Long Exposure Photography: The Ultimate Guide (w/ Great Tips)

(Last updated on July 14th, 2022)

Have you ever experimented with long exposure photography? Using this technique you can produce unexpected and unique results. The photos you make using long exposure photography can create images that we do not naturally see with our eyes.

Think of those lovely waterfall photos where the water looks soft and silky. Or photos of cities at night with long light trails created by moving traffic. These are made by leaving the shutter open for an extended period of time.

Anyone can make long exposure photographs. You can photograph any subject you like using a long exposure. Often the most interesting photos taken using this technique contain some movement, either of the subject or the camera, or both.

All you need is a camera you can control the shutter speed of, which is most cameras. There are a few other pieces of photography gear that will help. I’ll cover these in the article and how to use them. There’s also plenty of helpful information about how to get started with long exposure photography and some great tips too.

Fall waterfall. A long exposure of a waterfall in the fall showing the effect of the water moving.
Fall waterfall. A long exposure of a waterfall in the fall showing the effect of the water moving.

What is Long Exposure Photography?

Long exposure photographs are made by opening the camera’s shutter for a longer period of time than you normally would. It’s important to understand a little about how the shutter works in order to make the most of long exposure photography.

When you take a photo, you press the shutter button. This causes the shutter inside your camera to open and close to expose the sensor to light and make an image. The length of time the shutter is open is called the shutter speed. This can be as fast as 1/8000 of a second or as long as you want it to be. Normal shutter speeds usually range from 1/60th to 1/1000th of a second.

Most of the time we take photos we use a fast enough shutter speed to avoid blurring. This is usually a setting of 1/125th of a second or faster. There are two main reasons blurring happens with long exposure photography.

Using slower shutter speeds can result in blurring in photos caused by camera movement while the shutter is open. A moving subject can also cause blurring when a slower shutter speed is used.

Intentional camera movement (ICM) is a technique using long exposures that creates unique-looking photos. Moving the camera while the shutter is open for longer than 1/125th of a second will result in blurred images. Managing the camera movement and exposure settings determines the outcome. It’s often difficult to predict, which makes this style of photography so interesting and abstract.

Trees. The photographer has intentionally moved the camera while making a long exposure when photographing these trees.
Trees. The photographer has intentionally moved the camera while making a long exposure when photographing these trees.

Whenever you photograph a moving subject using a long exposure, the subject will blur. Managing your shutter speed in relation to the speed your subject is moving is one of the key factors in mastering this technique. You must decide how much blur you want and then set your shutter speed in relation to how fast your subject is moving. The slower the movement, the longer you’ll need to leave your shutter open to capture a substantial amount of blur. A fast-moving subject will cause blurring at even relatively fast shutter speeds.

Long exposures can also be used without any form of movement. Wherever there’s very little light, you can make a long exposure. The result is an image that we cannot see with our eyes. Because the shutter on a camera can remain open for a long time, it’s possible to take photos even though we may not be able to see anything.

Jetty. The photographer has used a long exposure resulting in the surface of the sea appearing smooth and the clouds blurred.
Jetty. The photographer has used a long exposure resulting in the surface of the sea appearing smooth and the clouds blurred.

Why Use a Long Exposure?

A long exposure is often used to capture an image emphasizing a moving subject. The resulting blurring of the subject enhances the notion of movement in a still image. Used well, a long exposure photograph can show a blurred subject that remains recognizable.

Alternatively, subjects can be rendered indistinct. By using a long enough exposure of a moving subject, the photo might not even show the subject. This is because the light reflecting off the subject as it moves is insufficient to produce an image on the camera sensor.

The creative use of long exposure photography produces images that we are not able to see without the help of a camera. We never see a person blur as they walk by. Or a silky smooth looking waterfall in the same way we can make photos that show this blurring.

I love to use long exposures to evoke the illusion of movement or sometimes even a lack of movement. I do this by controlling the length of time my camera’s shutter remains open. When I want to include motion blur, I’ll calculate the exposure so the shutter speed is balanced with the movement of my subject.

When I want to eliminate a subject from a scene, say people walking in the street, I use a very slow shutter speed. So long as my shutter is open long enough and the people keep moving, the people will not be visible in the photo.

You can use long exposures for all manner of subjects, both moving and static. Waterfalls are one of the most popular slow shutter subjects. Light trails caused by moving traffic at night is also another trendy form of long exposure photography. Doing a quick online search for ‘long exposure photography’ brings up a huge number of great examples.

Keyboard. The typing fingers appear blurred because a long exposure was used This creates the illusion of speed typing.
Keyboard. The typing fingers appear blurred because a long exposure was used This creates the illusion of speed typing.

What Gear Do You Need for Long Exposure Photography?

The minimum camera gear you need for long exposure photography is a camera that you can control the shutter speed on. However, with a few additional tools in your kit, you’ll enjoy using this technique even more.

Here are some items that will help you take better long exposure photos:

  • Tripod
  • Cable release or remote trigger
  • Phone app
  • Neutral density filters
  • Flashlight

A Good Sturdy Tripod

There’s an old adage among photographers. ‘It’s not worth carrying a tripod unless you know you are carrying it.’ This encourages you to use a heavy enough tripod to support your camera and lens well. These days with lighter cameras and carbon fiber tripods, the adage is a bit outdated. But the message is not changed.

Make sure that whatever tripod you mount your camera on that it is secure and will not move. Cheap tripods are often poorly designed and flimsy. The weight of a camera and lens can cause unwanted movement. You also run the risk of having a heavy camera and lens come crashing to the ground when using an insufficient tripod.

A good tripod is necessary to avoid camera movement while you are making long exposures. If your camera does move as you are making an exposure, the whole picture will appear blurry. The only time you want this to happen is when you intend to make images that include intentional camera movement.

Light trails. A long exposure of passing vehicles creates light trails from the red tail lights.
Light trails. A long exposure of passing vehicles creates light trails from the red tail lights.

Cable Release or Remote Trigger

A cable release is a photography accessory that plugs into your camera and allows you to operate the shutter without touching it. A remote trigger is a wireless device or phone app that has the same function.

These tools are helpful because they reduce the risk of any camera movement you may cause as you press the shutter button.

Long Exposure Calculator Phone App

This type of app helps you calculate the exposure settings for your long exposures. Apps like Exposure Calculator and PhotoPills are available to download. Using one of these tools will make your long exposure photography more accurate and enjoyable.

You will not have to wildly guess your exposure settings. These apps tell you the settings that are best based on the settings you use to take a test photo. Some of them even include calculations for when you add neutral density filters to your lens.

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Neutral Density Filters

Neutral density (ND) filters reduce the amount of light entering your camera. ND filters come in a variety of strengths and are measured by the number of stops of light they affect. The darker the filter you use, the longer your shutter speed can be set for.

ND filters are particularly helpful when you want to use a very slow shutter speed during the daytime. Most landscape photographers have a collection of ND filters. This is because they allow for photographing waterfalls and cloudy skies with slow shutter speeds.

Waterfall. Often when photographing waterfalls using a long exposure it is necessary to use neutral density filters.
Waterfall. Often when photographing waterfalls using a long exposure it is necessary to use neutral density filters.

Flash Light

Carrying a flashlight in your camera bag is helpful when you are taking photos at night. Having a light to illuminate your camera makes it easier to see what you are doing as you’re adjusting the settings or mounting your camera on a tripod.

Tips for Long Exposure Photography

As with learning any new photography technique, it’s important to practice taking long exposures. Here are some tips that will help you better understand what to do to get great long exposure photographs.

Night city You could never see this scene the same way with your eyes as it appears in a photo taken using a long exposure
Night city. You could never see this scene the same way with your eyes as it appears in a photo taken using a long exposure.

Use Your Camera’s Self Timer

This is helpful if you don’t have a cable release or remote trigger. By setting the camera’s self-timer you can press the shutter button and take your hand off the camera before the shutter opens.

I like to set my self-timer to the least amount of time delay the camera allows, which is usually about two seconds. This means I am not waiting around for the timer to wind down.

Look at the Lighting

Long exposure photography often works best in scenarios where the lighting is fairly even across a composition. If there’s high contrast it is very easy to blow out the highlights. When the lighting and tones in a composition are nice and even, it’s easier to balance the exposure well.

Waterfall Exposure Times

Start with a long exposure of two seconds and slow it down from there when photographing waterfalls. If there’s too much light to manage even a two-second exposure you may not capture the desired silky effect.

Take some test photos and review them. Pay close attention to the brightest parts of the water. The longer your shutter remains open, the more you risk blowing out these highlights. For long exposures of waterfalls, it’s best to photograph them in subdued lighting. Early morning, evening, or overcast days often produce the best light for long exposures of waterfalls.

Think About  Depth of Field and Focus

Often with a long exposure, you’ll need to use a very narrow aperture and low ISO to balance your exposure. This means that most or all of your composition will be in sharp focus. Setting your focus to the hyperfocal distance will ensure that the maximum amount of the composition will be in focus. There are apps like PhotoPills that will help you calculate the hyperfocal distance and ensure you make the most of the depth of field (DOF).

When you want a shallow DOF you’ll need to use one or more neutral density filters. Adding these will allow you to set a wider aperture and achieve a shallower DOF.

Combine Still and Moving Subjects

I like to make portraits with my subject standing still and having people around them moving. This creates a fun illusion because my subject is sharp and the people moving around them are all blurred.

For this technique remember to balance your shutter speed with the speed the people are moving. Aim to capture enough blur to show motion and so the people can still be seen.

Street motion. I used a slow enough shutter speed to capture motion blur in the passing people as my model remained still while the cameras shutter was open. © Kevin Landwer Johan
Street motion. I used a slow enough shutter speed to capture motion blur in the passing people as my model remained still while the cameras shutter was open. © Kevin Landwer Johan

Conclusion

Long exposure photography is lots of fun to experiment with. Being able to create photos that we never naturally see opens up wide doors for creative expression.

You can utilize any movement you like to help create an illusion of motion in a still image. Whether you mount your camera on a tripod or move it intentionally while using a long exposure, the effect results in blur. We don’t naturally see this so it adds a somewhat mysterious aspect to the photos you can create.

Practice using different camera settings. Vary your shutter speed and balance it with your aperture and ISO settings. Try using long exposures in the daytime and at night. Play with moving lights or a flashlight. Add pops of flash to your subject while the shutter is open. Have a person stand still for half the exposure time and then move out of the frame. There are so many ways to get creative while experimenting with long exposure photography.

Northern lights. The northern lights are captured in a dramatic long exposure photograph.
Northern lights. The northern lights are captured in a dramatic long exposure photograph.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you take long exposure photography?

Long exposure photography is most interesting when there’s some movement involved with your subject or of your camera. To use a long exposure you must set a slow shutter speed. This allows for the movement to be recorded in the most interesting way. How long you set the exposure for determines how your subject appears in the resulting photographs.

What does long exposure mean in photography?

Long exposure means that you open your camera’s shutter for an extended period of time. This results in any movement that is recorded appearing blurred. Using a fast shutter speed with a moving subject captures a sharp image. Using a long exposure, and a slow shutter speed means that the subject will appear blurred in the photo.The length of the exposure and the speed the subject is moving influences the amount of blur.

What shutter speed is best for a long exposure?

The length of time you leave your shutter open for a long exposure depends on how much blur you want your subject to have. It’s also dependent on how much light there is and the aperture and ISO settings you choose.

Using neutral density filters allows you to select a slower shutter speed for long exposure photography. This is because this type of filter reduces the amount of light entering the camera.

What ISO should I use for a long exposure?

The lowest ISO you can set your camera to is usually the best for long exposures, especially during the daytime. A low ISO setting means you can balance the exposure using a slower shutter speed.
At night the ISO setting you use depends more on how much ambient light there is. When it is very dark you may want to use a higher ISO setting than in the daytime. This means you can choose shutter speeds that are not so long.

How long is considered a long exposure?

According to Wikipedia, there is no fixed definition of how long a long exposure is. A long exposure can be considered as a shutter speed too slow to be able to hand hold a camera and take a photo that does not have blur from camera shake. This is also somewhat dependent on the image stabilization in the camera and lens. I like to think of long exposure photography as creating images that we cannot naturally see with our eyes. Using the camera’s shutter speed to make photos containing motion blur or a clear exposure in a very dark place.


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