Long Exposure Photography has become very popular amongst landscape photographers during the past years. It’s a relatively easy technique that can result in dreamy and often surreal images.

That being said, there are several mistakes that are commonly made. In fact, I’m sure the majority of us are guilty of making at least one of them.

Throughout this article, we’ll look at the most common long exposure photography mistakes and how to avoid them.

Don’t worry though. These mistakes are easy to fix and it doesn’t take much to avoid making them again.

#1 Causing light leaks by not covering the viewfinder

The most common mistake I see amongst beginning long exposure photographers is one that very few are aware that they make. Yet, it’s one that can have a significant impact on the end result.

I was making this mistake for a long time myself and it caused a lot of frustration. Perhaps you’re in that situation right now.

The reason you need to cover the viewfinder when doing long exposure photography is that light leaks through the viewfinder. Here’s the result of a 120-second exposure when the viewfinder was not covered:

Light Bleed Long Exposure Photography
Light leaks through the viewfinder when you don’t cover it. Here’s the result of a 120-second exposure.

As you see in the example above, light leaking through the viewfinder causes a strange purple artifact, often referred to as a light bleed. The longer the shutter speed is, the more light can leak through and cause similar problems.

This is something you want to avoid. That’s why you need to cover the viewfinder and make sure that filters etc. are tightly sealed

Some professional DSLR cameras have a built-in cover for the viewfinder that is ideal for this exact purpose. If your camera doesn’t have one, you can buy a cheap viewfinder cover, cut a small piece of cardboard, or cover the viewfinder with your hand.

Note: This is not relevant for those who are photographing using a mirrorless camera.

#2 Stacking filters in the wrong order

Yes, it’s possible to do long exposure photography without filters but if you’re serious about this technique, you need to invest in at least a few of them.

There will be times when you need to use more than one filter at the same time. A typical example is when photographing a sunset. Quite often, the sky is brighter than the landscape so you need a Graduated Neutral Density Filter to darken the sky.

That filter has little effect on the shutter speed, so you need to also use a Neutral Density Filter.

Most drop-in filter holders allow for between two and three filters at a time. The filters are easily slid into their dedicated slots.

Not placing them in the correct order, however, may lead to unwanted banding, diffraction of light around the brighter parts of the exposure, or light leaks.

Common Long Exposure Photography Mistakes

So what is the correct way to stack the filters?

It’s actually quite simple: always place the darkest ND filter closest to the lens.

In order to avoid light leaking through the gap between a filter and the holder, most of the darker ND filters have a rubber seal on the backside.

A Graduated ND Filter can be placed further out in the filter holder. Since it has little effect on the shutter speed, it has little impact on a potential light leak.

#3 Using automatic focus

Failing to capture sharp and in-focus images is another long exposure photography mistake I often see.

Most of the time, this is due to the photographer using automatic focus. That’s not going to work when placing a 10-Stop ND Filter in front of the lens.

It’s essential to focus before placing the filter in front of the camera – especially when it’s dark outside

You might be asking, “Why does it matter that I use Automatic Focus? It always does a good job otherwise!”

The reason is quite simple: when a dark filter is placed in front of the lens, the camera isn’t able to see anything but black. It can’t find a point to focus on, resulting in an out-of-focus and blurry image.

Common Long Exposure Photography Mistakes
It’s essential to focus before placing the filter in front of the camera – especially when it’s dark outside

There is an easy workaround for this problem if you’re not comfortable using manual focus:

  1. Remove the ND Filter
  2. Focus using Automatic Focus
  3. Switch to Manual Focus
  4. Place the filter back in front of the lens
  5. Capture a razor sharp image!

Personally, I prefer to focus manually when the camera is placed on a tripod. Even though automatic focus does a great job most of the time, I prefer to have full control. Manual focus makes me slow down and make sure that everything is in focus.

Keep in mind that you need to remove the filter when focusing manually as well.

#4 Using Bulb Mode without a remote shutter

You might already be familiar with Bulb Mode if you’re using a 10-Stop ND Filter for your long exposure photography.

In case you’re not…

Bulb Mode leaves the shutter open as long as the shutter button is pressed. This means you can have a shutter speed of minutes, hours, or technically however long you want.

Patience in Photography

Using this mode without a remote shutter is quite challenging. In fact, capturing a sharp image with a shutter speed of more than 30 seconds is impossible when you’re manually holding down the shutter button for that long.

The reason is that you’re causing camera vibration, resulting in a blurry image.

To avoid this, you need to use a remote shutter. I prefer to use one with a small screen that shows the time of your exposure but you don’t need anything more than a cheap $15 shutter found in most electronic shops. 

Note: Some cameras have a Time Mode that starts taking the photo when clicking the shutter button and stops at the second click. This is a good alternative if you don’t yet have a remote shutter.

#5 Always sticking to the same shutter speeds

When I first got started with long exposure photography, I quickly got addicted to a 10-Stop ND Filter. That meant that the majority of the images I took had a shutter speed between 1 and 2 minutes.

There’s nothing wrong with these types of shutter speeds. I love how it makes clouds and water look.

While it resulted in many great images, I now know that it also led to missing out on many great possibilities.

The truth is that every scene can benefit from different shutter speeds. Some thrive when using long exposure times while others look best with a quick one.

Long exposure photography mistakes

If you’re unsure which shutter speed works the best for a particular shot, play around with a few different ones! The images will look quite different and tell completely different stories.

#6 Always using long exposure photography techniques

I know long exposure photography is exciting but I’ve got some bad news for you: it’s not always necessary.

For example, images where there are no moving elements typically don’t benefit from a long exposure. There’s simply nothing in the scene that looks different with a 1/100th or 100-second shutter speed.

Another factor to consider is what you want the story to convey and how you best do that. Sometimes a quicker shutter speed can create a more dramatic atmosphere.

Part of your creative choice is to find out how to best convey the story you want. Only you have the answer to this.

Conclusion

Long exposure photography is a relatively easy-to-learn technique that can result in stunning images. Avoiding these few mistakes will take you a long way towards consistently returning home with good and high-quality images.

To become a great photographer, it’s important that you learn to understand the scenery in front of you and apply the techniques that help you best capture it. If a slow shutter speed is what’s needed, you know exactly what to do!

So, which mistakes are you guilty of making?

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Common Long Exposure Photography Mistakes