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What Is Long Exposure Photography (And How to Get Started!)

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Have you ever seen landscape images where the water looks soft, silky and smooth? Or perhaps an image showing light trails through a city scene?

Then you’ve seen long exposure photography. It’s easy to create and doesn’t need heavy manipulation. In this article, we’ll show you how to do it yourself.

A waterfall with silky smooth flowing water over mossy rocks
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What Is Long Exposure Photography?

Long exposure is great for when we want to show motion blur. Any moving element is obscured when using a longer exposure or shutter speed.

There are many ways we can use this technique to achieve different results. Not only will it turn water into a smooth surface, but it can also help remove people from a scene or situation.

There is no limit to where you can use a long exposure. Any genre of photography can incorporate a long exposure. Even time-lapses work well.

Other examples include steel wool photography, light painting, star trails, cityscapes, sports, and abstract photography.

I like to use long exposure in street photography as it shows the hustle and bustle of a scene. All this without blurring the environment.

Atmospheric monochrome street photography scene

How Does Shutter Speed Affect Long Exposure Photography

The shutter speed is fundamental to photography. To capture an image, our camera uses three things; ISO, aperture and shutter speed. ISO looks at the quality of the image, aperture affects the depth of field, and the shutter speed affects motion.

All three of these make up the exposure triangle. Longer exposure or shutter speed allows you don’t focus too much on light sources. More time means more light is able to enter the camera. This is especially helpful for nighttime long exposure images.

The shutter speed comes in fractions of seconds. Typically, you will be working from a range of about 1/125 – 1/500 for everyday photography. Here, 1/125 means the shutter is open for one 125th of a second.

If you divide one second into 125 equal parts, this shutter opening will equate to just one of those parts. One full second on your camera would look like this: 1″.

The range of shutter speed is usually 30″ at the slowest, all the way to 1/8000.

But how long is a long exposure? For a long exposure in photography, you typically use speeds longer than one second. There is no upper limit, but it becomes more complicated at slower speeds.

A close up of camera aperture

What Gear Do You Need

To create long exposure images, we will need some equipment. You can use any sort of camera, but a digital camera allows you to check your images before you move on to another location.

Tripod

A tripod is essential for long exposure photography. As I pointed out, anything below 1/60th of a second will create blurriness in your images. Long exposures tend to create photographs from exposures as long as 30 seconds. Some could even take hours.

Holding a camera for 30 seconds would produce an immense amount of camera shake. A tripod makes your life easier and ensures a sharp, clean image.

Tripods are inexpensive but get something sturdy that will survive a few bumps. We recommend the 3 Legged Thing Punks Corey Aluminum Tripod as it is lightweight and folds up small. Perfect for traipsing across the countryside or city. 

Night time silhouette of a photographer kneeling at his camera on a tripod with a brilliantly colored sky behind him

Shutter Release

A shutter release is a helpful piece of equipment. We talked about camera shake due to handholding the camera, but even pressing the shutter button can cause blurriness.

These releases come in two forms; one that connects to your camera via a cable, and the other via infrared. The wireless version is a little more expensive, but it means you don’t need to be next to your camera to operate it.

If you already own an intervalometer from capturing time-lapse photography, you can use it here as a simple release. The other option is to change your camera settings.

Setting the mirror to ‘lock-up’ before your shot will reduce the shake. Also, setting your camera on a two-second timer will help.

A Photoolex shutter release on a white background

ND Filters

The abundance of light during the day would make it impossible to set a correct exposure while capturing a long exposure. To counteract, we often place ND filters on our lens.

A neutral density (ND) filter is an invaluable piece of equipment, allowing you to capture longer than usual exposure time. They are much like sunglasses for our eyes – limiting the light that gets in the camera.

They come in different strengths, from slightly darkened pieces all the way to 10-stop filter beasts.

Their strength is usually indicated as stops. The amount of stops tells how much the filter is darkening or how much you can increase the shutter speed.

A 6 stop filter is stronger than a 2 stop, yet not as strong as a 10 stop filter. Each ‘stop’ of an ND filter reduces the amount of light entering the camera by a factor of 2.

The other type of indication is the proportion of light that gets through. For example, a 3 stop filter only lets 1/8th of the light pass.

  • 1 stop: ND2
  • 2 stops: ND4
  • 3 stops: ND8
  • 4 stops: ND16
  • 5 stops: ND32
  • 8 stops: ND256
  • 10 stops: ND1024

As you can see, a 10-stop filter is so strong that less than 1/1000th of light can make its way through. You need to have the shutter open for over 1000x longer. You can slow down a 1/1000th exposure to 1″ with it. Brutal, right?

A ND filter on a white background

Tips for Using Filters

  • A tripod is necessary for long exposures.
  • Block your viewfinder to ensure correct light metering and no light leakage. (This is only an issue in DSLRs.)
  • Use ‘bulb‘ mode on your camera as it will allow you to capture the scene for as long as you want. Using the shutter speed on a manual setting will give you a maximum of 30 seconds. Here, you will need a shutter release cable.
  • Make sure you choose the right conditions. If there are no moving elements in the scene, you don’t need to use a long exposure. Remember – the long exposure effects and obscures the moving elements.
  • Even using a low ISO can create noise from super long exposures. To remedy this, take the exact same picture, with the same settings, but with the lens cap on. This method will produce a black image, but will also pinpoint the hot pixels. Use this as a guide to eliminate them during post-processing. Some cameras can automatically do this if you turn on long exposure noise reduction.
  • Some ND filters leave a colour cast. This is even truer when dealing with filter ‘stacking’ or using welders glass as a cheap alternative. The majority of the colour can be corrected in post-processing, but sometimes, a black and white conversion is the only way to go.
  • Do not use a long exposure to cover up a bad composition. It will amplify the problems, and the time it will take you to try and fix them.

Magnificent overhead shot of a two roads with colored light trails bypassing a hill, fantastic purple skies and lightning striking above

How to Get Started With Long Exposure Photography

As we have covered the gear, ND filters, and tips, we can now get started. This technique will work in many different scenarios. And it’s almost the same for every other kind of photography.

Setting Up the Shot + Focusing

You should already know the importance of composition, framing, and perspective. Photographing long exposures is no different. Use rules such as the rule of thirds, leading lines or natural frames.

If you are looking to capture the sky and sea, don’t go for 50/50. What am I photographing? – this should be the main question. Long-exposure can enhance your image. It won’t turn a lousy composition into a good image.

First, set-up your camera on a tripod. Use a manual focus to ensure that the scene is sharp.

Make sure your camera settings are correct. Keep your ISO on 100, use a medium aperture to keep the scene in focus and change the shutter speed accordingly. Utilize the ‘bulb’ mode for exposures longer than 30″.

You need to be photographing in RAW. This allows more play in post-editing your image.

Using your ND filter to cut out light will work for photographing a scene, but it won’t help much with focusing the scene. What you see in your live view or viewfinder will be too dark.

Set your focus without the filter, and switch to manual focus to ensure you don’t change it.

Take a test shot and look it over by zooming into the image. This test shot will allow you to fix any errors before proceeding to capture a 30-minute exposure.

Magnificent overhead double exposure shot of a motorway with colored light trails

Taking the Shot

Now you’re ready to go. The only thing missing are the calculations for the long exposure.

How do you calculate long exposure? There are two ways of calculating the exposure time, and both will give you the same result. Learning the harder technique will help you understand how we get to the final exposure time.

There are tools that will help you in making your long exposure photography easier. For smartphones, there is an application called NDCalc. This will calculate the correct shutter speed based on the shutter speed you need without a filter. It will even give you a timer, letting you know when to end the exposure.

Ok, now it’s time for the harder route. If you use a 10-stop ND filter, there is 1,000 times less light reaching your camera sensor. This means that you need to lengthen your shutter speed by 1,000.

So, if you use a shutter speed of 1/30, it extends to 32 seconds. 1/125 will become 8 seconds.

Misty over rocks in the ocean captured through long-exposure

This is the most challenging aspect of this type of photography. After a while, you will be able to tell what exposure you need based on the light you can see.

Conclusion

To help make these tips a bit clearer, we have created this handy infographic. Use it to check what equipment you will need for your long exposure images:

A list of camera equipment and settings required for both day and night long exposure image

And there you have it. Get out there and start practising. Try, try and try again until it becomes perfect. Don’t forget to monitor your first exposure, and change the shutter speed according to the image.

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