Chances are that you’ve heard about long exposure photography. Perhaps you don’t know much about it but I can guarantee that you’ve seen images using this technique online. Maybe you’ve even played around with it yourself.

Then you might also know that you need to use Neutral Density filters. There’s no secret that this can be an expensive investment.

But what if I told you there’s a way to achieve this effect without using filters? That couldn’t be true, right?

It is. Read on and you’ll learn exactly how to capture beautiful long exposure photography without filters.

Sunset at Los Urros cliffs in Spain

What is Long Exposure Photography?

Before we get into the details of how you can achieve this technique without the use of filters, let’s take a quick look at what long exposure photography is.

I’ve written extensively about this in the Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography, so I’ll keep this short and sweet. I strongly recommend reading that article if this is the first time you have read about the technique.

Simply put, long exposure photography is a technique where you use a slow shutter speed to capture motion in a completely different way.

For example, photographing a river with a 2-second shutter speed will smooth the water and give it a silky and soft look. Take the image below as an example:

Long Exposure Photography of river

The longer the shutter speed is, the more blurred any movements become.

A good test to see exactly how the shutter speed impacts an image is to photograph the same moving element with exposure times ranging from 1/1000th of a second to 10 seconds.

Requirements for Long Exposure Photography Without Filters

There are still a few things you need to have in your inventory. That being said, this gear is essential for your photography in general, not just for this technique.

Luckily, the list is short:

  • A camera that has the possibility to manually change aperture, ISO and shutter speed.
  • A tripod that is sturdy enough to withstand some wind and weather.
  • A remote shutter to eliminate vibration when pressing the shutter button. (Alternatively you can use the camera’s delayed shutter function).

Both a camera and tripod are essential in other parts of photography so this is, as I said, not an investment specific for just long exposures.

Take a look at our article  Essential Equipment for Landscape Photography if you’re curious about what equipment I recommend having in your backpack.

Why are Filters Used for Long Exposure Photography?

Long exposure simply means slow shutter speed. The exact definition of when an image becomes a long exposure is somewhat vague but I consider it as the moment when you’re no longer able to get a sharp handheld shot.

If you’re familiar with the Exposure Triangle, you know that the shutter speed dictates how long the camera’s sensor is exposed to light. The longer the shutter is open, the more light reaches the sensor.

A long exposure time such as 30 seconds will lead to an image being over-exposed when used in bright conditions. In other words, the image becomes white.

That’s where a Neutral Density filter comes into the picture.

It’s a piece of darkened glass or resin that’s mounted in front of the lens to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor, allowing us to use such exposure times even in broad daylight.

So, how is it then possible to do long exposure photography without filters? Aren’t filters what allow us to use a slow shutter speed? Let me show you:

#1 Avoid Photographing During Daytime

Available light is one of the biggest factors when it comes to choosing a shutter speed so it’s no secret that this is the main thing to consider when attempting to do long exposure photography without filters.

As explained previously, using a long shutter speed in bright conditions will result in the image being overexposed (too bright).

When photographing in darkness, however, the sensor needs to be exposed for more light in order to capture a well-exposed image. How’s that done? You guessed it: by using a slower shutter speed.

Boats reflection in blue lake

Since capturing long exposures means that you want to keep the shutter open for seconds or even minutes, you need to be aware of available light.

When the sun is at its highest, it’s too much light to capture a long exposure without filters.

Recommended Reading: Why You Should Start Shooting Landscapes During Golden Hour

Instead, aim to photograph during the golden hour or blue hour. These are beautiful periods of the day and the dim light makes it more ideal for this purpose.

The darker it is, the longer you’re able to keep the shutter open.

#2 Use a Narrow Aperture

Aperture is another of the three fundamental camera settings that have a direct impact on the brightness of a photo.

Simply put, the aperture decides how big the opening where light lets through to the sensor is. A bigger opening (which means a lower f/stop number) lets through more light.

Combining a slow shutter speed and large aperture opening means we’re letting in a lot of light. By instead narrowing the aperture and making the opening smaller, it takes longer for the same amount of light to reach the sensor.

Quick aperture test: Set your camera to Aperture Priority and fix the ISO to 100. Notice how the shutter speed decreases when you go from an aperture of f/4 to f/22. What does this tell us? That narrow apertures allow us to use a slower shutter speed.

Combining a setting sun and a narrow aperture might make you able to achieve a shutter speed of a few seconds.

The darker it gets, the longer the shutter speed you can use.

Problems With Using a Narrow Aperture

It should be mentioned that there are certain downsides to using a narrow aperture to achieve a long exposure.

If you’re familiar with how aperture works, you might already know that an aperture such as f/22 has a negative impact on image quality.

Recommended Reading: Introduction to Aperture in Landscape Photography

While a narrow aperture leads to more of the image being in focus, it’s not as sharp as it would be at an aperture between f/7.1 and f/11. This is OK for images that will only be displayed on the web but it can cause problems when printing large format images.

Just make sure that adjusting the aperture doesn’t affect the ISO. I strongly recommend manually adjusting the ISO and keeping it at the lowest native value for this purpose.

#3 Use the Camera’s Built in Multiple Exposure Mode

There’s an abundance of settings and modes in your camera but one to take notice of when capturing long exposure photography without filters is the Multiple Exposure mode.

You can use this mode to increase the shutter speed by up to 10 times (without actually adjusting the shutter speed itself). Let’s just hop straight into it:

Start by mounting your camera on the tripod. Next, go into the camera menu and turn on the Multiple Exposure mode. The exact location of this mode varies from camera to camera. If you’re not sure where it is, a quick Google search or look through the camera manual will help.

Increase the Number of Shots option to the maximum possible. For most cameras, this will be 10. Change the Overlay Mode to Average.

Now go ahead and capture the series of images. You want to take the images with as short of a gap between them as possible.

It’s important that the camera doesn’t move between the images, so using a remote shutter is a good option.

Multiple Exposure mode long exposure photography without filters
10 images captured using the Multiple Exposure mode to imitate the effect of a 4-second shutter speed

When all the images are captured, the camera will automatically merge them. Notice that any areas of the photo containing moving elements will have a long exposure photography look.

Keep in mind that the slower the initial shutter speed is, the better this technique will imitate the use of a filter. For example, a 1-second shutter speed used for 10 images simulates the look of a 10-second shutter speed!

#4 Capture Multiple Images to Stack in Photoshop

The final method is similar to the previous but instead of merging images in-camera, it’s done in Photoshop. It’s a little more advanced but it can create better results.

You are limited to use a relatively low number of images when using the camera’s Multiple Exposure mode. That’s not the case in Photoshop. There you can stack as many images as you want.

Why is that better? Because the more images you have, the longer shutter speed you can imitate.

Start by mounting the camera on a tripod and capture a series of images. The more frames you have, the more extreme the effect becomes. Aim at having at least 20 images.

As with the previous method, avoid moving the camera between the shot and have as little of a gap as possible between the images.

Here’s the exact step-by-step to simulate a long exposure effect in Photoshop:

  1. Open Photoshop and select File -> Scripts -> Load Files into Stack…
  2. Click Browse, select all the files in the series and click Open
  3. Check the Create Smart Objects after Loading Layers box and click OK
  4. Let Photoshop open the files and create the Smart Object.
  5. When the Smart Object is created, go to Layers -> Smart Objects -> Stack Mode -> Mean

This should result in a beautiful long exposure effect where any moving objects are nicely blurred.

If the static landscape is blurred, it means that the tripod or camera likely has moved between some of the shots. In that case, start over and check the Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images box in the Load Files into Stack dialogue window.

Long Exposure Photography Without Filters? Now You Know How!

That’s it. It really is that simple to achieve a long exposure effect without using filters. There are only a handful of requirements:

  • Use a tripod
  • Use a remote shutter or delayed shutter
  • Avoid photographing when it’s bright outside
  • Use a narrow aperture such as f/22
  • Alternative: Use the Multiple Exposure mode
  • Alternative: Stack a series of images in Photoshop

Note that when using option #4, you don’t need to use a narrow aperture or avoid shooting during the daytime. Focus on applying the best camera settings and then take as many shots as you need in order to create the long exposure effect in Photoshop.

I encourage you to go out to try these techniques for yourself. Make sure to share the result with us, I’d love to see what you come up with!