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Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography

The essentials of mastering Long Exposure Photography

Have you seen images where the water looks soft and silky, almost unreal? Or cars’ taillights transformed into long red lines with clouds blurred and stretched across the sky?

You might have thought that these images are heavily manipulated in an advanced photo editor but that’s not the case. It’s actually the result of a rather easy camera technique.

This technique is known as Long Exposure Photography; a technique that takes advantage of slow shutter speeds to create creative and unique looking imagery. It’s commonly used amongst landscape photographers, architecture photographers, portrait and street photographers, and so many more.

In this article, you’ll learn all the essentials of Long Exposure Photography. In just a few easy steps you’ll be ready to blur moving elements, give water a creamy look, or make the sky look stunning with its long and stretched clouds.

Long Exposure Photography Tutorial
The clouds appear stretched and parts of the water is swirled as a result of a 60-second shutter speed // Settings: ISO100, f/11, 60 seconds

What is Long Exposure Photography?

So, what exactly is Long Exposure Photography?

As the name indicates, it’s a photographic style that involves using long exposures, or slow shutter speeds. By doing so, we’re able to blur moving elements such as water, cars, or clouds.

The exact definition is somewhat vague but the majority of photographers agree that a long exposure begins when the shutter speed is too slow to capture a sharp handheld image. That exact shutter speed varies based on the camera and focal length.

It’s not only landscape photographers who’ve grown to love the technique; it’s also popular among other genres such as architecture, street, abstract- and culture photography. It is more common within certain areas of photography but the technique can be used in many ways.

What is shutter speed?

Long Exposure Photography is a technique that requires a slow shutter speed. To fully understand the basics of this technique, it’s therefore essential to understand the fundamental settings of your camera, especially the shutter speed.

The shutter speed is the amount of time the camera’s shutter is open. This period is measured in seconds or fractions of seconds. A larger denominator, such as 1/1000, is a quicker shutter speed than a lower denominator such as 1/10.

A lower denominator, or slower shutter speed, allows more light to reach the sensor.

Recommended Reading: An Introduction to Shutter Speed in Photography

Long Exposure Photography in the Lofoten Islands
A shutter speed of 0.4 seconds is enough to create blur in quickly moving elements close to the lens // Settings: ISO64, f/10, 0.4 seconds

The camera registers everything that moves within a frame as long as the shutter is open, which is why the water looks blurred, clouds stretch across the skies and cars leave light trails .

Quick tip: Practical exercise to understand shutter speed and Long Exposure Photography

Understanding shutter speed can be a little complicated when just getting into photography. But having this basic knowledge is essential in order to take full advantage of the Long Exposure Photography technique.

Below is an easy and practical exercise to see how the shutter speed affects a photo:

  1. Place the camera on a tripod, table, or another place where it can stand steady
  2. Set the shutter speed to 1/1000 and ask someone to walk across the frame (or use a delayed shutter and do it yourself)
  3. Adjust the shutter speed to 1/500 and repeat
  4. Repeat again but this time using even slower shutter speeds such as 1/200, 1/20, 1/5 and end with 1 second

There’s not much difference between the first few images (unless the person sprinted through the room). However, the image begins looking different once the shutter speed reaches 1/5th of a second.

At 1 second, the person walking across the room is blurry, some would say it looks like a ghost!

This is an easy exercise that you can do anywhere to see exactly what happens when you lengthen the exposure time. Bring a tripod and head to the nearest river and you can see how the Long Exposure Photography technique can impact your landscape photography.

Essential equipment for Long Exposure Photography

The ‘essential equipment for photography‘ topic has a lot of opinions and tends to get quite heated. I strongly believe that great images can be captured with any camera but it’s important to understand your equipment’s limitations. When it comes to Long Exposure Photography, there’s no getting around the fact that there are a few tools you won’t get good results without.

Luckily, the list of required equipment for Long Exposure Photography is short:

#1 Camera with manual functions

It shouldn’t be necessary to say that a camera is required in order to photograph but I’ll mention it anyways.

The Long Exposure Photography technique can be achieved using most digital cameras (or even the latest smartphones). The main requirement is that it has the possibility to manually adjust the camera settings, such as ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.

Cameras that have Bulb or Time mode are extra useful in order to achieve shutter speeds above 30 seconds. However, this is not a requirement.

#2 A sturdy tripod

A tripod is essential for Long Exposure Photography. I repeat. A tripod is essential.

Some might get creative and use rocks or other objects to rest the camera on but we both know that it’s a less flexible and sturdy solution. Keep in mind that this technique requires the use of slow shutter speeds, often stretching into seconds, or even minutes. In those situations, it’s impossible to capture sharp images handheld.

Essential equipment for landscape photography: tripod
Unless you’re an alien with otherworldly superpowers (please pass them along to me if you are!), you need a tripod.

Recommended Reading: How to Choose Your Next Tripod

The tripod doesn’t need to be the most expensive and high-quality version currently available but I recommend that you invest in one that’s somewhat solid. It might be tempting to get the cheapest option from your local photography store but these tend to easily break. Especially when used outdoors.

A sturdy tripod should be something you have even if you’re not interested in Long Exposure Photography. It’s a useful tool that makes it possible to achieve several techniques you wouldn’t have otherwise.

#3 A remote shutter release

A remote shutter release comes in handy when you’re using Bulb Mode. It’s not essential when photographing with exposure times under 30 seconds but I recommend to always use a remote shutter release or the camera’s delayed shutter function. This is an important step in reducing unwanted camera vibrations.

There are two main reasons why a remote shutter release is ideal for Long Exposure Photography:

  1. It prevents camera vibration caused by pressing the camera’s shutter button
  2. It helps to achieve shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds by using Bulb Mode in your camera.

Don’t worry, though. Don’t get one that’s more expensive than your camera! A simple remote shutter release is more than enough. Models that have a timer and lockup possibility can come in handy when working with long exposure times.

#4 Neutral Density filters

The last essential tool for Long Exposure Photography is Neutral Density filters. Those who are familiar with the technique might say it’s possible to achieve long exposures without filters too. That’s one hundred percent correct, in some situations.

Neutral Density filters are more commonly referred to as ND filters. These are darkened filters that are mounted to the lens in order to reduce the amount of light reaching the shutter. The darker the filter is, the slower shutter speed is needed in order to capture a well-exposed image.

Neutral Density Filters

These filters aren’t essential when photographing in the dark. It already takes a long time for light to reach the sensor at night. However, the filters are essential for Long Exposure Photography during the daytime. Many photographers prefer using them during the Golden Hour too.

Neutral Density filters come in a few different shapes and forms. The two most common are the screw-on and drop-in/square systems. They both have their pros and cons but I’m not going to get too much into details now. I recommend reading our Introduction to Neutral Density Filters for more information about them.

There’s an abundance of manufacturers these days so it can be a little overwhelming to find the perfect one. I suggest that you conduct a little research before purchasing your first filters, some of them have strong color casts that look bad.

Personally, I’ve been using NiSi Filters for the past years and have a great experience with them. I’ve also used filters from LEE Filters, Singh-Ray and B+W.

Prices range from $20 to $300. The differences between the mid-range and the most expensive aren’t significant but the cheapest rarely perform well.

Filter darkness and Long Exposure Photography

It’s important to mention that all Neutral Density filters aren’t the same. I’ve already mentioned that there are a few different systems but they also come in different degrees of darkness.

The level of darkness is described by terms such as 2 Stop, 6 Stop, and 10 Stop. There are also two more terms: the Optical Density and the ND Factor. But let’s not get too technical now.

These terms describe how dark the filters are and how much you need to extend the exposure time in order to achieve the same exposure you would without a filter. For example, a 10 Stop Neutral Density filter requires you to use a shutter speed that is 10 stops, or 1,000 times, slower. That means an original shutter speed of 1/60th second becomes 16,7 seconds.

Long Exposure Photography tutorial
A shutter speed of 5 seconds is enough to blur water but not clouds. A 6-Stop ND Filter was used to capture this // Settings: ISO100, f/11, 5 seconds

A common mistake amongst beginners of Long Exposure Photography is to purchase only the brightest filters, such as a 1 or 2 Stop. These tend to be a little cheaper but they also don’t have much effect in most scenarios. They only become useful in the Blue Hour when it’s semi-dark.

6 and 10 Stop filters are more commonly used to slow down the shutter speed. It’s possible to extend the shutter speed to several minutes when used during the Golden Hour. These darker filters are what’s used in most images you see with silky water or stretched clouds.

Setting up and shooting Long Exposure Photography

Now that you know what the essential and recommended tools are, it’s time to move on to the more practical aspects of Long Exposure Photography. This is where the fun begins.

I’ve already mentioned that this technique is commonly used in several genres of photography. The techniques are the same regardless of the scene; only the compositional approach is different.

Below I share the exact 8 steps to Long Exposure Photography that you need to follow in order to get the best results. Make sure to follow each step thoroughly before moving on.

#1 Make the composition

Having a strong composition is important if you want to create a compelling image. This is the case for photography in general and it’s just as important when using a slow shutter speed. It’s easy to forget about this once you see how impressive some of the elements in your frame look but I urge you not to disregard the composition. You will regret it!

I recommend that you approach the scene in the same way you would’ve normally done. Ask yourself what’s the main subject of the image? How can you make it stand out? The sky or other moving elements should then be incorporated into the frame to emphasize this subject.

Long Exposure Photography Compositions
It could be tempting to tilt the camera up and focus on the moving clouds but try to instead incorporate them into the composition // Settings: ISO100, f/11, 40 seconds

Mount the camera on a tripod and connect the remote shutter release when you’ve found an interesting composition. Make sure that the tripod is properly set up and that it stands perfectly still while taking the image.

Note: scenes where there are no clouds or moving elements rarely benefit from a long exposure. There are no elements that show the effect.

#2 Apply the normal settings

The second step in setting up your long exposure image is to apply the ‘normal’ settings. At this point, you should have found a composition and mounted the camera onto a tripod.

It doesn’t matter if you prefer to adjust the settings using Manual Mode or one of the camera’s Semi-Automatic Modes. The most important is that you note what shutter speed is required in order to get a well-exposed shot. Personally, I prefer (and recommend) to do this manually but it depends on how comfortable you are with the camera.

Make sure to keep the ISO to a low value such as 64 or 100. The aperture depends on the scenery but in most cases, the best setting is between f/7.1 and f/13. These two settings will remain the same throughout the entire process.

Recommended Reading: The Best Aperture for Landscape Photography

The shutter speed is adjusted according to the two other settings. Using Live View and the Histogram is a good way to do it manually. If not, Aperture Priority is the appropriate semi-automatic setting.

#3 Take a test shot

When the settings are applied you need to take a test shot. Take a look at the image preview and make sure that the exposure looks good. Zoom in on the preview to make sure that the focus is sharp as well.

If the image looks ok, write down the exact shutter speed used. This is important. You’ll need this information in a few steps.

#4 Switch to manual focus and settings

This is when things get a little more tricky (and exciting!)

Start by changing to full Manual Mode if you haven’t already used this to set the ISO, aperture and shutter speed. It’s important that you stay in this mode for the remainder of the process.

Then you switch to manual focus. The image should already be in focus as we’ve taken a test shot and double checked that everything looks good. It’s ok to use Auto Focus during the testing period but you need to switch it back to manual before continuing.

Related Article: Manual Focus vs Automatic Focus

You’ll quickly notice that dark Neutral Density filters make the Live View or viewfinder completely black. When working with these dark filters the camera struggles to set the focus as it has no reference points. That leads to out of focus images. That’s a mistake you don’t have time for when dealing with shutter speeds of several minutes.

#5 Mount the filter in front of the lens

The next step is to mount the filter to your camera. Most filters are placed in front of the lens so be careful when you screw it on or slide it into the filter holder; you don’t want to accidentally twist the focus ring or move the camera.

Filters for Landscape Photography
Neutral Density and Graduated Neutral Density Filters mounted with a Square Filter System

Make sure that the filter is tightened properly and that there’s no gap between it and the lens. Small gaps lead to light leaks. This rarely happens with screw-in filters but more often with square filters that are incorrectly mounted in the adapter.

#6 Calculate the new shutter speed

You’ll most likely not see much when looking through the viewfinder after mounting a 10-Stop Neutral Density filter. The same applies to the camera. If you attempt to take an image now, it’s most likely pure black.

That’s why we need to calculate the new shutter speed. There are two main methods of doing this:

Method #1: Use a Long Exposure Photography app

The first method of calculating the new shutter speed is to use a Long Exposure Photography smartphone app. This is so easy it almost feels like cheating – perhaps it is?

There are many free apps, such as the Long Exposure Calculator, that automatically calculates the new shutter speed. All you need to do is insert the original shutter speed and the Neutral Density filter you’re using. That’s why it’s important to note down the shutter speed you used in the test image.

Some of the long exposure apps also have a built-in timer that you can use to keep track of how long the shutter has been open. This comes in handy when using Bulb Mode and shutter speeds of more than 30 seconds.

Method #2: Calculate the shutter speed manually

The second method is a bit harder. Yet, it’s an important part of understanding what’s happening. It’s OK to depend on smartphone apps but it is beneficial to also learn how to calculate the appropriate shutter speeds. This will help you to learn which shutter speed to use based on the outside brightness.

Let’s hop into it. It’s really not as difficult as it looks. First you need to know how dark your filter is. Here are the most common options:

  • ND0.3 or 1 stop = 2x shutter speed
  • ND0.6 or 2 stops = 4x shutter speed
  • ND0.9 or 3 stops = 8x shutter speed
  • ND1.8  or 6 stops = 64x shutter speed
  • ND3.0 or 10 stops = 1000x shutter speed

Based on the information above we now know that a 10 Stop filter lets through 1,000 times less light. That means the exposure time needs to be lengthened by 1,000 times in order to allow the same amount of light to reach the sensor. An original shutter speed of 1/125th second should now be 8 seconds. A 1/30th second shutter speed should be extended to 32 seconds.

#7 Apply the new shutter speed

After calculating the new shutter speed it’s time to adjust the camera settings. If the calculated shutter speed is below 30 seconds you should be able to do this like you’d normally adjust it. If it’s longer than 30 seconds you need to enter Bulb or Time Mode. This might vary from camera to camera.

If the shutter speed is more than 30 seconds you need to use the remote shutter release. Some camera’s allow you to tap once to start taking an image and once more to end the exposure. In other camera’s you need to manually hold the shutter button for as long as the exposure time should be. For those situations, a remote shutter release with a lockup mode is preferred.

#8 Take the shot and make adjustments

Now that the composition is perfected and the settings are applied, it’s time to take the shot.

Long Exposure Photography Setup
Settings: ISO320, f/10, 8 seconds

Take a look at the image preview once the exposure is done. Now you need to evaluate whether the exposure looks correct or not. Some filters are a little darker than advertised and might require up towards one extra stop in shutter speed. If that’s the case, make an adjustment to the shutter speed and take another shot.

That’s it. You’re now, hopefully, left with a beautiful long exposure photograph.

Long Exposure Photography examples and ideas

Here are a few examples of how Long Exposure Photography can be used in the landscape and outdoor field. Each of the images have the camera settings attached, so you see how the shutter speed impacts a photo.

Conclusion

Long Exposure Photography is a lot of fun and it’s a great way of capturing interesting and unique images. However, it requires a little more planning than ‘regular’ photography and any mistakes become even more visible. So, let’s do a quick summary of the 8 steps to perfecting your slow shutter images:

  1. Set up the composition as you normally would
  2. Apply the settings that work best for the shot without filters
  3. Take a test shot and make sure the exposure and focus is good
  4. Switch to manual focus and settings
  5. Mount the filter onto your lens
  6. Calculate the new shutter speed manually or using an app
  7. Apply the new shutter speed without adjusting any other settings
  8. Take the image and make adjustments to the shutter speed if needed

It’s important to follow this process step-by-step. Make sure that you take enough time to get things correctly, as any mistake might cost you valuable time. Remember, you won’t be taking many images if you’re using a 300 seconds shutter speed!

At the end of the day, Long Exposure Photography is all about experimenting. It can be applied to so many genres of photography and you’re only limited by your own creativity.

Are you trying Long Exposure Photography for the first time? Perhaps you’ve been doing it for a while? Be sure to share your best images in a comment! I’d love to see your results.


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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.

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