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12 Tips for Long Exposure Landscape Photography

Last updated: March 13, 2024 - 10 min read
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Landscape photography can be so much more creative with long exposures. They add that extra wow factor to your landscape image. Here are 12 tips to help you take better long-exposure photography.

Stability And Portability
Manfrotto Befree Travel Tripod
Manfrotto Befree Travel Tripod
Capture stunning long exposure landscape photography with ease and stability using a compact and lightweight travel tripod, perfect for on-the-go inspiration.

12 Tips for Long-Exposure Landscape Photography

Incorporate these 12 tips into your landscape photography process. You’ll get better results!

1. Look for Overcast Weather to Add More Interest to Your Photos

When I scout for a new location, I search the internet, always keeping 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 waterfallsseas, and streams) and clouds in the sky.

But there may also be other possibilities. For example, a car’s lights moving on a winding mountain or hill road. Or the movement of stars in the sky.

One of the less-considered aspects of this kind of photography is the weather.

A sunset or sunrise with a cloudless sky can be beautiful to see live. It’s a unique experience. But it can turn into a boring image 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 find bad weather.

So get familiar with weather websites! Check out The Weather Channel or AccuWeather. 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.

A coastal seascape in Porto Venere, Italy
Two-minute-long exposure photography in Porto Venere, Italy. Without an incoming storm, I would not have been able to take this long exposure.

2. Track the Sun’s Position To Avoid Overexposed Areas

The position of the sun and the path it follows are also important when planning long exposures. It is a good rule to exclude the sun from the composition as much as possible.

The first reason is that with long exposures, the sun will no longer be circular. But you will start to see its movement during the exposure.

Plus, it will create an overexposed area that is nearly impossible to correct in post-production.

To preview the sun’s 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.

The sun path as seen in the Augmented Reality section of the mobile app PhotoPills.
The sun path as seen in the Augmented Reality section of the mobile app PhotoPills. Amazing feature.

3. Scout the Location Beforehand To Get a Preview of Your Composition

As I said before, long-exposure photography looks very different from the reality our eyes perceive. This is why it’s necessary to have a clear idea of what you will find on the field. You can double-check the sites in Google Maps if you can’t do it in person.

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.

Long-exposure photography of a coastal town and seascape in Italy.
I took this long exposure photograph after waiting two hours for the sun to set.

4. Focus a Third of the Way Into the Scene To Avoid Blurry Results

After deciding on your long-exposure composition, you should set your focus point. For a landscape shot, your lens will be set to an aperture value of f/10 or f/11.

Try not to go over f/16 or you might get diffraction problems. It will cause unsharp images.

Don’t use the aperture to make a shot last longer. But what if you think that your shutter speed is not slow enough? This is where ND filters help a lot.

You can even 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. You’re better off spending the time to be sure of your point of focus rather than regret it later.

There’s nothing worse than going home and having an exposed photo of one or two minutes that’s totally out of focus.

Photoshop interface using rule of thirds composition for long exposure landscapes
The focus point for this image is in the red circle, the left lower point of the rule of thirds grid.

5. Use a Tripod

A sturdy tripod is essential for successful long exposures. It will prevent camera shake and blurry pictures.

A tripod is an investment every photographer should make. They really open up a new world of exposure-setting options. Here is our article on the best tripods for landscape photography

A bridge over a coastal scene

6. Lower Your ISO to Avoid Digital Noise

Now that you have decided on the composition and set the focus point, it’s time to move on to the technical aspects.

We start with the ISO. You are taking landscape pictures with a tripod. So set the ISO as low as your camera allows.

Forget the so-called “extended” downwards and upwards values. These are only electronic changes to the sensor’s native sensitivity values.

Beautiful long exposure landscape with mountain and waterfall

7. Learn to Read the Histogram for Better Exposures

Once you’ve set your focus point and ISO, it’s time to move on to exposure.

Start making some test shots, and see the exposure you like best. Keep in mind the mood you want to give to the image.

The idea is to have a balanced histogram. Make sure it’s not shifted too far in either direction of the highlights or lowlights.

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 are clear signs for the wrong one, like if it is shifted too far to the left (blacks) or too far to the right (highlights).

Beautiful long exposure seascape

8. Use an ND Filter to Enhance Your Long-Exposure Photography

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 won’t 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 those exposure settings. 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.

Long-exposure photography setup with CPL, a 3 stop Medium GND filter and a 6 stop ND filter.
A classic setup with CPL, a 3-stop medium GND filter, and a 6-stop ND filter.

9. Experiment With Bulb Mode for Exciting Results

Take a test shot and check the histogram for the last time.

If you have calculated the new exposure time correctly, you can switch to Bulb mode (if necessary). And then shoot your final image.

Long-exposure photo of a coastal town and seascape in Manarola at sunset.
A two-minute exposure for this Manarola sunset

10. Act Fast Before a Scene Changes

Be aware that the perfect conditions to take the shot could last only a few moments. The sunrise pastel colors, the fire sunset, and the wind pushing the clouds can be gone in a second.

If your exposure time is one or two minutes, 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 new light conditions.

A long exposure seascape

11. Set Aside Enough Time To Make Sure You Get Your Shot

Landscape photography is a continuous game that tests your patience.

You have to find the chosen location and arrive there with plenty of time to spare. Then you have to find the right composition. And then you have to wait for the ideal conditions.

It might happen that your one chance to shoot won’t materialize. Then you have to go home empty-handed, waiting and planning the next trip.

A mountainous landscape surrounding a lake.
It took almost an hour for the cloud to pass quickly enough to give some movement to the image.

12. Use Post-Processing to Stack Your Images

Now that you know how to make a long-exposure landscape photo, you can learn how to create it without filters.

Yes, you can simulate a long exposure without using ND filters. But you’re still going to need a tripod.

All you need is a scene with an element that moves fast enough. For example, the clouds in the sky. Put the camera on the tripod and follow the same “rules” for the composition of your image.

When you are ready to shoot, you can create a series of shots that show the movement of your subject. You will need at least 20-30 images.

And now, go to Lightroom. Once you have imported the images into the catalog, edit one shot. Then synchronize 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 them 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. The 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.

The Matterhorn mountain on a cloudy day
The Matterhorn, 60 single frames combined for a 3-minute long exposure

Conclusion: Tips for Long-Exposure Landscape Photography

As Ansel Adams said, “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, thinking about creating something that will always remind me of that moment. So get out there with the above photography tips you’ve read. Have fun, experiment, make mistakes, and try again.

And don’t miss out on our Infinite Exposures course for perfect long-exposure shots!

Stability And Portability
Manfrotto Befree Travel Tripod
Manfrotto Befree Travel Tripod
Capture stunning long exposure landscape photography with ease and stability using a compact and lightweight travel tripod, perfect for on-the-go inspiration.