Long exposure photography manipulates traditional rules about light and exposure in order to capture time in motion.
No other technique or trick presents the world the way long exposures do.
This is photographic magic, and it’s accessible to anyone willing to try it.
It is a demanding technique. However, it does what no other photography trick can: it captures the passage of time.
Images with blurred silhouettes in motion at a busy train station, star trails, and soft water all come from long exposure photography.
Although any photograph has the potential to become art, long exposure photography elevates your work from snapshots to carefully considered scenes.
It takes a lot of work, but the results are stunning. It’s an essential skill for any photographer looking to pursue better images or an artistic path.
This post will walk you through everything you need to know to get out and start shooting.
Although long exposure photography is relatively complex, it doesn’t require many expensive tools and with the proper tips it can make the difference.
Long exposure photography is a picky technique, and you’ll need the right conditions if you want to capture a great shot.
You need to know not only how to shoot, but when. The three most popular uses of the technique come with special demands.
A good long exposure flips the script on subject matter by blurring motion. For example, urban photographers use the long exposure technique for pictures of busy streets to turn cars into streaks of light.
This is one of my favourite methods. It demands patterns. Even milling crowds have some fixed routes, and you can use these for composition.
Some of the most popular, and easy to see, examples of long exposure usually come from night shots.
Paired with the right conditions, you can use long exposures to create star and moon trails across the sky. This takes hours for best results and extremely dark shooting locations. In addition to all that, you need clear skies.
Daytime long exposure photography is probably the most difficult application of the technique. To capture smooth water, soft clouds, and other effects, you need certain conditions. Cloudy days are the best because, even with a filter, direct sunlight will bleach out your shot.
The popularity of the style has grown with the digital age, but it’s still possible to take long exposure photographs with film. It’s trickier, but if you are a diehard film lover, there’s nothing stopping you from trying.
The key to a long-exposure-friendly camera is the manual setting.
You want to make sure everything, from focus to exposure, has a manual option. Digital cameras are predisposed to automatic settings.
Finding all of your manual options may require a little quality time with the camera’s original user guide!
Tripods are great for regular images, but they’re mandatory for long exposure work.
Invest in solid equipment that doesn’t shake in the wind. Long exposure photographs, especially night images, take hours.
If your tripod wobbles, your work is lost.
One pro tip is to use a neutral-density filter.
These filters represent the primary difference between day and night long exposure photography.
The night is dark enough to protect against overexposure, but if you want to take long exposure photos during the day, you will need to get familiar with a good ND filter.
A neutral-density filter changes the wavelengths of light entering your camera.
It allows you to go beyond the diffraction limit. The filter’s powers are measured in “stops,” as in f-stop.
The filter you choose determines how much you can adjust shutter speed before overexposing your shot.
Circular filters screw into your lens.
They pack easily, but they aren’t always stackable.
Square filters require a separate holder, which is an additional expense.
However, square filters stack well, so if a shot comes out overexposed, it’s a simple process to add another filter before reshooting.
Bring your regular camera gear with you, too.
This includes cleaning materials, your light meter, and even wind screens.
Depending on what kind of neutral-density filter you use, you can utilize your lens hood, too.
As mentioned above, you will need to use your manual settings.
Here are some resources who can help you in your first steps into manual mode.
Regular manual settings work for relatively well-lit spaces.
Long exposure images captured in daylight or along busy, illuminated streets rarely need special settings.
If you wander away from the cities at night, bulb mode is your ally.
Bulb mode is essentially manual control over your shutter. The first click opens the shutter; the second closes it.
Shooting long exposures in daylight conditions will inevitably introduce you to the pains of overheated pixels.
These pixels appear as tiny, bright spots. Sometimes they aren’t visible until you’re already in the thick of it in post production.
One way to prevent spotting from overheated pixels is to use the built-in sensor cleaning option on your DSLR.
Learn how to find this feature on your menu ahead of time so you can fix trouble spots without giving up an entire day of shooting.
The best way to get a steady shot is to invest in quality gear. We talked briefly about tripods earlier.
Although light-weight options appeal to us all, the fact is, heavier tripods have steadier construction. If you’re shooting in windy places, you should consider adding weights to your tripod as an extra security measure.
When it comes to focusing in the dark, it can be tricky, especially for digital cameras.
It’s best to disable your autofocus before you even step out the door. In the dark, your eye is truer than your tech.
Manual focus gives you control of your shot and eliminates the risk of autofocus jumping between subjects during a long exposure.
Although camera and lens stabilization may help sports and wildlife photographers who move as they shoot, these features work against long exposure photographers.
When in doubt, always choose manual options. Auto stabilizing features don’t obey manual controls.
Even steady hands can jostle a camera and the slightest dip, wobble, or tilt will ruin your shot. It’s best to handle the settings manually and take the shot from a distance. There are enough variables in long exposure photography without you.
A remote shutter trigger or cable release is a must for a long exposure photographer. These allow you to handle the shutter, even in bulb mode, without touching the camera. A 10-second shutter delay isn’t a bad choice, either.
You can do everything right and still have an overexposed image thanks to light spills.
The best way to avoid them is to limit all light coming into your camera, including through the viewfinder.
Many photographers prefer using the viewfinder to set their images, but if it isn’t taped over, it could spoil the final image.
Take advantage of the light view option if your camera has it. This allows you to see what you’re doing without compromising your exposure.
Unfortunately, not all cameras have this option. Fortunately, you won’t need to look through the viewfinder while the shutter is open, anyway.
Shooting long exposure during the day is particularly tricky thanks to changing weather conditions.
The fact that it’s best to shoot on grey, stormy, or foggy days means you’re dealing with the weather, which never, ever cooperates. Remember, sunsets change light rapidly, too.
Sunsets are relatively easy to address. Once you’ve calculated your shutter speed, try to determine how quickly the light is changing.
Most weather apps tell you exactly when the sun will rise or set in your area. If you reverse these principles, they apply reasonably well to sunrises.
If the sun is only starting to set, try adding 25 percent more exposure time as a general rule of thumb.
If your shot captures the end of a sunset, increase exposure time by 50 percent. There are no hard and fast rules for changing light, but these guidelines will help you develop your own approach over time.
Changing light in other setting requires less math and more instinct. If your cloudy landscape grows suddenly sunny, try cutting back your exposure time to compensate for the increased light.
If your scene grows darker, use the same principles we discussed for sunsets.
Post production can dramatically improve noise and dust spots in photos, but these benefits typically come at the cost of quality.
Long exposure noise reduction technology works best when it’s paired with your camera manufacturer’s software. If you don’t use that software, the feature isn’t terribly useful.
Surprisingly, a lot of noise actually comes from underexposure. A simple trick that nips away lots of noise is ISO adjustment.
Usually, you want to keep the ISO low for cleaner, crisper images, right? But, a higher ISO often may solve the majority of noise problems in long exposure photographs because it fixes hidden underexposure issues.
Always keep your cleaning gear on hand. Rain and mist fog over lenses, even if you shoot from a sheltered perch. Outdoor photography always brings the chance of dust on the lens, and long exposure photography is no exception.
Try using your breaks to clean your camera, even if you haven’t seen an issue. Outdoor photography demands constant vigilance, and cleaning the sensor before you see problems with a photo saves time down the road.
Regular cleaning extends the life of cameras, anyway, so it’s just a good idea all around.
I touched on these briefly at the beginning of the guide, but now that you’re armed with the basics, it’s time to go more in-depth.
Remember: long exposure photography is about capturing time. Pay attention to speed, patterns of motion, and brightness.
If you shoot during the day, you have very different options than you would in the same location at night.
Daytime long exposure photography allows you to capture clouds, which are difficult to impossible to capture in the dark. Look for fast moving clouds, preferably with soft, diffused edges.
Smooth water effects are a favorite of long exposure photographers the world over. While it’s entirely possible to photograph a still lake, long exposure works best with moving water. Streams, oceans, and, of course, waterfalls are all great subjects.
During the day, pay close attention to the intensity and quality of the light. In general, the more clouds there are, the better. It isn’t impossible to catch a great shot on a sunny day, but it’s easy to overexpose images and you’re less likely to get the effects you desire.
Night photography gives you the opportunity to catch light in motion. Busy streets with a constant flow of traffic create brightly illuminated lines.
These lines glow on final prints like neon. Fast traffic is best, because it reduces the risk of the lights interfering with your exposure.
We have covered night photography in depth here.
Long exposure night photography gives you the chance to capture star trails, too.
These glowing curves reflect the Earth’s turn during the span of your exposure. To capture trails, you will need to get out of town. Avoid light pollution and seek high altitudes with minimal atmospheric water vapor.
Pay attention to where you put your tripod. Even the most gorgeous view will become a nightmare to shoot if you choose a location with no solid ground.
You cannot shoot long exposure photography well from a boat. Make sure you aren’t blocking high traffic spots, either, so no one else bumps your camera.
Some long exposure photographs use ghostly silhouettes of passing humans as part of the scene, but many photographers want to capture a pristine natural view or cityscape.
If you don’t have money to block off the streets around your entire view, you should know how to eliminate people from images.
The first way to eliminate unwanted people from your photo is to make your long exposure longer.
If people in your shot keep moving, they will effectively “ghost out.” It’s the reason Victorian photographers sometimes tied their posing subjects to props and stands to prevent motion.
To extend the exposure without overexposing the image, try adding a stronger neutral-density filter like a big stopper. A remote shutter trigger helps, too.
When you’re trying to capture such a long exposure, even during the day, treat it like a night shoot, and bring anything and everything to steady the camera.
The most important long exposure tip is patience. Have patience with your subject matter and have patience with yourself. Nothing in photography is an exact science, but long exposure photography pushes the envelope with exposure times.
It is a professional technique, but anyone can master it. With this guide and the tips we’ve provided, you can avoid a lot of the pitfalls and stumbling blocks other photographers had to learn and deal with on their own. Consider yourself a step ahead.
You’re armed with the knowledge to combat noise and dust in your images. A bit of sensor cleaning and ISO adjustment makes a dramatic difference. Keeping extra light out shouldn’t be a problem, especially if you keep electric or gaffer’s tape in your camera bag.
Long exposure photography is great for experimentation. If you haven’t tried nighttime photography, you’re now prepared to conquer a new challenge. Location is important, but so is gear. Remember to bring your sturdiest tripod and some weights if you’re climbing up high for a star trail shot.
What locations spring to mind as especially good for day, night, or star trail photography? It doesn’t matter what your favorite subject matter is.
We truly hope everything we’ve covered will inspire you to get out and shoot and have great fun.
Let us know how it goes. Did this guide help you? Did you try anything different and want to share it? Leave us a comment below.
Hi, I am Luca, founder and editor in chief at photographyambition.com. I am crazy about photography and I always have a camera with me. When I am not busy with my day job, enjoying my family or taking photos, I am on Photography Ambition to share what I have learnt so far.
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