Long exposures enable us to see otherwise impossible-to-see worlds with our own eyes. Our eyes see the world around us by recording moments in time but we cannot see movement as a fixed image. Perhaps this is why long exposure photography sparks our imagination and why it is so appealing to us.
Keeping your shutter open for an extended period of time can be empowering. Think of cascading waterfalls caught frozen in time, or stars leaving light trails across a midnight sky.
Types of Photography that work with Long Exposures
In this post, I’ve listed examples of environments that work well for long exposure photography. Don’t limit yourself to these examples though. Take creative risks and seek out settings that crave long exposures.
Magically, long-exposure photography gives us the power to preserve the motion of water in a way we can never see with our own eyes. Water turns into a silky smooth substance that could easily be part of a dream.
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Here’s a shot of Triberger Falls in the Black Forest. If you haven’t been to Germany before, you’ve gotta go! I can’t wait to get back there next summer! The photo was taken at 18mm, ISO 100, F22 and handheld for 0.5 seconds. 🇩🇪 • • • • • #blackforestgermany #triberger #tribergerwasserfälle #visitgermany #visitgermanyofficial #germanlandscape #germanylanscape #travelgermany #longexposurewaterfall #longexposurewater #handheldlongexposure #doesntlookreal #blackforestgraphers #exploregermany
The darkness of night is ideal for long exposure photography. The only way to capture an image is to keep the camera’s shutter open to let enough light touch the camera’s sensor to form an image.
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PHOTO BY @cr.a.ig 😍 (visit his gallery) – – 📌 Tag: @acquarium_of_stars Use: #acquariumofstars – – #acquariumofstars #igpodium #igworldclub_astrophotography #longexpo_addiction #hubs_united #nightphotography #globalcapture #astrophotography #nightimages #longexpo #longexpohunter #nightscape #nightpixels #longexposure #amazing_longexpo #nightphotography #nightphotos #natgeospace #universetoday #nightshooterz #nightshooters #astrophoto #astro_photography_ #amazingearth #amazingphotohunter #night_excl #fantasticuniverse #nightpics #ig_podium
Once thought of as only something that people who are having fun with laser pointers by writing their names in front of a camera would do, it is a serious technique used by many photographers. Light painting, when used in combination with long exposure settings, can produce creative imagery.
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Big up @m.visuals & @cyrusnezami for last nights @uk.shooters meet in Bristol! Here’s one of my favourite shots with @_smurfious flicking fire over an incredibly still @rhysrysia (this was a 10 second exposure!) _ #uk_shooters #bokeh_shotz #urbanandstreet #moodygram #shotzdelight #streets_vision #depthobsessed #lazyshutters #lensbible #ig_photostars #amazing_longexpo #tonekillers #urbanaisle #urbanrising #fatalframes #all2epic #cityphotography #nightshooters #urbanromantix #streetactivity #visualambassadors #toplondonphoto #fstoppers #hq_globe #gramslayers #thisislondon #citykillerz #serialshooters #milliondollarvisuals #street_focus_on
Similar to water, clouds appear as silky and wispy. They can be captured in a way that is not possible for our eyes to without using long exposure photography.
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Long Exposure Shots Feature 📷 Long Exposure Artist: @sentinelphotography #le_sentinelphotography ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬ Please check out the other great shots on this photographer’s account. ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬ 😎 Curators: @tassiegrammer @lake_of_tranquility ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬ 👉 Check out @australia_shotz ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬ Please follow lake_of_tranquility and @tassiegrammer and tag #longexposure_shots for your chance to be featured 👈 #longexposure #longexpo #lazyshutters #slowshutter #longexposureoftheday #longexposures #longexposurephotography #earthfocus #jaw_dropping_shots #earthofficial #ig_shotz_le #earth_shotz #amazing_longexpo #longexpo_addiction #eclectic_shotz #beautifuldestinations #thebest_capture #magicpict #colors_of_day #superhubs #special_shots #igworldglobal #theworldshotz #transfer_visions #ig_color #awesome_photographers #picoftheday #master_gallery
Long Exposure Photography Tips
Long-exposure photography can be frustrating because what you see with your eyes isn’t necessarily what your camera ends up capturing. This type of photography doesn’t need to be a complicated experience. By following a few basic principles you will be able to shoot your own stunning photographs.
1. Equipment for Long Exposure Photography
A DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual settings, including bulb mode, which will allow you to use shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds. It’s important that your camera gives you full manual control over your ISO, shutter speed and aperture settings. Your camera should also have a bulb setting,
Although it is possible to use any lens for long exposure photography, most photographers prefer to use wide angle lenses. My favourite lens for long exposure photography is the Sony FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM Lens. Keep in mind that will need a lens that allows you to an ND filter to the end of it.
Neutral Density (ND) Filters:
ND filters are attached to the end of your lens and are designed to limit that amount of light that enters your camera. Just be aware that lenses come in different diameters. Make sure that the filter will fit the diameter of the lens that you are using.
Without the filter, you wouldn’t be able to select long shutter speeds. Even on the brightest of days, your images won’t be over-exposed by using an ND filter. Think of them as sunglasses that allow you to see better when the sun’s too intense.
These filters are characterized as ‘neutral’ because they do not have any effect on the colour of your images. Be careful, however, that low-quality ND filters sometimes do.
The exact length of your exposure will depend on the lighting conditions and the strength of the ND filter you use. ND filters are typically measured by the stops of light they are able to block out and are usually available in increments of 3, 6, 10, or 16-stops.
Popular brands of ND filters include Nisi, Lee Filters, and Formatt-Hitech. ND filters come in either a circular format, which are screwed onto the front of your lens or a rectangular format, which requires the use of an additional filter holder to mount them to your lens.
Without a tripod, long exposure photography is not possible as it is not humanly possible to hold a camera completely stead, even for a few seconds. If you are in a windy location, you may want to bring some bags of sand or dried rice to weight down the tripod. There is nothing worse than going out for the day and later discovering that none of them are in focus because your tripod was swaying in the breeze. If you’re using a remote shutter release then remember to connect it to your camera.
Remote Shutter Release
A remote shutter release (also known as an intervalometer or interval timer) allows you to take your shot without touching the camera and causing camera shake. Without one, you would have to physically stand above the camera and hold your finger in place for the required time. The shutter release is used when the camera is in bulb mode and controls the exposure time. Before buying one, check to see if your camera already has a built-in intervalometers.
You will most likely need a remote shutter release cable so that you can lock the shutter open for a given period of time (it’s a good idea to attach the remote release to the tripod using Velcro during the exposure, again to stop it from catching the wind and swinging around).
Unsure of which shutter release to use? Here is a list that I’ve compiled:
Canon Shutter Releases:
- Canon BR-E1 Wireless
- Canon RC-6 Wireless
- Neewer LCD Timer Shutter Release Wired
- Vello Wireless ShutterBoss Timer Remote-Canon 3-Pin Connection
Nikon Shutter Releases:
Sony Shutter Releases:
2. The Best Places to Shoot Long Exposure Photography
In long exposure photography, location is everything. Although most long exposure images I’ve seen is landscape photography, they have the added unique effects that only long exposure photography can add, such as star trails, cloud swirls or milky waterfalls. However, don’t limit yourself to these settings. Take some creative risks and explore different environments.
3. Install Long Exposure Calculator Smartphone App
When you don’t want to waste time in a location calculating what your exposure length should be with a 10-stop ND filter, use a “Long Exposure Calculator” app on your smartphone instead.
Here are a couple of popular suggestions for IOS and Android users.
Long Exposure Calculator – IOS
Exposure Calculator – Android
Now that you know how ND filters work, you need to learn how to calculate exposures when using them.
So how does f-stop reduction affect exposure? If you set your camera aperture to f/1.8 and you put an ND2 filter (which has an f-stop reduction of 1) on the lens, it would effectively become f/2.8—precisely one stop lower. The same happens with the shutter speed: if it’s originally set to 1/15 secs., re-adjust it to 1/8 secs. (also one stop lower) once the filter is on.
To help calculate exposure times, you can use apps such as the ND Filter Calculator and ND Filter Timer. They show the normal settings as well as the adjustments you need to make when a filter is attached to the lens.
ND filters range from ND2 to ND100000, and they all vary in optical density—or the amount of light they allow to pass. Each filter number corresponds to a certain number of f-stop reduction as shown below:
4. Use clouds to add dimension to photos
I’ve often been asked about the best sky – clear and blue or cloudy – for photography. In long exposure photography, clouds make the scene much more interesting and they can be used to capture movement creatively. They give images a timeless presence and add drama to any scene. To enhance this effect, wait until the sun is low enough on the horizon to add colour and contrast to the sky.
Long exposure photos of large crowds, such as on a busy street, can result in all sorts of wonderful and mesmerizing looks. I took the photo below behind Notre Dame in Paris. The people appear ghostly and it gives me a sense of the passage of time from many years ago. This technique, when using an even longer exposure, can be used to remove people from scenes altogether.
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The Square Jean XXIII is a tranquil park and garden in Paris that has beautiful well kept flowerbeds and some unusual quirky features like cone shaped yew trees and an overturned flowerpot located on the south side of the Notre dame Cathedral. #paris #photooftheday #travel #travelblogger #travelingram #influencer
6. Track the Sun’s Position
The position of the sun and the path it will follow are also important when planning a long exposure photography shot. It is a good rule to completely exclude the sun from the composition as much as possible.
The first reason is that with long exposure photography the sun will no longer be circular but you will start to see its movement during the exposure.
And secondly, it will create a completely overexposed area, impossible to correct in post-production.
To preview the sun path you can use a lot of mobile apps. I use Photopills to plan my shots and you can find it on the Apple Store and Google Play Store.
7. Location Scout Beforehand
As I said before, long exposure photography looks very different from the reality perceived by our eye. This is why it’s necessary to have a clear idea of what you will find on the field.
Location scouting also means getting a preview of your composition. You’ll have a better idea of the possible direction of the clouds and sunlight, the power of the sea and tide, or how the light will reach the mountains.
Use Google Maps and street view to go for a “virtual walk” around your location. Doing so helps you to familiarize yourself with the area and scout out potential compositions for your images. Essentially, you should know precisely where you are going, how you will get there, where you will park, how much daylight you will have and in which direction you need to walk to ensure you take full advantage of your time and the conditions. Using Google Maps and Street View can help you with composition ideas before leaving your house.
8. Shoot RAW
Set your camera to shoot in RAW format. Long exposures tend to have a blue or magenta colour cast caused by the ND filters. Some brands of filter are known to leave more of a colour cast on the final image. This is a great reason (one of many) to shoot in RAW, as the colour casts can often be corrected during post-processing. Sometimes, for particularly long exposures, it may just irreversibly compromise an image and, in those instances, a black and white conversion is often the best way to overcome it. Shooting in RAW allows you to easily correct the white balance in post-processing.
9. Lower Your ISO
Dial Down Your ISO. Always use the lowest ISO your camera is capable of. For most cameras, this will be ISO 100. If you increase ISO you will start to introduce noise into your images.
Now that you decided the composition and you set the focus point, it’s time to move on to the technical aspects of photography.
We start from the ISO. You are taking landscape pictures with a tripod and the camera is firmly on it. So set the ISO as low as your camera allows.
Forget the so-called “extended” downwards and upwards values. These are only an electronic change to the sensor’s native sensitivity values.
10. Choose an Aperture Between f/8 and f/14
When shooting long exposures your aperture should be between f/8 and f/14, as this will give you the sharpest images. It’s easy to think that you should use something like f/22, but this will not give you the sharpest results. You can also play around with your aperture from shot to shot if you feel you need more or less light.
11. Set the Exposure Using Filters
Without a Filter
Once you’ve set your focus point, it’s time to move on to exposure.
Start making some test shots, see the exposure you like best. Keep in mind the mood you want to give to the image.
The idea is to have a good and balanced histogram. Make sure it’s not too shifted to the highlights and not too far to the left, where there are blacks.
At this stage, do not check the exposure only with the image on the camera screen. Learn to read your histogram.
There is no perfect histogram or one that is always correct. But there is a clear wrong histogram: too much shifted to the left (blacks) or too far to the right (the highlights).
With a Filter
It is now time to add your ND filter. Be careful though. If you use a very dark filter (for example a 10 stop) you will not see anything through the viewfinder or the live view.
That’s why it’s important that you set the focus and exposure before using an ND filter.
At this point, recalculate the correct exposure for the ND filter you added to match the one without it.
For example, if a correctly exposed photo without a filter was f/8, 1/50 and ISO 100, and then you added a 6 stop filter, you need to remove 6 stops of light from that exposure. For example, the new photo could be shot at f/11, 0.6 seconds, ISO 100.
You can do this work with smartphone apps, or with a table that you can find on the website of your ND filter manufacturer.
Blocking out light with Neutral Density (ND) Filters
To capture those ethereal tones and silky motions in your images, you need to use a slow shutter speed. The trouble with using a slow shutter speed during the day is that it lets in a lot of light. So much light in fact, that it will inevitably overexpose your image.
12. Cover the Viewfinder
Light leaks normally don’t occur during regular exposures but when using a slow shutter speed, it’s a problem that most encounter regardless of the camera’s quality.
There’s more time for even a small leak to create a strong artifact in the image when the shutter is open for a longer period of time. A normal exposure typically only lasts for a fraction of a second, which isn’t enough time for the leak to affect the image.
Exactly when light leaks become visible depends on the scenario but I’ve made it a habit to always cover the viewfinder when placing the camera on a tripod. That means I’m using Live View to compose my images. Another option is to compose the image through the viewfinder and cover it up before taking the shot.
It’s advisable to cover the viewfinder even when shooting at just a few seconds but at the very least, cover it for exposures of 30 seconds or more to avoid interference.
Keep in mind that having a light source (such as street lights) behind you will result in more visible light leaks.
How to Cover the Viewfinder
Some cameras come with a built-in cover made for this exact purpose but if yours doesn’t, here are a few common workarounds:
Use Gaffer Tape (the best and most common choice)
Cover the viewfinder with a microfiber cloth
Place your thumb in front of it (not recommended for longer exposures)
Use a piece of cardboard
Purchase a custom viewfinder cap
13. Act Fast – Scenes Change Quickly
Be aware that the perfect conditions to take the shot could last only a few moments. The sunrise pastel colours, the fire sunset on the tops of the mountains, the wind that speeds up clouds – they can be gone in a second.
If your exposure time is one or two minutes (or more), you only have one shot available to set them in your photo.
You must also be able to change all the settings in seconds if the weather conditions change. And be able to change the intensity of filters to accommodate for new light conditions.
14. Review and Rework
Study each of your images and see if you need to increase or decrease the exposure time, or maybe change the ND filter. You can also make your image lighter or darker by adjusting your aperture. If you use f/14, for example, and the image is too dark, you can try changing it to f/10 and trying again. Play around with your settings after each shot until you find the perfect balance.
You should also adjust your settings depending on how much movement you want to capture. If, for example, you want to capture flowing water then a 10 stop ND filter in the middle of the day may give you a two to three seconds. The key is to keep experimenting.
The very nature of creating long exposure photographs is to slow down. I have become a better and more reflective photographer because of this type of photography. It has encouraged me to step away from the rapid-fire approach and to have fun creating images you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to see.
If you have any additional tips or issues that I haven’t mentioned here, please add them in the comments.