Landscape photography is beautiful on its own, but it can be so much more creative with long exposures. Immediately afterwards I discovered long exposure photography for landscapes. It was love at first sight.
When I scout for a new location, or I search the internet, I have always long exposure photography in mind.
You can do long exposure landscape photography almost anywhere on the globe. You need to know where and when to find an element that moves at an adequate speed.
The two main subjects are water (including waterfalls, seas, streams) and clouds in the sky.
But there may also be other possibilities. For example: car’s lights moving on a winding mountain or hill road, or the movement of stars in the sky. Also, taking an image of the Milky Way is a long exposure.
Here are 12 tips to help you take better long exposure photography. Almost all will apply to all the cases I have mentioned above.
Look for Overcast Weather
One of the less considered aspects of a successful long exposure photography is the weather.
A sunset or sunrise with a cloudless sky can be beautiful to see live. A unique experience. But it can immediately turn into a boring photo because there’s no movement in the sky.
Even worse is leaving home with a beautiful sky overhead and then arriving at the shooting location only to have it start raining as soon as you take out your camera.
So get familiar with weather websites! These will show you the movement of clouds and precipitation levels.
Then you can have a better idea of what you will find once in the field.
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.
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.
Focus a Third of the Way Into the Scene
Once you have decided your long exposure photography composition, the first thing that you should do is to set your focus point. For a landscape shot your lens will be set to an aperture value of f/10 or f/11. You should try not to go over f/16 to not stumble on diffraction problems.
Don’t use aperture to make a shot last longer. If you think that your shutter speed is not slow enough…well, this is where ND filters helps a lot.
You can try this simple trick to be sure of your focus point. You can try to focus on one of the two lower intersection points of the rule of thirds.
At this point, set the manual focus, so you do not have to change it anymore.
When it comes to long exposure photography composition, focusing is the most important part of your final photo. Better spend a lot of time to be sure of your point of focus than regret it later.
There’s nothing worse than going home and having an exposed photo for 1 or 2 minutes that’s totally out of focus.
Lower Your ISO
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.
Set the Exposure – Without Filters
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).
Set the Exposure – 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.
Experiment With Bulb Mode
Take a test shot and check the histogram for the last time.
If you have calculated the new exposure time in the right way you are ready to switch to Bulb mode (if necessary) and to shoot your final image.
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.
Landscape photography (especially long exposure) is a continuous game to test your patience.
You have to find the chosen location, and arrive there with plenty of time to spare. Then you can to find the right composition. And finally you have to wait for the ideal conditions.
It might happen that that one chance to shot won’t materialise. Then you have to go home empty handed, waiting and planning the next trip.
Fake Long Exposure Photography
Now that you know how to make a long exposure landscape photograph, you can learn how to create it without filters.
Yes, you can simulate a long exposure without using ND filters. You’re still going to need a tripod though.
Then all you need is a scene with an element that moves fast enough. Easily this element will be the clouds in the sky.
Put the camera on the tripod and follow the same “rules” for the composition of your image.
At this point when you are ready to shoot you can create a series of shots which show the movement of your element. You will need at least 20-30 images.
And now, go to Lightroom. Once you have imported the images into the catalogue, work your edits on one shot. Then synchronise all the edits of this shot with the others of the series.
Once done, select all the images in the series, right click, and open in Photoshop as layers. This process will take some time, so relax a little and let your computer work.
Once finished you will have a Photoshop document with all the images in a stack of layers. Next step is to select all the levels and then right-click “Create smart object”.
This is a single layer object that contains the information of all the previous layers. Once finished go to Image -> Smart Object -> Stack Mode -> Mean.
And watch the magic and your long exposure combine together.
There are no better words to describe the amount of emotions a landscape photographer can experience than Ansel Adams: “Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer, and often the supreme disappointment.”
For me the best thing is to be out there in nature and think about creating something that will always remind me of that moment.
So you should go out there with these long exposure photography tips you’ve read, have fun, experiment, make mistakes and try again.