Long Exposure Photography: An Expert Guide to Getting it Right

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Long exposure photography has the ability to render an ordinary scene extraordinary. Learn how a long exposure captures movement and creates visual intrigue in waterfalls, water, the night sky and even portraits.

Words and Photography by Urth HQ

What is long exposure?

Long exposure is basically another way of saying slow shutter speed. Creating a long exposure means opening your lens aperture over a longer period of time, generally over the course of seconds or minutes, rather than fractions of seconds.

As we’ll be referring to shutter speed a lot in this article, you can get up to… speed… by having a glance at our previous article: A Complete Guide to Shutter Speed.

Shot with a slow shutter speed using an ND filter.

How to take long exposure photos?

Before you begin taking longer exposures, ensure you have the following items of equipment:

1. Tripod: A sturdy tripod is absolutely necessary when taking long exposures to reduce camera shake. As a general rule, try not to handhold any exposures under 1/125th of a second.

2. Shutter Release (optional): Being completely hands-free of your camera is best practice when making long exposures and a shutter release cable or remote shutter release removes any unwanted vibration. But if you don’t have one, utilise the self-timer function in your camera’s menu. Set it to 10 seconds so the camera can completely stabilise once you’ve pressed the shutter and before it’s released.

3. ND Filter: An ND filter (short for neutral density) reduces the amount of light entering your camera and therefore, allows you to make a longer exposure. This is particularly useful in daytime. The main benefit of a neutral density filter is achieving the long exposure aesthetic defined by streaky clouds and silky waters without overexposing your shot.

Camera set up on a tripod.
Camera set up on a tripod with a shutter release cable.
ND filter to attach to the front of your lens.

Long exposure settings

The long exposure photography game is a game of compromise. Lengthening the exposure time through shutter speed will allow extra light into your lens, so adjustments will need to be made to aperture and ISO, the other two corners of the exposure triangle, to achieve a balanced exposure.

Shooting long exposures can be done in Shutter-Priority Mode (T or Tv on your dial depending on your camera manufacturer), or in Manual Mode (M on your dial). Shutter-Priority Mode is great to begin with, but often the settings the camera decides for you aren’t in line with your creative objective. The quicker you start shooting in Manual the better, for long exposure photography and your photography in general.

The long exposure photography game is also a game of trial and error, particularly night or star trail photography. When beginning to shoot with slower shutter speeds, we recommend starting with a 1-second exposure and working your way to the desired result. You might find your exposure for a waterfall is around 5 seconds. You might find your exposure for a starry sky is 30 seconds or more. It’s all about finding that sweet spot.

Using an ND filter for long exposure photographs

Shooting long exposures during the day can be extremely difficult and at risk of overexposure. But to account for the harsh light, you may need an ND filter, which essentially blocks light from entering your lens and allows you to use slower shutter speeds. 

ND filters generally come in a number of variations that cut between 1-stop and 10-stops of light. These filters really are the hallmark of waterfall photography and any photograph that blurs or smooths movement. Check out this article for the low-down on why this filter is so useful.

Overexposed scene when using a slow shutter speed.
Correctly exposed scene when using a slow shutter speed and an ND filter.

When to use long exposure?

Long exposures are generally determined by the amount of light available, or creative objectives. 

Sometimes your creative hand is forced because evening is approaching and the sun’s already dipped behind the horizon, meaning you need a long exposure to capture a scene evenly.

Other times, long exposures are voluntary i.e. you want to deliberately slow your shutter speed for visual effect, to create movement, blur and drama. Some of the most common instances of long exposure include waterfall or water photography, as well as star photography.

RELATED: How to Capture Motion Blur

LONG EXPOSURE: WATERFALL

Long exposure waterfall photography can seem like a really simple exercise but as mentioned above, having the right equipment like an ND filter can make the magical difference. 

Set your shutter speed to 1 second to begin with. Observe if and how much the water is blurred before adding more seconds to the exposure time.

As water movement is key to this style of photography, it’s often artistically necessary to juxtapose the movement against stillness. Including a really sharp foreground and background of rocks, trees and natural landscape can really emphasise the waterfall in motion. 

Slow shutter speed.

LONG EXPOSURE: STARS

Because it’s nighttime and the amount of available light is near to none, you will need an extra long exposure time to capture the sky and the stars pinned to it. For this reason, a tripod is essential for star or astro photography.

There are two ways to capture and show stars in a photograph and that’s through long exposures, and even longer exposures. Long exposures (of maybe 30 seconds) will show stars as dots on the black canvas. And longer exposures (of several minutes or even hours) will produce stunning star trails, showing the earth’s rotation over the course of the exposure.

Regardless of how you want the stars to appear, just begin experimenting with 30-second exposures. Capture. Review. Repeat. Adjust your aperture and ISO to suit your desired exposure time.

Shot with a shutter speed of 30 seconds by Casey Horner.

LONG EXPOSURE: WATER

Capturing the movement of a river, the ocean or any other body of water, utilises the same principles and settings as waterfall photography. 

Set your shutter speed to 1 or 2 seconds, review, and then slow it down as necessary. A shutter speed of 1 to 5 seconds may capture some soft movement of the ocean, for example. But a 30-second exposure has the ability to render a wild and wooly ocean completely calm. It’s ultimately a creative decision. 

Fiddle with your ISO and aperture to ensure your desired shutter speed can be achieved. These settings will all be determined by the strength of your neutral density filter if you’re using one.

Shot with a shutter speed of 1/250 second.
Shot with a shutter speed of 8 seconds using an ND filter.

LONG EXPOSURE: PORTRAIT

Long exposure portrait photography is relatively uncommon because the main objective of portraiture is to capture someone’s likeness, which is achieved best through a fast shutter speed. This is to limit any blur caused by camera shake or by the subject moving during the exposure time. 

But as an exception, there are circumstances where long exposure portrait photography is performed with artistic grandeur. See the example below and how the subject’s movement within the frame can create an intriguing ghostly effect.

Settings for portrait long exposures depend on factors including the amount of movement wished to create, how recognisable you want your subject, and how still your subject can remain during the exposure time.

RELATED: Why Use ND Filters for Portrait Photography?

Shot with a slow shutter speed.

A final note on long exposure photography

Mastering long exposures can completely transform your photography. It takes practice, and it takes some tinkering with exposure time settings. So take this long exposure toolkit with you into the field and begin slowing down your process.

Want to learn more about photography basics? 

1. A Quick Guide to Aperture 

2. Camera Modes Explained: What to Use & When

3. A Complete Guide to Shutter Speed

4. How to Master ISO in Your Camera

5. The 3 Best DSLR Cameras for Beginners

6. A Quick Guide to F-Stops: Examples & Photos 

Did you know Urth makes camera gear that reforests the world? Five trees are planted in deforested areas for every product purchased. Shop our range of lens filters, lens adapters and camera accessories.

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2021-11-01T05:31:41+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: |