Long exposure photography is an incredible in-camera effect that truly adds a magical look to any picture. Seen as a common staple in landscape photography, long exposures are used to stretch out time and create motion blur in moving parts of a photo. With the help of a slow shutter speed, you can smooth a choppy lake, make waterfalls look like silk, or create clouds that streak across the sky. This fun in-camera effect is an incredible way to level up your photography and have fun doing it!
In this article, I’ll share how you can get started with long exposure photography. I’m a firm believer that you don’t need fancy or expensive gear to make this effect happen. With the tips and tools outlined in this guide, you’ll be able to capture beautiful long exposure photos like a pro.
Why Should You Utilize Long Exposure Photography
Long exposures are an easy way to add another level of interest to your photo. Since a long exposure is captured over a period of time, the final image looks unlike anything your eyes could see naturally.
By utilizing long exposures in your photography, you can really make a scene come to life like never before. It’s a great way to make a beautiful sunset look even better or a gloomy day to look more dramatic. There are so many ways long exposures can make an impact on your photography.
Besides the technical reasons behind why long exposures are just plain awesome, they’re also a ton of fun to capture. You’ll never get tired of shooting long exposures once you get the hang of them using the tips covered in this guide.
When To Use Long Exposures In Photography
Long exposures are meant to capture any type of movement in your photo. If your scene was entirely still, then it becomes irrelevant whether or not you capture a long exposure image. If nothing’s moving, it’s going to look the same whether you use a 30″ exposure or a 1/4000 exposure.
Try to think of long exposure photography as a ‘creative blur’ to the moving parts of your photo. Whether that be waves crashing into shore, car headlights driving down the road, waterfalls, ferris wheels, clouds you name it. If it moves, it’s fair game for long exposure photography! Utilizing this motion blur can make relatively uninteresting subjects look more interesting.
You don’t want to take a long exposure image if you want to retain details of any moving objects. For example, if you took a long exposure of a person running, you’d get nothing but a blurry streak across your photo. That’s likely not the look you were trying to go for if you meant to capture a cool action shot.
How Long Exposure Photography Works
Long exposures are created with a slow shutter speed. When you use a slow shutter speed, your shutter stays open for a more extended period of time, allowing light to constantly expose on the sensor. Not only does this make for a brighter photo, but it also causes any moving objects to blur between their two positions during the exposure. The result is a blurry streak in your photo.
Since there is more time for the light to expose on your sensor, your photo will become increasingly bright. I’ll be sharing ways to mitigate this in the section below!
When To Capture Long Exposures
Capturing long exposure images isn’t as easy as setting your shutter speed to 20″ and pressing the capture button. Unlike other styles of photography, long exposures take a little more planning to get right.
The first thing you need to consider is light. How bright is it around you, and will it get darker? To capture long exposures without any filters, you have to utilize darkness to your advantage. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to capture a long exposure in the sun of high noon. However, wait until just after sunset, and it’ll be dark enough to use a slow shutter speed without any issues!
Another great option is to shoot during cloudy days. During a cloudy day, the sunlight is heavily muted and casts an even dull light across a scene. You can use this lack of light to your advantage and find areas to capture long exposures of. Since the light remains dull throughout the day, you can capture long exposures at just about any time. I have an in-depth video guide on how to capture long exposures without filters that you can watch here.
If you really want to capture long exposures in the middle of golden hour or under the afternoon sun, you’re going to need a neutral density filter. Neutral density filters, also known as ND filters, are like sunglasses for your lens. They darken your photo so that you can slow down your shutter speed even in the middle of the day.
ND filters come in a variety of styles and densities, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of today’s article. If you want to learn more about ND filters, click here. Otherwise, let’s start learning about capturing long exposure photographs with the gear you already own!
Gear For Long Exposure Photography
Tripods are a must for any photographer wanting to capture long exposures. Unfortunately, we mortal humans can’t hold a camera perfectly still with a slow shutter speed. If there’s any movement of your camera during a long exposure, your entire photo will appear shaky and blurred. By using a tripod, you can ensure your camera stays completely still for the duration of the exposure.
2. Camera With Adjustable Shutter Speed
You must be able to adjust the shutter speed on your camera. If you cannot adjust your shutter speed, you won’t be able to choose a slow shutter for your long exposure.
3. Shutter Release Cable (optional)
A shutter release cable allows you to capture a photo without needing to touch the body of your camera. This helps to reduce any camera shake and allows you to shoot exposures longer than 30 seconds using the ‘Bub’ mode. This is a handy tool to have but are not necessary.
4. ND Filters (Optional)
As I mentioned earlier, you don’t need a filter to capture long exposures if you’re smart about where and when you take photos. If you don’t want to be limited by light, an ND filter will be a valuable tool for your long exposure photography.
The Step-By-Step Process To Capture Long Exposures
Step 1: Plan Your Location Or Arrive Early
With long exposure photography, you can’t just show up and expect the perfect shot. If you want to capture the best light during golden hour, then you’re only going to have a few minutes to set up and get your shot. Since each photo you take can take 30″ or longer to complete, you must know exactly what you want ahead of time. This will really speed up the process and make sure you don’t miss the perfect moment.
I like to arrive early and walk around to scope any compositions I think could look good for a long exposure. If the scene is light dependant, I’ll pick my favorite composition, set up, and wait for the perfect moment to unfold!
Step 2: Use Shutter Priority Mode Or Manual Mode
Depending on your level of comfort with your camera settings, put your camera into either shutter priority (Tv) or manual mode.
Aperture priority is best for more beginner photographers who aren’t as comfortable changing additional settings like aperture and ISO. In aperture priority mode, you can set a slow camera shutter like 1″ or longer, and your camera will automatically choose any additional settings for you.
In manual mode, you’re in charge of all related camera settings, including your shutter speed. It can be a little slower to use for beginners and more overwhelming. Manual mode takes practice to get used to, but the creative advantages it has are more than worthwhile! Be sure to download my free Photography Essential Ebook to start learning about how to use manual mode in photography!
Step 3: Set up Your Tripod
Once you’ve found a shot you like, take the time to set up your tripod and make sure it’s level and on firm ground. The last thing you want to deal with is a wobbly tripod or crooked photo, just because you were in a rush and didn’t set up your tripod correctly.
Step 4: Set A Slow Shutter Speed
The best shutter speed is going to depend on the subject. With waterfalls, for example, you don’t typically need a super slow shutter to capture motion blur. Since the water is moving so quickly, it doesn’t take long for the water to streak into that silky look we all love. In this case, a 1″ shutter could work great!
If you’re wanting to capture the blur of clouds moving across the sky, you’ll likely need to use a very slow shutter speed like 30″ or longer. Unless it’s an exceptionally windy day, clouds tend to move very slowly. The longer your exposure, the more cloud streak you’ll be able to capture.
Ultimately the shutter speed you choose will depend on how fast your subject is moving. If it’s moving quickly like a waterfall or a car speeding down the highway, you won’t need as slow of a shutter to capture the movement. If the motion is more subtle like that of clouds or stars, then you’ll need to opt for slower shutter speed.
Step 5: Set Your Focus
With long exposure photography, I believe it’s always best to use manual focusing. The last thing you want is to have your autofocus shift right before you take a photo and your left waiting for the exposure to finish. By shooting with manual focus, you can take the time to correctly set your focus and rest assured nothings going to change.
I recommend using live view and magnifying your preview to get accurate focusing. This way, you can see the fine details and make sure they’re perfectly sharp.
Step 6: Set A Shutter Delay
Before you take a photo, make sure to set a shutter delay. Most cameras have a two-second shutter delay feature that allows you to press the capture button, then start the actual exposure 2 seconds later. This is ideal for long exposure photography since the small movement of your finger pressing the capture button can cause motion blur in your photo. You can find this setting under your camera’s drive mode.
This is a totally free workaround to using a shutter release cable!
Step 7: Capture Your Photo
Now everything is set up and ready to go. All that’s left is to hit the capture button! Once the exposure starts, be careful not to bump your camera or move the tripod. Your camera must stay perfectly still for the best result!
After a few exposures, try experimenting with your settings and camera position to see how it could improve your composition! It’s a ton of fun to find new shots and eagerly wait to see how the next long exposure turns out.
Long exposure photography does take a little bit of practice to get right. After a few days, you’ll start to build a mini workflow with your long exposure images and see how much more efficient you’ve become.
Long exposure photography is fun for all ranges of ability levels. It’s an easy in-camera effect to wow your audience and makes a location feel larger than life. It’s genuinely the perfect effect for landscape photography.
Once you’ve gotten into the swing of how to take long exposure photos, challenge yourself to find new areas to practice the effect. Whether it’s during a big trip abroad or exploring a new waterfall close to home, there are endless opportunities for you to apply long exposures in your photography.
I definitely suggest trying to experiment with different exposure times to see how the results change. For example, not all waterfalls should be shot using the same shutter speed, and the one you choose will drastically change the mood of your photo.
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What’s your favorite thing about photography with a slow shutter? Let me know in the comments!