Learn How to do Long Exposure Photography Without Filters

Chances are that you’ve heard the term Long Exposure Photography before. You might not know much about it but I can almost guarantee that you’ve seen images online where the water looks like ice or the clouds are dragged across the sky. You might also know that to capture these images you need a handful of expensive equipment. But what if I told you there’s a way to achieve this effect without spending lots of money? That couldn’t be true, right?

Sunset at Los Urros cliffs in Spain

I’ve previously written the Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography where I introduced you to this popular technique and mentioned how you can capture these images yourself. If you’ve never heard about Long Exposure Photography before, I suggest you read that article first to get an idea of what this technique is. What I didn’t mention in that article, nor did I plan to write an article about it since I’m including it in my next eBook, is that capturing images like this is indeed possible without the use of filters.

Requirements for Long Exposure Photography Without Filters

There are a few things you need to have in your inventory even though we are able to achieve this look without the use of filters. That being said, this gear is also essential for your photography in general, not specifically for this effect.

  • A camera that has the possibility to manually change aperture, ISO and shutter speed.
  • A tripod that is sturdy enough to stand without movement for a longer period of time.
  • A remote shutter to remove the chances of vibration when pressing the release button. (you could also use a delayed shutter).

Both a camera and tripod are essential in mostly any other part of photography so this is, as I said, not an investment just to do long exposures. If you’re curious about what other gear I recommend, take a look at our article: Essential Equipment for Landscape Photography.

Avoid Photographing During Daytime

In simple words: long exposure means to use a long shutter speed. The exact definition of when an image becomes a long exposure is somewhat fluctuating but I consider it as the moment when you’re no longer able to get a sharp handheld shot.

Boats reflection in blue lake

If you’re familiar with the Exposure Triangle (shutter speed, aperture and ISO) you know that the shutter speed depends on the amount of light you’re letting through your sensor. If you’re using a long shutter speed when it’s bright outside, the image will be overexposed (too bright) and if you use a short shutter speed when it’s dark it’s underexposed.

Neutral Density filter is a piece of dark glass you mount in front of your lens to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. To get a correctly exposed image, we then need to decrease the shutter speed. That leaves us with a long exposure. So how is this possible without the filter?

Since capturing long exposures means that we want to keep the shutter open for seconds, even minutes, light is an extremely important factor when we want to do this without using filters. Avoiding photographing during the daytime is therefore essential. When the sun is at its highest it’s too bright to be able to get a long exposure even with the techniques we’re about to learn.

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

Make it a habit to photograph during the golden hour or even nighttime as these are times of the day where it’s not too bright and we are able to keep the shutter open for an extended period of time.

Use a Narrow Aperture

The second step to doing Long Exposure Photography without filters is using a narrow aperture. By comparing an aperture of f/7.1 and f/22 we can clearly see a huge different in the time it takes the same amount of light to reach the sensor. This is because a narrow aperture such as f/22 only lets through a small amount of light due to it’s smaller opening.

Using a narrow aperture means that it takes more time for the same amount of light to enter the camera, which allows us to use a slower shutter speed to correctly expose the image.

Long Exposure Photography Without Filters

When combining the sun’s low position on the sky and the narrow aperture, we might be able to use a shutter speed of a few seconds. The darker it gets, the longer shutter speed you can use. When the sun has set and it’s getting dark you can even go back to using an aperture around f/11 and still have a one second exposure.

It should be mentioned that there are certain downsides of doing Long Exposure Photography without filters. If you’re familiar with how aperture works, you might already be aware of how using an aperture such as f/22 will impact the overall quality of your image.

Recommended Reading: Introduction to Aperture in Landscape Photography

Using a narrow aperture may have a negative impact on the image quality. Even though a narrow depth of field (the result of a narrow aperture) has more of the image in focus, it’s not as sharp as it would be at an aperture between f/7.1 and f/11. While this is OK for images that will only be displayed on the web, it can be more visible when you’re printing large formats.

Summary of How to do Long Exposure Photography Without Filters

That’s it. It really is that simple to achieve this popular 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

I encourage you to go out to try this technique for yourself and please share the result with us. I would love to see what you come up with!


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.