love getting creative with long exposures. You can tell a fantastic story with long exposure. 

This can be a straightforward technique to understand, but there is also a technical piece to it. The steps in this guide will help you apply the long exposure technique to your images. 

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

Related: Water Photography Tips

Long Exposure Photography: Introduction

Applying long exposure to an image is about technology and experimenting. Your camera has the capability, and you have talent. 

A long-exposure photo comes to life when using a long-duration shutter speed. This will capture the sharpness of stationary elements in images. You can either blur, smear, or obscure moving elements, thus a long exposure image!

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.

The exposure determines how bright or dark your photo will be. For example, an overexposed image will be too bright. An underexposed image will be too dark. The goal is to ensure the correct amount of light and speed to produce a perfect photo. Combining light and speed at the appropriate levels gives you that mystical look. These are some of my favorite images to create. 

How do you capture a long exposure image? It’s all about camera settings, some equipment, and the right subject. Let’s get your camera setup and ready to start shooting long exposure shots.

What Affects the Exposure

Several factors affect the exposure of your image. Who knew that were so many technicalities that go into shooting a picture, right! That’s part of the learning experience, though. Sharper and more refined images take time and technique. 

Three main elements affect the exposure of your photos. Let’s discuss further.

The exposure triangle

Exposure Triangle | Pixinfocus

Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO the crucial components to long exposure photography. The light that hits the sensor (aperture). How long the shutter is open (shutter speed). And the sensor sensitivity (ISO) are three crucial settings of your camera. 

The triangle exposure is a great tool that explains these three variables. It is a convenient way of seeing how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO interact. 

This is important to understand how to adjust them relative to each other. Changing one of these variables requires adjusting the other two. Having the perfect balance between all will give you the desired image you are seeking. 

Long exposure photography might sound tricky, but it’s about patience and practice. Have fun! This technique can set your image apart from the rest. How you are feeling on any given day to can show through your photos. Long exposure images breathe emotion and soul while adding a whimsical element.

Aperture in Long Exposure Photography

The aperture of your camera affects exposure. Many individuals like to shoot in manual mode. Most of the time, it can be helpful to allow the camera to determine the shutter speed. When you’re applying long exposure to your photos, you need to have control. Allowing the camera to choose the speed isn’t ideal. Novice photographers start out using manual mode most of the time. This is an attractive option to get used to the camera and learn how different speeds and light affect an image.

Long Exposure Photography

It’s suggested to either set your camera to manual or aperture priority mode (A or Av). Once decided, be sure to select the aperture to the appropriate value based on what you are shooting. For Landscape photography, set the value between f/8 and f/13. 

The exposure effect can occur by the aperture of your camera, the shutter speed, and the ISO value. The exposure is then created by the value chosen on the camera. This is exposure compensation. The exposure compensation allows a photographer to override the exposure settings on the camera. The camera pre-sets its light meter, which darkens or lightens before taking a photo. Exposure compensation gives the photographer more control over the entire image. 

Related: What is Aperture

Shutter Speed in Long Exposure Photography

Shutter speed in long exposure photography is a crucial ingredient. To make a memorable image, you need a slow shutter speed. Around half a second for fast-moving subjects is ideal, but you will want a shutter speed between 10 and 30 seconds. There will be times that certain subjects you are shooting you might want the speed to be longer. 

Long Exposure Photography

You want to slow shutter speed for a longer exposure. If your shooting water, the longer the exposure, the mistier the water appears. Now use your camera’s self-timer or a cable release to take the photo and make sure there isn’t any blurring. You want to make sure that the camera is stable. We will talk about this a little further, but the camera’s slightest movement can cause a blurred image. The idea is to smear or blur some aspects of the subject. 

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.

Related: What is Shutter Speed

ISO in Long Exposure Photography

What is an ISO? In simple terms, the ISO is a setting on the camera that darkens or brightens the photo. Depending on the subject you are shooting, it will depend on how you want to set the ISO. 

To start, you will want to use a cable release to make sure the camera does not shake. Set the camera to B “Bulb” shooting mode and set your aperture between f/2 and f/4 for the best results. Press down on the remote to open the shutter. You should keep your ISO at 100 to control the digital noise low and prevent the image from showing a lot of grain.

Related: What is ISO

Best Gear for Long Exposure Photography

Camera settings and good a subject are a large part of long exposure photography. You can’t make memorable images happen, though, without the right equipment. Every profession comes with some expense. Photography isn’t any different. You don’t have to break the bank. A little bit of research will go a long way in choosing the best equipment for you and your long exposure images. Below are some suggestions on equipment to help with your search.

Tripods

One item that almost every photographer has in their equipment bank is a tripod. This is a universal item, and you can take them to most places. Tripods provide stability when you’re out in the field shooting. 

When taking long exposure photos, your camera will be set to a slow shutter speed. This creates a motion blur in the scene. It is imperative to avoid camera vibrations of any kind or end up with shaky images.

My advice is to look for a small but sturdy tripod to avoid unwanted blur due to possible wind. Or even a shaky hand. Don’t underestimate how wind can affect your final image if you have a less than stable tripod. It doesn’t need to be significant; even a small travel tripod can be enough (with some limitations).

Good tripods for new starters:

K&F Concept
  • Alluminium alloy
  • Max heights: 62″
  • Weighs: 2.99 lbs
  • 360 panorama ball head
Sale
Neewer 2-in-1
  • 2-in-1 Tripod monopod
  • 4 section column leg
  • With bubble level for extreme accuracy
  • Solid and durable

Related: Best Tripod for Landscape Photography

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 you can use for this purpose. A two-second self-timer would be enough to avoid accidental vibration. Believe it or not, your finger pressing the shutter on your camera can cause vibration. A shutter release cable is a handy tool to have. 

Aodelan C6 Shutter Release Cable
  • For long exposure shooting
  • Inexpensive and highly rated
  • Check compatibility with your camera on Amazon

ND Filters

A Neutral Density filter (ND filter) reduces the amount of light hitting the camera sensor. You can achieve long exposure without filters, only in some situations. If you want to master the long exposure technique, ND filters are another hot item to help make that happen. 

An ND filter is a dark filter that attaches to your lens and reduces the amount of light reaching the shutter. If you are shooting in the dark, you don’t need an ND filter. The shutter speed in the dark is already slow. ND filters also vary in the degree of darkness.

The level of darkness is either a 2 stop, 6 stop, or 10 stop. These levels relate to the filter’s degree of darkness and how much you will need to extend the exposure time. The most common filters used are 6 or 10 stop. These have optimal shutter speed extension. 

When mounting an ND filter, remember to lock your camera before placing the filter on the lens. One idea is to focus on using auto mode. Switch to manual mode to lock the focus, not to change when you press the shutter release. It’s very important to remember to switch to manual focus before shooting with a filter. The manual focus mode gives you control and prevents the camera from autofocusing (AF). If the camera tries to autofocus, the filter is useless. The camera won’t be able to focus.

This can cost you essential lighting! So remember to switch to manual focus before mounting the filter. Take a couple of test shots to make sure the image is sharp before using a filter.

Let’s talk price. Top-of-the-line filters can be costly. I use a NISI System, which you can find on Amazon here. This is a professional system, and it’s excellent. You don’t have to have the best filter to create long exposure photos. One thing to point out is that a 1 or 2 stop filter will let in too much light. Be sure to take note of what you buy to make sure it’s going to work.

How to Take Long Exposure Photos?

Ready to test out the long exposure technique? The only way to master this is to jump in head first! We discussed what long exposure is, what affects exposure and what equipment is best. Now let’s walk through some specifics for the day of. 

Long Exposure Photography

#1: Choosing Your Camera Mode

Remember earlier this guide mentions which mode is best to set your camera at? Aperture Priority Mode! The scenery does affect the aperture, but the best option is to set this between f/7.1 and f/13. Your ISO you should keep at a low value such as 64 or 100. Take some test shots! You can use manual mode as well. The best option is to take a few photos using manual and aperture priority and see which mode is best. 

#2: The Right Light

Long exposure photography is a versatile genre of photography. For the most part, you can take photos throughout the day. Keep in mind that you will need to accommodate for shadows and highlights. Is there a time of day that does provide the best light to capture the best images?

  • Daylight Conditions: Early morning is the preferred daylight timeframe. It is easiest to see your subject, but it also provides some limited light to capture those bold images. You can use an ND filter or not. If using a filter, set your aperture to f/16. Your shutter speed is going to depend upon what your subject is. If you’re taking a photo of a river and want to blur the water, a 2-3 second exposure is perfect. If it is a bright morning and you are not using a filter, you will need to set your camera to the smallest aperture. This could limit a lot of your light, and the image could be too dark. You will have to adjust your camera settings based on whether you use an ND filter or don’t. 
  • Low Light Conditions: The best low light conditions are dusk or evening. The ambient light and sometimes cloudy conditions make some astounding images. The trick to low-light photos is to adjust your camera settings to accommodate for shadows. Evening long exposure photos can look blurry because of the shadows. You will need to open the aperture and increase the ISO. Be sure your camera stable. Any unwanted shakiness will cause a noticeable blurry image. Consider shooting towards your light source. Low-light photos are some of the most dynamic images produced. Rolling clouds, bursting ocean waves, softened by long exposure are fantastic!

#3: Planning

If you are a planner, this section is for you. There will be times that you can capture some fantastic images by being in the right place and at the right time. I encourage you to plan so that you can make the most of your day, the light, and your subject.

Scout Your Location:

Certain subjects such as waterfalls, the ocean, or star trails should be scouted beforehand. Remember to plan not only the location but also the time of the day. 

Wake up early! We discussed that lighting conditions are crucial and give the most exciting photos. Sunrise creates some of the most beautiful images. Shadows are longer, and contrasts are less harsh. 

Get to your location either before sunrise or sunset. Search for your desired spot at the site and make sure it’s open. You don’t want to get to your location on the day of and not get to the area you hoped. 

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

When you don’t know the scene, it will likely be hard to understand the best spot to position your camera. Positioning your tripod, composing, setting up your camera, and filter takes time.

Figure out where you need to park, notice the light changes, and choose your composition. One more thing, is this a popular spot for other photographers or tourists? You want to be sure to get ahead of the crowds if so.

What if You Can’t Scout the Location:

Sometimes life gets busy, and you can’t make it out to your desired location ahead of time. That’s okay! Use Google Maps to help you scout. You can also research satellite images of the area that will provide you with around-the-clock images. This is crucial to your planning if you can’t get out there before photo day. You are still able to see the differences in light, cloud patterns, shadows. The internet is at your fingertips.

Find Your Subject: 

As you now know, a perfect static object is not recommended for long exposure pictures. If there’s no motion in your scene, there won’t be any motion blur effect.

Long Exposure technique at Maroubra Mahon Pool. Sydney.

One of the reasons why I love shooting long-exposure photos is that I love nature. There are so many variables in nature that the long exposure technique is perfect to use. 

Keep in mind, though, that not everything in your composition should be in motion. Otherwise, all you will see is a very blurred image. You need static elements such as trees or standing people to be part of your scene. The contrast between moving and stationary objects will provoke the illusion of motion. Finding your ideal subject is like a scavenger hunt and part of the fun!

Check The Forecast:

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, and it will give it more depth and make it more dramatic.

Besides, clouds move.

Long Exposure Photography Tips. Cloud Forecast Map

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

Another thing to consider is to protect your camera from the elements. Here are a couple of suggestions: 

  • Use a rain cover-Your camera is not waterproof. Invest in a rain cover (even a cheap one) to protect from heavy rain. It is even helpful when shooting a waterfall. 
  • Use an umbrella-It might not be as easy to use, but it gets the job done at protecting your equipment. 
  • Changing lenses in the rain-This is a no-go. You can get dirt on the lens and rain in the sensor. This a recipe for disaster.

#4 Composition in Long Exposure Photography

Determine the main subject that you want in your image. Understanding that in long exposure photography, the entire image is your subject. This is why blurring and smearing certain elements is so helpful. Don’t turn away any opportunity that you see through your lens. 

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. Consider these 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.

#5 Long Exposure Photography Camera Settings

Once you have prepped and planned and are now onsite at your location, check your settings. Based on the light, shadows, time of day, are your camera settings accurate? This is an important step. It does help to take some test shots to make sure your camera is ready to go. 

#6 Take Your Photo

Are you ready to start taking long exposure photos? Consider everything we have discussed in this guide and get out there. 

Combining everything in this guide will help you build your skillset. You don’t have to be the most skilled at taking photos as long as you love doing it and you want to learn. 

Find your subject, scout your location, bring the right equipment, and set your camera. Try different angles, settings, and subjects; you will be surprised by what you see!

Here you go, well done!

Having a hard time deciding what to shoot? Here are some examples:

Long Exposure Photography Practical Examples

Let’s be sure you are ready to start taking long-exposure photos. There are so many different opportunities in the world around you to experiment with. Here are some examples: 

Long Exposure Photos in Daylight

The essential equipment needed:

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

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

Shooting in aperture priority, 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 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.

If you prefer not to use an ND filter during daylight, clouds are your friend. Shoot on a cloudy day to have more optimal conditions and better exposure.

Long Exposure Photos of Water and Waterfalls

The essential 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.

A general rule when shooting landscape photography, use the lowest ISO on your camera. Is it 64 or 100? Is it 200? Use it. Low ISO will avoid adding noise (grain) to your photographs. Also, choose an aperture value of f/8 to f/16. These values will give you sharper images. Try not to go any smaller than f/22. The smaller the aperture, the more visible the impurities on your lens and sensor there will be. 

Related article: Understanding ISO

Again this is a general rule, and you should try and use the best values for your lighting conditions. Shoot using a different aperture and see how long the exposure is to get smooth, creamy water as the 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 shooting a waterfall with even the smallest of breeze, the foliage could be blurry. If this is the case, bracket your image. This means taking two (or more) photos at different exposures and blend them in Photoshop.

Long Exposure Photography of the Night Sky (Star Trails)

Not the most effortless technique, but one of the most rewarding.

Long Esporure Photo start trails

The essential 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 of the night sky, with star trails, happens 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.

You need to abandon aperture priority mode for this photography style 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 more comprehensive. Use base ISO (64, 100, or 200 depending on your camera) to avoid digital noise.

My suggestion is to take several shots. Use the same exposure and blend them 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.

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)

The essential equipment needed:

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

Best time of the day: day-time

Long Esporure Photo of people

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 create 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

The essential 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. The suggested aperture is f/11 with a shutter speed of 3-second. Constantly adjust as needed.

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

Traffic Light Trails Photography

The essential 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 trail photography is another technique I like. 

To shoot car light trails, set your camera on a tripod and choose the base ISO. The aperture should range from f/11 to f/16 and a shutter speed of at least 30 seconds. Your camera should be able to capture traffic light trails. You can blend several images the same as you would do for the star trails. 

Related article: How to photograph car light trails.

Final Thoughts

Long exposure photography is of my most favorite techniques out there. There are so much depth and vision that goes into creating an image using this type of photography. Remember, you don’t have to be a pro. One thing to consider, though, is to get familiar with your tools. This means everything. Your camera, your subjects, your equipment. Anything and everything that is going to help you be a better photographer, take it in. 

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

As a bonus step, I recommend learning how to edit your photo. Want to learn post-processing in Lightroom? Read my article here How to edit photos in Lightroom.

Thank you for taking the time to read my guide. I hope this helps you in your next venture of photography and beyond. Comment below and share this with your friends!

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