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Essential guide to Long Exposure Photography

Have you ever looked at a photograph and wonder how they got the water to look so silky and smooth? Or how they got those light trails where cars should be? If you have, today is your lucky day. It is a technique known as long exposure. 

Long exposures can be used in many different photography niches (we have a great overview of 25 photography niches to learn). While the long exposure technique is mainly used by landscape photographers. Any photography can use this technique to enhance their photos or give them a unique and different spin. After all, are we not all trying to stand out against the crowd?

In this article, you will learn the essentials of long exposure photography. This will only get your feet wet and ready to dig in for more. Now grab your favorite drink and sit back and enjoy while you learn something new about photography.

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What is long exposure photography?

Now, what is long exposure photography?

As you would guess. Long exposure photography is where you take a photo for an extended period of time. It can be anywhere from a couple of seconds to minutes. Pretty much anything that you are not doing handheld can be considered long exposure. Anything with a shutter speed of 1/60th or 1/30th of a second or longer. 

Of course, with a shutter speed of 1/30th, you will not get the same results as you would if you were to use a 2-second shutter speed but we will dive into that a little more down below. To do long exposures, you need to understand how your shutter speed affects the image. 

Understanding Shutter Speed

To use the long exposure technique, you need a slow shutter speed or “long” shutter speed. A fast shutter speed will not give you the effect you are going for. When doing long exposures, it is important to know and understand how your shutter speed will affect the outcome of your photo. 

If you are unaware of the role that the shutter speed plays in your photos try this test out. 

  1. Set your camera up on a tripod. (Check out 10 reasons why you need a tripod) This will ensure that each photo has the same framing and the image will be steady.
  2. Have a person walk by the camera at a normal pace. If you don’t have a friend that can do this you can either set up a timer and do it yourself. Or you can head to the road and take shots of passing cars. 
  3. Now start off with a shutter speed of 1/2000th. Then go to 1/1000th, 1/800th, 1/500th, 1/250th, 1/100th, 1/60th, 1/30th, 1 second. 
1 second shutter speed

As you can see the longer the shutter speed the blurrier the object will get. By doing that little test you should now have a better understanding of how your shutter speed will affect the outcome of your photos. You wouldn’t want to be photographing your kids’ baseball game at 1/100th. You would want to use a fast shutter speed to “freeze” the action and get a nice crisp clean image. 

Long Exposure essential equipment

There are a few essentials that you need when you are taking long exposures. Each one you should already have but we will go over them just in case you don’t. The most important thing any photographer needs that is doing a long exposure is a

Camera with Manual Settings

You will need a camera that can shoot in manual. Now a lot of the new phones you can change the shutter speed but usually only up to 2 seconds. In some scenes, you will want a longer shutter speed than 2. Besides, a phone just cannot compare to a DSLR or Mirrorless camera. 

Any starter camera (Nikon, Canon, Sony), will work just fine when doing long exposures. The great thing about long exposures is you don’t usually need to crank up the ISO. You can leave it at 100 and not have to worry about if the shot is too dark. 

Tripod

When tackling the long exposure technique, you will need a tripod or at the very least a steady surface. Some photographers like to place the camera on a stack of books or a table. I like to use my tripod. Any tripod will do as long as it remains steady. 

So just be mindful if you are in an area where it is windy. In that case, make sure you have your tripod weighted down so it won’t tip over or shake. The slightest movement of the tripod can and usually WILL ruin your shot. 

Neutral Density Filter

A neutral density filter is a must when attempting a long exposure during the day time. If you don’t use one. There is a high chance your photo will be “blown” out since you let too much light in. You can work around not having an ND filter during the day by using a smaller aperture. 

Using a smaller aperture will let less light in and let you keep your shutter open for a little longer. However, unless you are in a really shaded area. It probably won’t help too much and you will not get the desired effect on your photo. 

There are many different ND filters out there. You can purchase ND2 Filters, ND10 filter, or Variable ND Filters that usually range from ND2 to ND400. I personally like using a Variable filter since I have a much bigger range to choose from. An ND2 filter is pretty useless unless you are shooting around blue hour (30 minutes before sunrise or after sunset). ND10 is more commonly used when photographing landscapes. 

Shutter Release

A shutter release is one of the most often overlooked photography accessories. Having a way to remotely trigger your shutter is unbelievably important when doing long exposure photography. Any little shake of the camera can and usually will ruin your image. 

Having a shutter release (like this one) will completely change the way you tackle your long exposures. Most of the newer cameras have an app where you can also trigger your camera remotely. Either way works. You just don’t want to have to press down the shutter button on your own.

How to take long exposure photos

Taking a long exposure photo is pretty easy. Just set the camera up on a tripod, frame your scene, and hit the shutter release button. Well, it’s almost that easy. There is a little more involved than that. 

Take a test shot first without the filter on to dial in your focus. Once the focus is set make sure you switch into manual focus mode. Otherwise, the autofocus will try and focus with the ND filter on and it will either fail or screw up the focus you already had set. Once you have the focus right and are in manual focus. Put on your ND filter, adjust your shutter speed and aperture and start snapping away. 

The important thing to remember is to adjust your settings as you take the photos. You might get lucky and have the right shutter speed, aperture, and ND filter on the first try. More likely than not you will need to adjust something to get the desired effect you are looking for.

blurry clouds, smooth water, long exposure, photography, landscape,
f8 60seconds

A good rule of thumb when it comes to long exposure landscapes is a shutter speed of 5 seconds is enough to blur water but not the clouds in the sky. Another good thing to keep in mind is a scene without moving elements (IE clouds, water, cars) will rarely benefit from a long exposure. So don’t waste your time.

long exposure night photography, star trails,

Night photography benefits greatly from long exposures. Light trails, starburst, and star trails can all be done because of a long exposure. You will get an amazing rush when you see that first starry sky photo you took. Or all the light trails on the highway or how the street lamps just burst with light. Night photography can bring out some amazing results. Without a long exposure that wouldn’t be possible. 

Steps:

  1. Set the camera up on a tripod
  2. Frame your shot
  3. Take a test shot and adjust your focus (Day time)… At night increase your ISO to a high number so you don’t have to wait so long for your test shot. Also, check your focus.
  4. Once your focus is dialed in, put on your ND filter, switch to manual focus, and adjust the shutter speed (Day Time) …. At night decrease your ISO and slow down your shutter speed and check your focus. Chances are you are already in manual focus when shooting at night.
  5. Take your shot and adjust.
  6. Keep snapping photos.
  7. Remember to enjoy yourself and have fun. Otherwise, what’s the point?

A few other things to note. You should be shooting your photos in RAW format. This way you have more control when you go and edit your images. Also, have a good tripod and a way to trigger your shutter remotely. As always, just remember to go have fun and let the light guide you. Below you will see different examples of long exposure photos. The possibilities are endless.


Do you have any other tips when it comes to taking long exposure images? Let us know in the comments below. If you are just starting out check out some of our other photography related post like 10 things every beginner needs, Common beginner mistakes and how to fix them, Photography Tips and so much more. Let the light be your guide.

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