Long Exposure Photography has become a popular niche within landscape photography during the few last years. The images can be dreamy and often surreal and it’s a rather easy technique to understand. That being said, there are several mistakes that I commonly see amongst beginners and I’m sure that the majority of us are guilty of making at least one of them.

Throughout this article, we’ll look at 4 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 ever making them again.

Not Covering the Viewfinder

The most common mistake I see amongst beginning long exposure photographers is that they forget to cover the viewfinder. It took me a long time to realize this myself and I’m pretty sure that it’s something you’ve forgotten about more than once as well.

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.

When working with long exposures (slow shutter speeds) of several seconds or even minutes, it’s crucial that you cover up the viewfinder. Forgetting to do so leads to light leaking in through it and leaving a nasty purple line/shape in the image. We always want to avoid light leaking through both the viewfinder and any gaps in the filter holder, which is why we need to make sure that all holes are covered.

Some professional DSLR cameras have a built-in cover for the viewfinder that easily solves the problem; simply flip it on whenever you’re doing a Long Exposure (I prefer to keep the curtain shut whenever I’m not using the viewfinder to photograph). Not all cameras have this as a built-in function, though. Some have a separate piece that’s connected to the camera strap while others don’t have any option included in the package. If your camera is like the latter, simply cut a small piece of cardboard that you can use to cover the viewfinder.

Stacking Filters in the Wrong Order

Note: This is not relevant if you’re using screw-on filters

When photographing Long Exposures, you’ll often need to stack several filters (i.e. use more than one at the time). A typical example of this is when photographing a sunset and the sky is brighter than the landscape and you wish to capture it with a slow shutter speed; you’ll need a Neutral Density filter to achieve the slow shutter and a Graduated Neutral Density Filter to darken the sky.

You can use between two and three filters on most filter holders from various brands. They’re placed into the holder’s slots but are you placing them in the correct order?

Common Long Exposure Photography Mistakes

Not placing them in the correct order may lead to unwanted banding or diffraction of light around the brighter parts of the exposure. This isn’t always visible straight out of the camera but as soon as you begin to process the image it becomes quite distracting. It may also cause light leaks, which we talked about in the previous section.

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. Typically, darker ND Filters have a rubber frame on the backside that fits closely to the holder. This is in order to avoid light leaking in through a gap between the filter and the holder. That means that a Graduated ND Filter is placed after the ND Filter – doing the opposite will result in the above issues.

Using Automatic Focus

Failing to capture sharp and in-focus images is another common long exposure photography mistake I see. Most of the time, this is due to the photographer using automatic focus despite having a 10-Stop ND Filter in front of the lens.

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

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.

There is an easy workaround for this problem if you’re not comfortable with focusing manually:

  1. Remove the ND Filter from the holder
  2. Focus just like you normally would with Automatic Focus
  3. Now that the image is in focus, switch to Manual Focus
  4. Place the ND Filter back into the holder
  5. Capture a razor sharp image!

Personally, I prefer to always focus manually when the camera is placed on a tripod. Even though Automatic Focus does a perfect job in the majority of the cases, I prefer to have full control and to be 100% sure that everything is in focus.

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

Use Bulb Mode Without a Remote Shutter

If you’re using a 10-Stop ND Filter (ND1000), you might already be familiar with Bulb Mode and why it’s a useful tool for Long Exposure photographers.

In case you’re not… When using Bulb Mode, the camera will leave the shutter open (i.e. take an image) for 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.

Common Long Exposure Photography Mistakes

Using this mode without a remote shutter is quite challenging though. In fact, I can comfortably say that capturing a sharp image with a shutter speed of more than 30 seconds is virtually impossible when you’re using Bulb Mode and manually pressing the shutter button. The reason is that you’re causing camera vibration while holding the button down, resulting in a blurry image.

To avoid this, you depend on using a remote shutter. While I prefer to use one with an LCD screen (a small screen that shows the time of your exposure), you don’t need anything more than a cheap $15 shutter that you can find in most electronic shops. Note: Some cameras may have this timer built-in as a display when using Live View in Bulb mode. 

If you want to learn more about Long Exposure Photography I’ve shared everything I know in my eBook The Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure PhotographyThis eBook is for those who are ready to take their images to the next level and expand their creative vision.

Common Long Exposure Photography Mistakes