What is “Long Exposure Photography”? Well, I’m sure you’ve seen those fantastic pictures of waterfalls where the landscape is static, but you can see the movement of the water, making it look like a magical, floating cloud. Or perhaps you’ve seen astrophotography where the landscape is still, but you can see the stars move as the earth rotates, forming circular lines of light in the sky?
This technique in photography is called ‘Long Exposure Photography.’ As the name suggests, instead of taking a photograph with fast shutter speed, we take a picture using a slow or ‘long’ exposure.
Using this technique, you can see how things move, against a non-moving background.
Getting to grips with Long exposure Photography will take a fair amount of practice, but the concept is simple enough.
You may get lucky and get a great shot first time out of the bag, or you may need several attempts to nail it.
Either way, here is a simple guide to long exposure photography.
Table of Contents
What is Long Exposure Photography?
Long exposure photography is where you use a slow shutter speed (or long exposure) while your camera is mounted on a sturdy tripod to take a photo.
We use this technique mostly in Landscape photography, but there are a few other areas where it can be used.
The effect we see is where the non-moving parts of the landscape are entirely static, but everything moving through the photograph is fluid and we see its passage through the frame.
The most common of these images that you’ll have seen are waterfalls, with the water appearing to be like fluffy clouds moving through the image. Other examples you may have seen comprise of car light trails and astrophotography.
Equipment for long exposure photography
DSLR or Mirrorless camera with MANUAL settings
While the camera doesn’t have to be the most expensive camera on the market, it does need two main things
The first is the ability to set your camera settings MANUALLY. A fully programmable or compact camera just isn’t going to cut it.
While some compact cameras and even phones do have a facility for longer exposures, you generally don’t have the depth of control you need to get the shots we’re looking for.
The second feature we need to see (and it will be on most cameras) is a tripod mounting hole, which is a small threaded hole on the base of the camera to attach your camera to a tripod.
Long exposure photography requires you to be able to manipulate the shutter speed of your camera so you can take photos for a more extended period of time.
Tripod is probably THE most important piece of equipment you need to buy for long exposure photography.
Any movement at all in the camera during the long exposure will completely ruin the effect you’re trying to achieve.
As a bare minimum, you’ll need to spend around $100 to get a good tripod. Anything less will be a bit ‘wobbly’.(This isn’t a technical term)
Even the actual shutter firing inside the camera can cause camera shake in the camera, on cheap tripods!
Look for companies such as Manfrotto for a good quality tripod.
An excellent wide angle lens.
As with all landscape photography, a good quality wide angle lens is a great tool to have in your arsenal.
Unlike a camera body where the cheapest body can still have all the features you’ll need, it is worth investing in the very best quality lenses you can afford.
Neutral Density Filters
If you’re shooting in the daytime; images such as waterfalls or cloud movement, you might find that you can’t get a slow enough shutter speed, no matter what you do with your camera settings.
The way to handle this is to reduce the amount of light entering the camera using a neutral density filter.
The easiest way to think of neutral density filters is to think of them as ‘sunglasses for your camera!’
Basically, by mounting the neutral density (or ND) filter in front of your camera, it will stop a certain amount of the light entering the camera, meaning you can slow down your shutter speed.
You can use multiple filters, but more than two filters on your lens can degrade the quality of the image.
A remote release is probably the least important piece of equipment on the list, but worth considering.
A remote release is a shutter button for your camera on a long cable (sometimes by remote control these days). It means you don’t have to physically touch the camera to take the picture.
Remember how I mentioned that the shutter firing could cause wobble on a tripod? Well, so can firing the shutter on the camera by hand.
This piece of equipment will ensure that you never have to physically touch the camera, once you’ve got it all set up.
Unfortunately, while remote releases can be helpful for long exposure photography, they can also be quite expensive. A manufacturer’s remote version can cost as much as $100!
An easy way to get around needing a remote release is to use the built-in ‘self-timer’ function that just about every camera on the market has.
Essentially you set the self-timer, hit the shutter button, and it will count down from 10 seconds and then fire the shutter for you.
Yes, you have to wait 10 seconds, but generally, with long exposure photography, this isn’t a problem. (Unless you’re VERY impatient!)
The only time you’ll NEED a remote release is when you start making exposure of 30 seconds or more.
Most likely this will be for astrophotography or cityscapes at night.
Once you start making exposures of longer than 30 seconds, you’ll need to use the ‘B’ or bulb mode.
The ‘B’ mode will allow you to determine how long the exposure is in manual mode. When you hit the shutter button on your remote release, the shutter will open, when you let go, the shutter will close.
If you’re trying to hang on to the shutter button on the camera for 30 seconds or longer, you will move the camera, even if it’s on the sturdiest tripod!
Camera Settings for Long Exposure Photography
As we previously discussed you’ll need to set your camera to the Manual or ‘M’ mode.
Some people will argue that you can use the Time Value (TV) mode, where you set the shutter speed and let the camera take care of the aperture automatically.
I feel that you need to start with Manual from the off so that you can completely control what you’re doing in terms of Shutter and Aperture.
While it’s not as easy as using TV, we’re not here for easy; we’re here to get the best image we can.
Now here is where it starts to get just a little bit tricky because quite simply, there are no right or wrong settings to use, it is going to depend so much on the subject you’re shooting and how much of an effect you want to achieve.
For instance, if we go back to our old favorites the waterfall, if you shoot at ½ a second, you might find the scene looks very similar to the image in front of your eyes, with the froth at the bottom of the water looking more cloud-like and the water itself looking just a little smoother.
However, if you shoot a waterfall at 10 seconds, all movement of the water will disappear leaving either an almost glass-like look to the water like someone is pouring liquid glass down the waterfall or it will completely disappear and give the appearance of white fluff instead of water.
Which one is right? Well, only you can decide that!
So, I appreciate that this is a little vague in terms of direction, so let’s run down the settings you need to put into your camera, in importance order.
Shutter speed for long exposure photography
Shutter speed is the most important setting in your camera. Try starting at 1 second and seeing how the image looks. If the image looks just right to you, then you’re most of the way there! If not try adding some time to the shutter settings.
Remember, the longer the exposure, the more sturdy you’ll need your tripod to be!
Aperture for long exposure photography
Aperture is probably where the most significant amount of compromise will need to take place to get the best shot.
As with any landscape photography, we want the aperture fairly closed down, so that we get good depth of field front to back.
Aim for a minimum of f8, but set it to whatever is necessary to get the very best shot you can.
ISO for long exposure photography
While all of the factors in our photography are important, the ISO setting is the least essential setting for long exposure photography.
We want to aim for the lowest ISO setting we can get, ideally 100 ISO or lower.
The reason for this is that the higher the ISO setting, the greater the grain and noise will be in our image.
In some forms of long exposure photography, such as astrophotography (which needs an entire how-to guide on its own) you will undoubtedly HAVE to use a high ISO setting.
File settings for long exposure photography
As with all forms of photography, I suggest you shoot full-size RAW images.
This way you can alter your images in post-production with the greatest ease; create multiple exposures to merge an HDR image etc.
In this day and age you really, really should be shooting RAW for all of your projects. Most cameras will come with a form of the basic image editing suite. Once you’ve exhausted those, you can try Adobe Lightroom or some of the cheaper alternatives for post-processing images.
Honestly shooting RAW is the single most natural thing you can do to improve your photography!
Get started with Long Exposure Photography
If you attend a photography course, there will undoubtedly be a section on Long Exposure Photography and the way they will demonstrate it and teach you how to utilize it, will be to take you out and photograph light trails on cars.
This is one of the most straightforward examples of Long Exposure Photography to get involved in because most of us can step outside of the door at night and see some cars with lights. The best starting point!
Waterfalls and Silky Waters
This one takes a little more planning as most of us don’t have a waterfall in the back garden, but it is, without a doubt, one of the most satisfying images we can create with Long Exposure Photography.
I’d recommend joining a local facebook camera group and just asking if anyone knows of reasonably local waterfalls that you can photograph.
This is a great way to find ‘photography buddies’ too who may want to come along and join you on your expeditions.
Fireworks produce fantastic images and are a great way to have fun with Long Exposure Photography!
Look out for celebrations where there will be fireworks displays.
It’s worth contacting the organizers, just to let them know what you’re doing, just in case. They may even give you some advice on where you can stand, away from the crowd and what fireworks they’ll have.
Painting with light
An exciting way to explore Long Exposure Photography is to add your light to the scene, creating waves, or lighting set areas of a scene.
This is called ‘Painting with light.’ You follow the rules for photographing a scene with a long exposure setting (preferably 30 seconds plus) then you add light with a torch, laser pointer or similar.
You can add colored filters to the scene to spice things up.
Astrophotography is (in my opinion) the most difficult of all of the long exposure subjects to choose.
In honesty, it would be tough to explain in a general piece how to comfortably get to grips with astrophotography it needs an entire article on its own.
Let’s say when you’ve had a good go with Long Exposure Photography and feel you understand the principles and techniques, then have a go with astrophotography.
It will require a LOT of trial and error, but the results can be truly breathtaking.
As with all types of photography, you won’t just read an article and then go out and get it perfect the first time.
With Long Exposure Photography, probably more than most other types of photography, you will have to practice, practice, practice.
There will also be a lot of experimentation too. However, the long exposure technique really will provide you with amazing pictures that are really worth the effort.
Further, here are a couple of posts that you may find interesting as well. We have a post on photographing the milky way, photographing the northern lights and taking captivating silhouette photos in the daytime with sunsets at the background or in the nighttime with northern lights in the background. All of these posts are detailed with relevant photos to give you an in-depth view of these techniques. I am sure you will find them interesting so do check them out by cling on the link above!