Long exposure photography is a popular technique among landscape photographers and night shooters.
Have you ever seen a photo that looks so surreal, ethereal, milky or otherworldly? Chances are, it was captured using this method.
Unlike a person’s portrait, the images created using this technique are not something you usually see with your naked eye.
What is long exposure?
Long exposure is a technique in photography that utilizes the constant motion of an object to create incredible images.
It compresses time and compiles it into a single image. This gives us ethereal images that we do not normally see with our eyes.
This is done by using shutter speed way slower than we usually do for most of our images.
And unlike the panning technique, we do not move along with the subject to create motion blur.
But rather, we remain completely still and let the camera record all the movements in your frame.
The prerequisites of long exposure photography:
When I first learned this technique, I was too focused on creating the vision in my mind that I forgot to account for what was needed to pull it off correctly.
Let me share what I learned so we can tell if it actually makes sense to do a long shutter shot.
We want 2 elements to be present in our scene:
- Something perfectly still within our frame.
These elements will render sharp in our final images. Something that looks normal and familiar within our frame.
Without it, it makes it hard to guide our viewer’s eye. I mean, if it is all highlights, where do I look?
The beauty of long exposure is not with light streaks or milky waters. But rather, the composition that makes those light streaks and milky waters stand out.
The steel wool photography might be the exception of this. But even that has a pattern where we can settle our attention.
- Something moving within our frame.
It can be the clouds, moving waters or even lights from buildings or some other objects.
These moving elements will create patterns depending on how they move.
For example, light from some building that is moving in a circle will create a circular light pattern.
The slow-moving clouds will become more like a streak of long clouds instead of just clouds. Or: those moving waters will become creamy instead of clear waters.
Ideally, we want something moving at a significant speed. When you look at an object for 1-2 seconds, can you actually tell that it moved?
There are also some exceptions for this, like capturing star trails for example.
These kinds of photos take a long time to capture though.
If you like shooting in the golden hour, you may not have this kind of luxury. In most cases, you might lose the optimal lighting for your scene.
Anyway, if we have these 2 elements in our scene, it just a matter of applying some compositional techniques.
The rule of thirds, for example, is great for long exposure images with a horizon.
There are a couple of ideas on what you can do with this technique before the end of this post. Be sure to check it.
How to do long exposure shots:
Long exposure photography requires more than just our camera for best results.
In our post about shutter speed, we mentioned that using a very long exposure time will introduce lots of motion blurs.
At the same time, it will make even the slightest camera shake very visible. This, in turn, can cause smearing, ghosting or blurriness in your image.
If done incorrectly, this can certainly ruin your shot. Which is why a proper stabilization is a must when creating this kind of images.
It also requires a little bit of imagination, patience and prediction on our part for the best result.
With that said, here’s a step by step guide on how to do a long exposure shot, the right way.
Step 1: Study the weather on the day you will shoot.
A cloudless sunny day isn’t really good for long exposure photography. Ideally, we want overcast weather. Those moving clouds will create dramatic skies.
Download a weather app to get information about the weather on the day you will shoot.
Though they aren’t 100% accurate, it is better than going in blind and shooting in a massive rain or a cloudless sky.
Most of them will tell if there will be lots of clouds in a specific place and time.
Step 2: Study the sun’s movement.
Studying the sun’s movement will help us pick the best spot for our composition which is step 3.
Ideally, we want the sun illuminating the scene while keeping it out of the frame.
This will help us avoid overexposure on certain parts of our image.
There are apps like the Photographer’s Ephemeris, Sun Surveyor and Photopills that may help you track the sun’s movement easily.
Step 3: Find the best spot for your composition.
Once you can predict where the sun will be rising and setting, you can find the best spot for optimal light.
Finding the best spot will require us to scout the actual location hours or even days ahead of time.
So if you are shooting at 5 pm, try to get to the location 2 hours or more ahead of time. The bigger the location, the more time you should invest in finding the perfect spot.
Step 4: Setup your stabilization.
Now that you have the time and place where you want to take the shot, it’s time to set up those tripods.
This is essential as you can’t capture a nice long exposure shot without a good stabilization.
Also, set up your shutter release cable or remote shutter release if you have one.
If you don’t have one, just set your camera on a timer for about 5 seconds or higher.
If your camera model has a phone app, you can also use it to take a shot without touch the shutter button.
This will reduce the risk of getting blurry subjects while pressing down the shutter button.
Also, make sure to turn off any in-camera or lens stabilization.
These features assume that there will always be some sort of shake and might make unnecessary adjustments that can only ruin your image.
Step 5: Setting up the exposure settings:
Make sure you are shooting in RAW so you’ll have a lot of data from the file just in case you missed the exposure by a few stops.
I would recommend setting your exposure in manual mode. This way, we have control over the image noise and depth of field of our image.
There is no general rule on how slow you should set your shutter speed but I usually start around 1 second or slower.
Long exposure photography depends heavily on the moving subject in your frame and the looks you are aiming for.
For example, at only 3 seconds of exposure time, you can create a shot with creamy waters. As you go slower, the water will look creamier.
Most cameras only allow exposure time up to 30 seconds. If you need more than that, you’ll have to set your shutter speed to bulb mode.
As for the ISO setting, try to use the base ISO if it is possible based on the available light in your scene.
This way, we can reduce the amount of noise as much as possible.
But if need be, don’t be afraid to crank it up. You’ll have a better image to noise ratio if you got the proper exposure in-camera rather than adjusting it in post-production.
For aperture, we may be more concerned with the depth of field. Since we’re using very slow shutter speed, the brightness is not a problem in most cases.
F/8 or higher is recommended for landscapes. But if your image doesn’t require a very deep depth of field, might as well use the aperture as a way to keep your ISO low.
For me, I basically leave the shutter speed as needed and ISO at the lowest if I can help it.
If I find that I’m it lacking light, I just use a bigger aperture. Likewise, if I find I have too much light, I use a smaller aperture.
But I try not to use an aperture smaller than f/11 to avoid diffraction.
If you are worried that you won’t get enough depth of field to make the entire shot sharp, we got that covered at step 6.
Step 6: Set your focus
Setting up the focus will depend on the scene you are trying to capture.
If the nearest object in your frame has a significant distance from your camera, you will be fine just setting your autofocus on the nearest subject.
In manual focus mode, you can just set the focus point on one of the lower intersection of the rule of thirds. It helps if your camera has a focus peaking feature.
But, if the nearest object is just a few meters away, it would be best to apply the concept of hyperfocal distance.
The easiest way is to estimate the distance of the nearest object from the camera. Then double that distance and set your focus on whatever distance you come up with.
Step 7: Add your ND filter (if applicable)
When shooting in daylight, we could use ND filters to avoid overexposure.
It is recommended to set the proper exposure and focusing without the filters first.
Then based on the filter’s grade, we calculate how many stops we should tone down the exposure.
Let me give you an example:
Imagine we are using a 0.9 (3 stops) ND filter and the proper exposure without the filter is as follows:
Shutter Speed: 5 seconds
We just need to adjust the exposure 3 stops lower using either ISO, aperture or shutter speed.
Since we’re trying to capture a long exposure shot, we should focus our adjustment on ISO or aperture (with the priority of keeping ISO low).
We can either adjust the aperture to f/11 (that’s 3 stops down) or ISO to 200 (also 3 stops down).
Or a combination of both. Like aperture of f/5.6 and ISO 400 (also 3 stops down when combined).
Step 8: Test your shot
At this point, we got everything set up for the shot.
Now, we just need to refine our composition by doing a couple of test shots.
This is where you play with various shutter speed settings to refine the look of your image.
Like for light streaks for example. If you find that the streaks are shorter than what you would’ve like, slowing down your shutter speed will increase the length of the streaks.
When reviewing your image, check your histogram too.
If the graphs are too far out in the left or right, there’s a good chance that some important parts are over or underexposed.
Take note that it is okay to overexpose the light streaks since we do not need it to have details or texture anyway.
Step 9: Apply some post-processing.
Once you’re done with all the final adjustments, take the shot and take your image to photoshop or other image processing software.
If you followed all the steps, you should have a very usable image.
However, there is still a lot we can do to improve it.
Do some noise reduction, remove hot pixels and if necessary, do some image stacking to make your shots more interesting.
Even a slight adjustment in the exposure or white balance can improve long exposure images astronomically.
Long Exposure Photography Ideas:
Congratulations! You now know the steps to create amazing images with long exposure photography.
It can be challenging at first, especially since you do not see what your shots will end up with immediately, unlike any other types of shot.
To give you some inspiration, here’s a couple of ideas you can do with this technique:
These photos can take from a few minutes to a few hours just to capture.
Basically, you want to take a series of long exposure shots taken at around 20-40 seconds. Then you blend them together in Photoshop or other image processing software.
Traffic Light Trails:
You can create this by taking a single shot taken at around 5-15 seconds of exposure time.
Or you can also blend a series of long shutter shots like what you’d do with star trail. Blending a couple of shots will help you get multiple light streaks.
You can even try different shutter speed settings to randomize the lengths of the light streaks.
This works best for a cityscape near a body of water. You are looking for a set of buildings with bright lights at night.
Single shot at 10-30 seconds will do the trick for this one.
It will accentuate the reflection of lights from the buildings to the water. Plus, it will also create some effects on the city’s lights.
This can be created with any scenery with running waters. You can capture this by setting your shutter speed at around 2 seconds or longer.
This will capture the constant movement of water in a single frame. The longer you have your shutter open, the creamier the water will look like.
As the name suggests, it is like painting lights over your image. It can be a word, a symbol or even random abstract designs that you can think of.
You will set your exposure time at around 10 seconds or longer. And then moving your lights in a pattern that you’d like to get.
The key to pulling this off is turning off the lights if you’re in a room. If you are outside, you may want to try this during the night so the only visible objects in your frame are the lights.
Steel Wool Photography:
This one is a type of light painting. You will be needing a couple of materials to pull it off.
This can be done by burning the steel wool and spinning it to create beautiful circular lights.
The steel wool burns in around 10 seconds and you will need to capture it at around 5 seconds or more exposure time.
These examples are only some of the few things you can do with long exposure. You can do a lot more! And the only limit is your imagination.
Long exposure photography is one of the many creative ways to capture beautiful images.
And while it takes a little bit of practice to master, it is really rewarding when done right. And did I mention it is actually pretty fun?
If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment.