Long Exposure Photography: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

Long Exposure Photography

Long exposure photography is a creative technique that produces stunning images you cannot replicate through normal exposure. It is a creative art that is unique, and no other art form can produce images the same as a camera can with long exposure photography. 

Long exposure photography techniques might seem complicated for beginner photographers. Especially if you have not tried this photography technique or are mainly using the auto exposure modes on your camera. With a little research and practice, you will soon learn that it is not so difficult. You will be creating long exposure technique photos that you will love.

At night, you will be able to create detailed photographs with beautiful lighting effects. Light trails from car lights or motorcycle lights. Star trails on clear, cloudless nights out in the open or even in the city (where light pollution can sometimes be a bit of a problem.) Landscape photography, photography in caves, and even light painting.

Long exposure photography opens up whole new realms of artistic expression with your camera. This is because when you use a long exposure effect you will make photographs that cannot naturally be seen without the use of a camera. We never see a silky waterfall unless it’s in a photo. Light trails and star trails are only ever made using a camera. These are natural to our normal vision. This is what makes long exposure photography so special and unique.

Experimentation is the Key for Successful Long Exposures

As with all new photography experiences, when you first start to experiment the techniques may seem difficult. You might not achieve the results you are hoping for the first few times you try making long exposures. The key is to experiment. Take time and take a lot of photographs.

Review the images you make. Take notes as you are out with your camera. Jot down your settings and why you chose them. The camera’s EXIF data will store the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and a lot of other helpful information. It will not store the reason you chose to use the settings you did. Writing this down and reviewing it as you edit your images later will help you understand what you did right. It will also help you fix the mistakes you will make.

I first started experimenting with long-exposure photography long before digital photography. Using film I had no real idea at first if anything would turn out once the film was developed. Taking notes was essential. 

Now, with digital cameras, it’s so easy to review the photo we have just taken. We can also check the histogram and get a very good idea of the exposure levels in the images we are making. This all helps us to tweak our camera settings on the fly. We will return home knowing we have some good, well-exposed, and composed photographs.

However, taking notes about why you are making the choices you do is very helpful. Write down, or take a photo with your phone, how you set up your tripod. Which direction is it facing? How did you decide to set the height? Did you use a filter? These things are not recorded in the camera’s EXIF data but can be helpful to know later.

portrait with light painting.

Introduction to Long Exposure Photography

Long exposure photography involves using a long-duration shutter speed. Often in low light conditions. It will usually be longer than 2 seconds. Often long exposures are used to capture stationary elements in an image while blurring moving objects like cars and water.

The objective of long exposure photography is to create an image that shows the effect of passing time. It opens a whole new world of photography that many photographers do not attempt. A long exposure shot will do this. Your reward for your efforts is stunning images that you will cherish for years to come. We have heard that once you get the hang of it, long exposure photography can be addictive.

Digital camera technology has contributed to the popularity of long-exposure photography. Photographers now receive immediate feedback on their long exposures. Then they can make adjustments to get the desired image. Getting great long exposure shots does not require special skills or expensive equipment. Most long exposure shots are simply made using slower shutter speeds.

Long Exposure Photo of Big Ben London.

Long exposure photography examples include:

Illuminated moving objects for night photography, like cars, will produce cool light trails in long exposure photographs.

Long exposure techniques are when you open the camera shutter for a long period of time. It could be as short as a few seconds or as long as a few hours. As you let more light into your camera, all moving objects are blurred and all stationary objects stay sharp. For long exposures, you will need a DSLR camera and a sturdy tripod.

To get started you may want to photograph passing cars if you live in an urban area. You’ll also need to feel comfortable being out at night with your camera. If you have a friend who enjoys photography maybe you can ask them if they would like to join you. This way it is safer because you are not on your own and you can bounce ideas around with them.

If you live in a more rural location photographing a river or stream is a good idea for a long exposure subject. If you are near a coastline you could try some long exposure photography of the waves down on the beach.

abstract long exposure image.

9 Simple Steps to Nighttime Long Exposure Photography

Tripod – 

Long exposure photography gear should include a stable and secure tripod. Set your camera up on a tripod and frame your composition. Using a tripod makes long exposure photography easier. You’ll have greater success with your camera securely mounted on a tripod where it will not move while the shutter is open.

Don’t be tempted to buy a cheap, lightweight, small tripod. There’s not much point in carrying a tripod that does not adequately support your camera, for two reasons. The first is that a wonky tripod will not hold your camera still during a long exposure. If it moves, your long exposure photo will be ruined. The second reason is that if your tripod is not sturdy enough it may fall. Your camera will fall too. Then you might end up with no long exposure pictures.

Timer Mode – 

Next, set your camera to self-timer mode. Using the camera’s self-timer is key to keeping your camera from moving as you press the shutter button manually. If you do this your camera will shake and it will ruin your photo. Set your timer to 2 or 3 seconds and this will allow you to have no contact with the camera or the tripod as the exposure is made.

Use a Cable Release or Remote Shutter Release – 

Cable releases and remote triggers are great accessories for long-exposure photography. They allow you to trigger the camera remotely.

A cable release can be plugged into a camera. This allows the photographer to release the shutter without touching the camera when the long exposure begins.

 Using a remote trigger or long exposure app has the same effect, but is wireless. Some can also help to calculate the long exposure time.

Before you rush out and buy a cable release or a remote trigger, check that your camera model is compatible. Not all cameras have a point to plug in a cable release. Some cameras do not have the functionality to work with a remote. Some cameras can be triggered by the use of an app on your smartphone. Any of these accessories can help reduce the risk of camera movement when you are making a long exposure.

nighttime long exposure.

Shutter Priority Mode – 

For your first long exposure photograph, try Shutter-Priority AE mode (TV on Canon, S on Nikon camera’s mode dial). Or if you’re more experienced, switch over to full manual mode so you have complete control over how long you keep your camera shutter open. Using shutter priority mode you might not get a correct exposure because the camera may not set the best shutter speed.

Shutter Speed – 

How you set your shutter speed is somewhat determined by how fast your subject is moving and what it is. If you’re photographing passing traffic at night check how long it takes for a vehicle to pass through your whole frame. If you’re photographing a person walking or a flowing stream, your calculations for the shutter speed you use will be different. Long-exposure photography works best when you match your camera’s shutter speed with the speed of the subject.

ISO – 

If you’re using manual exposure mode, start with an ISO of 100. You want to avoid using a higher ISO setting to minimize digital noise depending on the light source and how much there is.

Aperture – 

Also, if you’re using manual exposure mode, think about what you want for depth of field. You may want to start with f/5.6 and see how your shot turns out. You also need to consider your shutter speed and ISO. Set your aperture well to obtain the optimum exposure and not allow too much light to hit the camera’s sensor.

creative sunburst effect.

Focus – 

Set your camera to manual focus so it doesn’t change while you have the shutter open. Or, if you use the back button focus, you can focus independently from releasing the shutter.

Take Photo – 

When you’re ready, press the shutter to start the self timer and remove your hands from the camera so it doesn’t move. After you have taken your first photo you can decide what adjustments you need to make in either the shutter speed, ISO, aperture, or focus. If your image turned out dark, try a longer exposure. Think about how much brighter you want your photos to be. Do you need to increase your exposure by one or more stops?

Experiment by first slowing down your shutter speed. Take another photo and review it again. If the exposure is still not to your liking, consider increasing your ISO or opening your aperture wider.

Retake the Same Photo – 

Once you have your exposure and focus right, retake the same photo several times. In long exposure photography, no two images are the same if you have moving objects like cars. Photographing a stream or river is more predictable as there’s usually little or no variation in how the water moves through your frame.

waterfall long exposure.

Special Requirements for Daytime Long Exposure Photography

Long exposure photography during the day requires an ND filter (also known as a neutral density filter). ND filters reduce the amount of light passing through a camera lens without changing the color of the scene. These filters are used in bright light conditions. They help to prevent overexposure because they allow you to get proper exposure at a wider lens opening.

Neutral density filters come in different levels of density. Some may reduce the amount of light by a few stops. Others will impede the light by ten or more stops. You can also stack ND filters to reduce the amount of light even further. 

I also sometimes will make use of a polarizing filter to help reduce the amount of light entering my lens. A polarizer has the effect of blocking two stops of light.

How to Achieve Dynamic Long Exposures

Achieving dynamic landscape images is something that many photographers strive to do. One tool in helping in this is the art of long exposure photography. 

Long exposure images help to represent the passing of time and movement in an otherwise still image. If you are one of the many who want to step into this area of photography, understanding some of the basic settings and tools needed for creating long exposure shots is essential before you begin. Learning to use your camera in full manual mode is key to obtaining these types of photographs.

Before you ever set up your camera there are several things to take into consideration for capturing a long exposure image. Make sure you scout your location well ahead of time. Also, keep an eye on the weather. Mother Nature plays a very important role in the success or failure of a long exposure landscape image.  Remember, what you see physically with your naked eye is very different from what a final result of a long exposure will be.  Anything that can move in the scene will most likely be more of a blur in the final image when you use a slow shutter speed.

long exposure photography.

How To Focus for Long Exposure Photography

When it comes to focusing on your subject for a long exposure you may want to put your camera into manual focus mode. Also, make sure you have it secured on a sturdy tripod. This will ensure that your camera does not change the focal point while you use a slow shutter speed.

If you are unsure about fully relying on manual focus there are a couple of options, both of which are available on all modern DSLR cameras. While you have your camera set to autofocus you can press the shutter button half way to lock focus. Once you are happy with the focus change the camera to manual focus (while still holding the shutter button half way). Some people may also choose to use back-button focus at this point.

Back button focus is a helpful tweak that you can make on many cameras. This allows you to focus using one of the buttons on the back of the camera. The shutter release button is disabled for focusing and only releases the shutter when it is pressed. Using this camera setup allows you to focus and release the shutter independently from each other. To learn more about the pros and cons of back button focus and how to do it, check out this article.

Something to consider is using the timer mode when you are ready to take your final shot. Setting a timer will fire the shutter without you having to press the shutter button. This helps to avoid blur in the image that may be caused by pressing the shutter button too hard, too long, or simply bumping the camera. You do not have to set the timer for a long amount of time, a few seconds will suffice.

moving train.

How to Make the Best Long Exposure Photos Using Manual Exposure Mode

I’m a keen manual exposure mode user. I always have been. Learning to manage your own exposures, rather than rely on what the camera wants to do will make you a more creative photographer. Especially when you are taking photos using a slow shutter speed. 

Understanding what is happening with the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO helps you to make better choices. You are in more control over the outcome of your photographs.
Learning to use your camera in manual mode is not as difficult as it might seem. You need to study a little to learn the basics and then practice every day. In this course, the ins and outs of using your camera in manual exposure mode are explained clearly (and a whole lot more.)

Managing Shutter Speed for Long Exposure Times

One of the first settings you should become familiar with before delving into long exposure is shutter speed. Manually adjusting your shutter speed will allow your camera to capture the ‘motion’ of the scene you are shooting. Shutter speed, in more simple terms, is the amount of time in which your shutter is open.  It is generally measured in fractions of seconds, or in the case of long exposure photography, in full-second increments. Using these longer shutter speeds will require the use of a tripod.

Bulb Mode is also something to take into consideration for ultra-long exposure images.  Setting your camera to Bulb Mode will make it possible to leave the shutter open for more than your camera’s limit (usually around 30 seconds).

Taking long exposures at night of the Milky Way or star trails will require the use of Bulb Mode being selected. If you do choose to use Bulb Mode make sure you have something with you to use as a timer. Taking a few different shots at different time intervals is ideal when Bulb Mode is used. Also, a remote is quite useful when it comes to Bulb Mode, and helps reduce camera shake from pressing the shutter button.

cars and stars light trails.

How to Set Your Aperture for the Best Long Exposure Photos

Another thing you want to set manually is the aperture value you use when taking a long exposure. You can think of the aperture as the iris of your camera’s eye. This opening controls the amount of light that is allowed inside the sensor. In terms of long exposure you will want to have a smaller aperture to avoid your images being over-exposed.  Since you are using a longer shutter speed there will already be more light filtering into the camera as the shutter stays open. 

Reviewing the Histogram for Long Exposure Pictures

Checking your camera’s histogram is very helpful in determining the correct aperture. Your cameras’ display can be too bright or dark to show the true exposure. Take a few test shots at different apertures (recording the histogram info each time). Once you have a good histogram you will know the aperture you need for the shot. All the elements of the exposure triangle come together and the long exposure fun begins.

Setting the ISO for Long Exposures

Ideally, when working with long exposure times you will want a lower ISO setting on your camera. This is to help avoid ‘grain’ from posing an issue in the final image. The ISO setting of your camera controls just how sensitive the sensor is to the light that reaches it. So, the lower the ISO number the lower the sensitivity to light. This in turn helps reduce the graininess of an image. Additionally, having your camera set to a lower ISO will aid in a more crisp final image.

daytime long exposure photo.

Using Filters to Help Improve Long Exposure Photography

If you are taking a long exposure image during the daytime you may also want to consider adding a filter to your camera. This will help you achieve longer exposure times. Something such as an ND (Neutral Density) filter can be invaluable in extremely bright daylight situations. As we have discussed, long exposure shots allow for a large amount of light to enter your camera.  And while some of the other settings mentioned aid in compensating for this, a high-quality ND filter should not be ruled out. 

Don’t be alarmed if you are unable to see through your viewfinder (or live view) once the Neutral Density filer is in place. Depending on the strength of your filter this may very well be the case. One important thing to remember when using an ND filter is that you must compensate for the stops of light introduced by the filter.

Now that you have taken the effort to find your perfect location, and the most perfect conditions possible, it is finally time to take your long exposure image. Once you have taken your shot, if time and circumstances allow, you may want to retake the image at least a couple of more times. Since now two shots are ever exactly alike, there could be the tiniest of details change from one to the next that you like or dislike. And like most new things you try, getting grasping everything you need to produce stunning long exposure will require a bit of experimentation … and a lot of patience.

Summary

Mastering long exposure is a process of trial and error. It will take some practice before you learn how to set your camera to get the light trails and night photography looking the way you want it. So, take the time you need to set up your compositions, practice as often as you can in different scenarios, and be patient.

Long Exposure Photography Classes

Mastering Long Exposure Photography
Long Exposure Photography: Shoot Your Own Stunning Photos
Field Photography Magic – Long Exposure & Composition
Long Exposure, Composition, and Landscape Photograph

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