How To Photograph Long Exposure Pictures
Long exposure photography is an incredible in-camera effect that truly adds a magical look to any picture. Seen as a common staple in landscape photography, long exposures are used to stretch out time and create motion blur in moving parts of a photo. With the help of a slow shutter speed, you can smooth a choppy lake, make waterfalls look like silk, or create clouds that streak across the sky. This fun in-camera effect is an incredible way to level up your photography and have fun doing it!
To photograph a long exposure, you need to slow down your shutter speed to 1 second or longer. With a slow shutter speed, anything that’s moving in your frame will become blurred to create that long exposure look. Since long exposures will brighten your exposure, using a neutral density (ND) filter can be useful when shooting in brighter conditions.
I’m a firm believer that you don’t need fancy or expensive gear to photograph long exposures. With the tips and tools outlined in this guide, you’ll be able to capture beautiful long exposure photos like a pro in no time.
What Is Considered A Long Exposure?
A long exposure is anything taken with a shutter speed of one second or slower. Since it takes longer for the shutter to open and close, this photography genre is aptly named “long exposure photography.”
Although you can create long exposure effects with slightly faster shutter speeds such as 1/5 second, it’s harder to do so. Especially if you want to calm a wavy ocean or streak the clouds moving above you, you’ll need a very slow shutter. After all, the longer your shutter stays open, the more blur you’ll get.
It’s important to note that long exposures can be captured with or without lens filters. Even though ND filters can help in brighter conditions, it is possible to shoot long exposures without any filters. You just need to be conscious of how bright the lighting is. In most cases, you may need to come back on a cloudy day or just after sunset to get the shot you want. I’ll touch more on how to shoot long exposures without filters later on in this post.
There isn’t one specific type of photo you should take when using a slow shutter speed. You could use this effect for portraits, landscapes, astrophotography, real estate, and more! All that matters is that you’re using a slow enough shutter to blur moving objects in your frame. Some of the easiest types of photos to experiment with are waterfalls since the forest is already dark, and the moving water is easy to blur!
What Is Shutter Speed?
Shutter speed is how fast the shutter of your camera opens and closes. While the shutter’s open, light is able to pass through your lens and get recorded on your camera’s sensor. Depending on how long your shutter is open, it can affect both the exposure and blur of objects in your frame.
Exposure is how bright your photo looks. In most situations, you can use your cameras light meter to decide how bright the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows will look in your photo. With a well-balanced exposure, you’ll retain more detail information in all exposure ranges of your image. By making sure your shutter speed is properly set, you can help to darken or brighten your exposure as necessary. Learning about the exposure triangle is a great way to understand how all your camera settings work together if you’re just starting out.
The reason objects blur with a slow shutter speed is because they have moved while your shutter was open. Whether it’s a person, cloud, or river, it’s all reflecting light into your camera. If this light changes or repositions, it will alter how these objects appear in your pictures.
For example, let’s say you want to blur the moving clouds in your landscape photo. By using a slow shutter speed, the camera will capture the cloud in it’s starting position and its final position (aka when the shutter closes) in the same photo. Since the cloud changed positions, it shows up as a streaking effect in your photo. This blur occurred because your camera recorded the moving light of the cloud and blended it into one.
Shutter speed is measured in seconds, which tells you how fast the shutter will open and close. With a shutter speed of 1/2000, the shutter will open and close in 1/2000 of a second. This is perfect for capturing action and freezing motion in place. On the other hand, a shutter speed of 15″ (seconds) will mean your shutter opens and closes in 15 seconds. Since anything moving will blur during this time frame, you’ll end up with a beautiful long exposure effect!
To learn more about your camera settings and how they work together, be sure to check out my photography ebook called Goodbye Automatic. It’s one of the best resources to start taking control of your camera settings and get more creative with your photography!
More About Shutter Speed: The Complete Guide To Shutter Speed For Beginners
How To Take Long Exposure Pictures
Before you start taking long exposure photos, you need to make sure you’re well equipped. Unlike other photography styles, long exposures require a little more planning and gear to get the job done. To get started, you need to have the right equipment, the right camera settings, and the right location. If you do these three things right, you’re well on your way! Let’s first talk about equipment for long exposure photography.
Gear For Long Exposure Photography
Tripods are a must if you want to capture long exposures. Since long exposures require a slow shutter speed, that means you’ll have a really hard time holding your camera. No matter how still you think you’re being, there is always a bit of camera movement when shooting handheld. If you decide to mix handheld with a slow shutter speed, you end up getting a completely blurry image. This is because your hand movements translate into motion blur. With the help of a tripod, you can keep your camera perfectly still no matter how long the exposure.
You should consider setting up your tripod whenever you start using a shutter speed slower than 1/60 of a second. Even though 1/60 isn’t much of a long exposure, it’s slow enough that holding your camera will cause motion blur. Instead of risking blurry images, set up the tripod and rest easy knowing your photo will look sharp.
The other great part about using a tripod is that you can set it up on just about any surface. Whether you’re on a city sidewalk or a rocky mountainside, it’s easy to set up and is the safest way to keep your camera still. Sure, you could try propping your camera up against a rock, but you run the risk of your camera getting damaged. If you want to keep your camera safe while still capturing beautiful long exposures, a tripod is a must-have tool.
If you’ve yet to pick up a tripod, I share all my recommended ones on this list.
2. Camera With Adjustable Shutter Speed
No matter what brand or style of camera you have, all that matters is that you can control the shutter speed. Luckily with most modern cameras, everything from action cameras to smartphones and DSLR’s have some form of shutter control. As you now know, shutter speed is the main tool to use when capturing long exposures. Without being able to tell your camera exactly how slow you want your shutter, then you’ll be out of luck!
3. Shutter Release Cable (optional)
Since long exposures are all about keeping your camera still, a shutter release cable helps to do just that. Believe it or not, the small movement of pressing the capture button can be enough to create motion blur in your photos. Especially with long exposures that are several minutes long, this can be a serious pain in the butt. I don’t know about you, but waiting a couple of minutes just to realize your photo looks shaky is a huge bummer.
With a shutter release cable, you can control your camera’s shutter without ever touching your camera. This little device plugs straight into your camera and lets you take photos by pressing the button on the remote. With some higher-end shutter releases, you can pre-program exposure lengths or exposure intervals. This is perfect if you want to capture long exposures or time-lapses!
As convenient as this tool can be, it’s not something you totally need. There are workarounds to it. Instead of a shutter release, you can set your camera to have a shutter delay. Most cameras will have a 2-second or 10-second shutter delay, which means the photo will be taken 2 or 10 seconds after you hit the button. For long exposure photography, a 2-second delay is often more than enough.
With that said, without a shutter release cable, you’re limited to 30-second long exposures. Since 30 seconds is the slowest shutter speed available in manual mode, that’s as slow as you can go. To shoot photos with multi-minute exposures, you need to use Bulb Mode. In this mode, the shutter will stay open as long as the shutter button remains pressed. Rather than holding your finger on your camera for an eternity, a shutter release cable lets to pre-program any length of exposure to shoot in Bulb Mode.
4. ND Filters (Optional But Highly Recommended)
ND filters (also known as neutral density filters) are dark pieces of glass that darken the exposure of your photo. One of the easiest ways to think about them is as sunglasses for your lens. Since long exposure photography is all about having a slow shutter speed, that means you’ll be dealing with bright photos. For example, you wouldn’t be able to shoot a 30-second long exposure in the middle of the day. Since there’s so much available light, it would overwhelm your sensor during that 30 seconds and blow out your photo. The result would be a completely white image.
By using an ND filter, you can compensate for this excess light in brighter conditions. Since the filter darkens your photo, it lets your camera use a slower shutter without overexposing your photo. With a smaller amount of light able to pass through your lens at once, you can shoot long exposures in just about any condition.
I talk all about my favorite ND filters I’ve used over the years in this list of best lens filters for photographers.
– What Do The ND Filter Numbers Mean?
Not all ND filters are made the same. They all have different densities, which means some are more or less dark than others. The darker the ND filter, the longer exposure times you’ll be able to use. The most common types of ND filters you’ll see are ND8 (3 stop filter), ND64 (6 stop filter), and ND1000 (10 Stop ND Filter).
At first, these numbers don’t seem to make a lot of sense. How are you supposed to know which kind of ND filter to buy? For general long exposure photography, a 6 stop or 10 stop ND filter is your best bet. These densities give you more than enough to shoot long exposures in any condition while still keeping the exposure times reasonable.
A stop is a way to measure the amount of light entering your camera. With every stop of light you darken your exposure, you half your exposure time. This might seem a little confusing at first, but let’s break it down with a real-world example.
– Calculating Exposure With ND Filters
Let’s say you’re taking photos of a waterfall and your exposure time is 1-second before adding a filter. You want to use a longer exposure than that so you can blur the clouds in your photo. That means it’s time to add an ND filter! After attaching your ND64 (6 stop filter), your photo will look completely black. What needs to change to make your exposure look the same as it did before?
Since you know one-stop of light reduction will half your exposure, that means the ND filter is halving your exposure 6 times for 6 stops. With a starting exposure of 1 second, compensating by one-stop will take the exposure to 2-seconds. Compensating by two stops takes the exposure to 4 seconds. The pattern continues on.
Compensating Exposure By 6 Stops: 1s > 2s > 4s > 8s > 16s > 32s
After 6 stops of compensation, the new shutter speed needs to be 32 seconds to match the exact exposure you had before using the filter.
If you were to follow this same example with a 10 stop filter, the process would look something like this:
Compensating Exposure By 10 Stops: 1s > 2s > 4s > 8s > 16s > 32s > 64s > 128s > 256s > 512s
With 10 stops of compensation, the new shutter speed would need to be 8.5 minutes (512 seconds) to match your starting exposure. Although the difference between a 6 stop and 10 stop ND filter may be slight at first glance, there’s a huge difference as to how long of exposures you can photograph with each.
Although this may seem a little overwhelming at first, just remember that it’s just halving your exposure. By taking your starting exposure and halving it by the number of stops of ND, you end up with your equivalent shutter speed! To help highlight this example further, I explain the process in the video below:
Now that you have a solid idea of the gear you need to photograph long exposures let’s start talking about the camera settings you need.
Best Camera Settings For Long Exposure Photography (With ND Filters)
The best camera settings for a long exposure photo will change depending on whether or not you’re using a filter. The lighting conditions will also dictate how long of an exposure you should be using in your images. With that said, there are some general ground rules you can use to help get you started.
Best Starting Camera Settings For Taking Long Exposures:
- Shutter: 1-second (will vary depending on the lighting and ND filter)
- Aperture: F/8
- ISO: 100
- White Balance: AWB
- Focus Mode: Manual/Single-Shot
- Drive Mode: Single-Shot
- Shutter Delay: 2-Seconds
- Camera Mode: Manual Mode
You can use this template as a way to base your long exposures from. As long as you’re using an ND filter, you’ll have no trouble with a shutter speed of 1-second or longer.
The reason you want to use all manual focus settings is that your camera will have a hard time to find focus through a filter. Instead of hoping your camera got it right, set your focus manually before adding the filter. That way, you know that your photo is perfectly sharp, even if you can’t see well with the ND filter attached.
Best Camera Settings For Long Exposure Photography Without ND Filters
If you want to experiment with long exposures but don’t want to spend the money on an ND filter, you can change around your camera settings. The trick here is to darken your exposure as much as possible to give you a slower shutter speed. In this case, that means you need to close your aperture and keep your ISO as low as possible.
Best Starting Camera Settings For Taking Long Exposures Without Filters:
- Shutter: 1-second (will vary depending on the lighting)
- Aperture: F/22
- ISO: 100
- White Balance: AWB
- Focus Mode: Manual/Single-Shot
- Drive Mode: Single-Shot
- Shutter Delay: 2-Seconds
- Camera Mode: Manual Mode
Keep in mind that these settings will only work if you’re shooting in a darker scene—something like a forest on a cloudy day or just after sunset when it’s less bright. If you try to use these settings in direct sunlight, you’ll end up with too bright of an exposure for a slow shutter speed. One of the best times to get out and try these settings are around a storm when the sky is completely overcast. With that much less light, it’s far more likely you’ll be able to capture the long exposure you want!
The Best Places To Photograph Long Exposures
Although you can take long exposure pictures anywhere you want, there are some better places to start than others. Places like the ocean, a lake, a waterfall, or a river are all perfect places to start. Since water is constantly moving, it makes for one of the best starting grounds for long exposure photography.
My favorite places to shoot long exposures are nearby rivers and waterfalls. Since these are typically surrounded by forest, it’s a lot darker than in an open area like the lake. With so many tree branches above you, the sunlight gets heavily filtered and becomes diffused. This makes it a lot easier to slow down your shutter speed since there is that much less light in the forest.
The beauty of photographing waterfalls and rivers is that they’re always moving. You don’t need a 30-second exposure to get a blurry waterfall. All you need is a second to get a beautiful result. The reason for this is simply because of how fast the water is moving. The faster the water, the less time is required to blur it. In a high season, when there’s the most water, you can even get away with a 1/5 second shutter and still get a long exposure look.
You Might Like: The Ultimate Guide To Waterfall Photography
How To Shoot Long Exposures – Step By Step
Step 1: Plan Your Location Or Arrive Early
With long exposure photography, you can’t just show up and expect the perfect shot. If you want to capture the best light during golden hour, then you’re only going to have a few minutes to set up and get your shot. Since each photo you shoot can take 30″ or longer to complete, you must know exactly what you want ahead of time. This will really speed up the process and make sure you don’t miss the perfect moment.
I like to arrive early and walk around to scope any compositions I think could look good for a long exposure. If the scene is light dependant, I’ll pick my favorite composition, set up, and wait for the perfect moment to unfold!
In situations where you aren’t concerned about fading light, you can get away with a slower start. If you’re just aiming to photograph a waterfall in the forest, it might not matter exactly what time of day you arrive. Just remember that at mid-day, you can end up with patchy sunlight throughout your photo. This is not only a huge distraction but a serious pain the butt to expose for.
In just about any situation that you want to shoot a long exposure of, arriving early is always the best bet. That way, you are more likely to get better light and won’t have to deal with the harsh shadows of mid-day.
Step 2: Use Shutter Priority Mode Or Manual Mode
Depending on your level of comfort with your camera settings, put your camera into either Shutter Priority (Tv / S) or Manual Mode (M).
Shutter Priority is best for more beginner photographers who aren’t as comfortable changing additional settings like aperture and ISO. In Shutter Priority mode, you can set a slow camera shutter like 1″ or longer, and your camera will automatically choose any additional settings for you.
In Manual Mode, you’re in charge of all related camera settings, including your shutter speed. It can be a little slower to use for beginners and more overwhelming. Manual Mode takes practice to get used to, but the creative advantages it has are more than worthwhile. You can start learning manual mode faster with this photography ebook!
Now it’s important to note that both of these camera modes limit you to a 30-second exposure. If you’re using an ND filter and need to use a shutter slower than this, make sure to change to Bulb Mode (B). This camera mode works the same as Manual Mode except has no limit on the shutter duration. Rather than choosing a preset time (aka shutter speed), the shutter will remain open as long as the shutter button is pressed. This is where a shutter release cable becomes crucial.
Step 3: Set up Your Tripod
Once you’ve found a shot you like, take the time to set up your tripod and make sure it’s level and on firm ground. The last thing you want to deal with is a wobbly tripod or crooked photo because you were in a rush and didn’t set up your tripod correctly.
At first, it can feel pretty hard to perfectly level your tripod, but there’s a method to the madness. I share the step-by-step process of leveling a ball head tripod in this post.
Once you think your tripod is set, double-check everything is locked and not going to move. It’s not uncommon for people to accidentally leave a leg slightly unlatched, so it slowly tips out of balance.
Learn More: How To Make The Most Out Of Your Tripod
Step 4: Set A Slow Shutter Speed
The best shutter speed is going to depend on the subject. With waterfalls, for example, you don’t typically need a super slow shutter to capture motion blur. Since the water is moving so quickly, it doesn’t take long for the water to streak into that silky look we all love. In this case, a 1″ shutter would work great!
If you’re wanting to capture the blur of clouds moving across the sky, you’ll likely need to use a very slow shutter speed like 30″ or longer. Unless it’s an exceptionally windy day, clouds tend to move very slowly. The longer your exposure, the more cloud streak you’ll be able to capture.
Ultimately the shutter speed you choose will depend on how fast your subject is moving. If it’s moving quickly like a waterfall or a car speeding down the highway, you won’t need as slow of a shutter to capture blur. If the motion is more subtle like that of clouds or stars, then you’ll need to opt for a slower shutter speed.
Depending on whether or not you’re using filters will also have a big effect on the shutter speed you choose. In some cases, you might have to use something different than the ideal shutter speed you had in mind. You’ll need to adjust as the light changes while you shoot. All that matters is that your picture is properly exposed.
Step 5: Set Your Focus
With long exposure photography, it’s always best to use manual focusing. The last thing you want is to have your autofocus shift right before you take a photo and your left waiting for the exposure to finish. By shooting with manual focus, you can take the time to correctly set your focus and rest assured nothings going to change.
To ensure you have a sharp long exposure, manually set your focus before you add your ND filter. That way, you can see exactly where your focus sits before you have any filtration. Before you add your filter, set your lens to autofocus and attach your ND filter. This will lock or disengage the focus ring, so your focus doesn’t change as you thread the filter. Once the filter’s attached, change back to manual focus, and you’re ready to take your picture!
While checking your focus, be sure to use live view and magnifying your preview to get accurate focusing. This way, you can see the fine details and make sure they’re perfectly sharp.
Step 6: Set A Shutter Delay Or Use A Shutter Release Cable
Before you take a photo, make sure to set a shutter delay. Most cameras have a two-second shutter delay feature that allows you to press the capture button, then start the actual exposure 2 seconds later. This is ideal for long exposure photography since the small movement of your finger pressing the capture button can cause motion blur in your photo. You can find this setting under your camera’s drive mode. This is a totally free workaround to using a shutter release cable!
If you have a shutter release cable, attach it to your camera and set it as required. Since this takes control of your shutter without you needing to actually touch the camera, you don’t need to use a shutter delay with a cable release.
Both of these options will get the job done. It’s totally up to you which one you want to use!
Step 7: Capture Your Photo
Now everything is set up and ready to go. All that’s left is to hit the capture button! Once the exposure starts, be careful not to bump your camera or move the tripod. Your camera must stay perfectly still for the best result.
After a few exposures, try experimenting with your settings and camera position to see how it could improve your composition. It’s a ton of fun to find new shots and eagerly wait to see how the next long exposure turns out.
When To Use Long Exposures In Photography
Long exposures are meant to capture any type of movement in your photo. If your scene was entirely still, then it becomes irrelevant whether or not you capture a long exposure image. If nothing’s moving, it’s going to look the same whether you use a 30″ exposure or a 1/4000 exposure.
Try to think of long exposure photography as a ‘creative blur’ to add to the moving parts of your photo. Whether that be waves crashing into the shore, car headlights driving down the road, waterfalls, ferris wheels, clouds, you name it. If it moves, it’s fair game for long exposure photography! Utilizing this motion blur can make relatively uninteresting subjects look more interesting.
You don’t want to take a long exposure image if you want to retain details of any moving objects. For example, if you took a long exposure of a person running, you’d get nothing but a blurry streak across your photo. That’s likely not the look you were trying to go for if you meant to capture a cool action shot.
Long exposure photography is meant as an artistic and creative touch to apply in your photos. Although it’s not going to work for every kind of situation, it can add a lot to your scenic images.
How Long Exposure Photography Works
Long exposures are created with a slow shutter speed. When you use a slow shutter speed, your shutter stays open for a more extended period of time, allowing light to constantly expose on the sensor. Not only does this make for a brighter photo, but it also causes any moving objects to blur between their two positions during the exposure. The result is a blurry streak in your photo.
Since there is more time for the light to expose on your sensor, your photo will become increasingly bright. Since a slower shutter speed equals a brighter photo, neutral density filters are used to counter the shutter speed. Even though your exposure has become bright with a slower shutter, the darkness of an ND filter balances it out. That way, you can use a slow shutter speed even in direct sunlight. Since the ND filter limits how much light can reach your sensor, it makes the entire process easier.
When To Capture Long Exposures
Capturing long exposure images isn’t as easy as setting your shutter speed to 20″ and pressing the capture button. Unlike other styles of photography, long exposures take a little more planning to get right.
The first thing you need to consider is light. How bright is it around you, and will it get darker? To capture long exposures without any filters, you have to utilize darkness to your advantage. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to capture a long exposure in the sun of high noon without an ND filter. However, wait until just after sunset, and it’ll be dark enough to use a slow shutter speed without any issues!
Another great option is to shoot during cloudy days. During a cloudy day, the sunlight is heavily muted and casts an even dull light across a scene. You can use this lack of light to your advantage and find areas to capture long exposures. Since the light remains dull throughout the day, you can capture long exposures at just about any time. I have an in-depth video guide on how to capture long exposures without filters that you can watch here.
Long Exposure Photography Ideas
Now that you know how to photograph long exposures, it’s time to get inspired. Here is a list of fun ideas to capture long exposures of.
The first place you should start shooting long exposures is at a waterfall! Since they’re often darker being tucked away in the forest, they’re extremely easy to shoot. The great thing about waterfalls is that each one looks different. Once you have your long exposure camera settings figured out, you’ll be able to capture stunning waterfall pictures anywhere you go! To learn how to find amazing waterfalls near you, check out this post.
Rivers are another scenic and fun thing to shoot long exposures of. Try to look for unique rock features or colors that are worth photographing. Just within a 100m stretch of a river can be handfuls of amazing photo ops. Depending on where the river is located, you might need to use an ND filter. Especially when it’s in an open area, an ND filter will make the long exposure much easier to shoot.
3. Ocean Waves
One of the best things to photograph with a long exposure is the ocean waves. No two waves will be the same. You can leave your camera set up in one spot and take the same photo over and over, but each will look different. Ocean waves create the perfect opportunity to experiment with shutter speeds. In some cases, you might opt for a slow shutter speed to catch a wave crashing into rocks. In other situations, you might want to calm the ocean completely. This is all easily done with a change of your shutter speed!
Related: How To Photograph Waves
Especially during sunset or sunrise, lakes are an amazing place to shoot long exposures. Even if the water is a little bit choppy, a slow shutter will completely smooth the water. Couple a calm lake with a colorful sunrise backdrop, and you’re about to capture an amazing picture!
5. Streaking Clouds
If you live anywhere with a big open sky, photographing streaking clouds is a great long exposure idea. It’s best to do this during a windy day when the clouds are moving quickly to get the best result. You can try this in just about any location; just make sure to have more focus on the sky than the foreground!
6. Landscape Scenes At Golden Hour
If you really want a professional looking long exposure, get out and shoot landscapes during golden hour. At this time of day, you’ll get the most vibrant colors and the most flattering light on a scene. Just take your camera out to one of your favorite local views and see what kind of amazing photos you can find. With the help of a long exposure, you’ll be sure to capture some mind-blowing images.
7. People Walking
A cool idea for a long exposure photo is of people walking by. For example, if you want a shot somewhere in the city, having a crowd of blurry people can add a lot of interest. With this type of shot make sure you’re not using too long of an exposure, or the people will be hard to see. Ideally, you’ll want to use something between 2 – 10 seconds for this kind of shot.
8. Light Painting
If you take your camera out at night with a flashlight, try setting up a long exposure and run around the frame with your light. The moving light will create a continuous light trail in your photo that looks really cool. You can do anything from creating shapes to writing words; it’s totally up to you. This is a great long exposure photography idea to do with friends!
9. Traffic Trails
If you set yourself up on some kind of overpass or sidewalk, you can shoot the headlights of cars driving past you. Just like with light painting, the headlights and taillights of passing cars blur into one. You end up with a really unique looking effect that looks amazing in night photos!
10. Steel Wool
Lastly, steel wool is a fun long exposure idea that looks amazing in photos. With a bit of steel wool, a whisk, and some string, you can capture images that are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. As steel wool photography does involve fire, it’s crucial you do it right. Be sure to only do it where there is no fire hazard and no risk of damaging property.
Long exposure photography does take a little bit of practice to get right. After a few days, you’ll start to build a mini workflow with your long exposure images, and the whole process becomes more efficient. The great part about this style of photography is that it’s fun for all ranges of ability levels. It’s an easy in-camera effect to wow your audience and makes any location feel larger than life.
Once you’ve gotten into the swing of taking long exposure photos, challenge yourself to find new areas to practice the effect. Whether it’s during a big trip abroad or exploring a new waterfall close to home, there are endless opportunities for you to apply this effect in your photography.