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Shooting Long Exposure Photography In Daylight

If you’re heard of long exposure photography and know what it is, then you probably associate long exposure photos with shooting at night. However, long exposure photography in daylight can still allow you to create amazing images.

And you don’t have to stay out late.

Taking long exposure images in the daylight can be tricky though and you may need some extra gear to make it work.

Here’s how to make it happen…

The Essential Gear

When it comes to long exposure images, the gear does matter. There are some ways to work around a lack of gear (and we discuss some of them below), but ultimately, to do this well, there are some pieces of kit that are essential.

Tripod

If you want sharp long exposure images (in daylight or anytime for that matter) then you need to stabilize the camera. Even with the stabilization found in many modern cameras, a tripod is still an essential piece of gear for the landscape photographer. This is even more true if you want to shoot long exposure images.

Neutral Density Filter

This is going to be the most important part of shooting a long exposure image. An ND filter is like sunglasses for your camera. It will cut out a specific amount of light (measured in stops) so that you can use a slower shutter speed in brighter conditions.

ND filters come in various strengths. I like to keep a 3-stop, a 6-stop, 10-stop, and even a 15-stop in the camera bag for various purposes.

For daytime long exposure shooting, you’ll probably end up using the 10 stop more often than the others. For long exposure in general, I’d recommend starting with a 6 and 10 stop filter. I use these filters. They are among the sharpest on the market and add very little color case compared to other options out there.

There are also “variable ND” filters that let you adjust the strength of the filter by rotating it. In general, these are more often used for video shooting than landscape photography because they tend to cause a more noticeable loss of sharpness compared to filters that are non-adjustable.

The Setup

The most important part of shooing a long exposure image (in daylight or otherwise) is the setup. Thinking about your shot beforehand, choosing the right composition, and figuring out what you want to show in the scene is essential to creating a compelling final image.

Choose The Right Scene

Some scenes just don’t work with long exposures. Part of the skill of shooting compelling long exposure photos is being able to recognize when and when not to use it.

Identifying scenes that work well is something that comes with experience, but there are some general things you want to look for.

Most importantly, you need something moving in the scene. The primary effect of a long exposure is to blur any motion in the image. Some common things that work well are clouds, flowing water, moving cars, and even crowds of moving people.

Use Movement Effectively

The contrast between the water and the stationary colorful leaves made this a good composition for a long exposure.

Now that you have a scene that has some movement to blur, you need to use tht effectively.

One tactic that often works well is to choose a composition that shows the movement past or around some stationary object. That contrast between blurred movement and a sharp stationary object is very often very attention grabbing.

You should also look to create direction or a path of movement. Simply blurring movement that is not flowing in a constant direction can just look blurry. But when you have movement in the image flowing in a constant path or direction, it creates energy and flow in the image.

You can use that flow of movement to guide the viewer’s eye around the image. When you can combine good composition practices with using movement in the image, then you are well on your way to creating compelling and professional looking long exposure images.

Long Exposure Photography In Daylight Settings

The settings you use will depend on a number of different factors.

The overall brightness of your scene will have the largest impact. Ultimately, you need to get a properly exposed image. So a daylight long exposure images shot at noon on a clear day will require significantly different settings than one shot at 6pm on a cloudy day.

The best way to look at it is to go through a step by step process each time you set up to shoot a long exposure image. Here’s the process I use…

Shutter Speed

Most of the time, shutter speed is one of the last settings you set in landscape photography because it often doesn’t matter. But if you want a long exposure image then you need a slower shutter speed. So you want to set shutter speed first for a long exposure image and make the rest of the settings work.

Depending on the movement that you want to capture the shutter speed may vary. If you want to blur cloud movement, for example, you may need a shutter speed as long as 20-30 seconds. But if you want to blur the water in a fast moving river, just a 2-3 second exposure may do the trick.

A common mistake many photographers make when attempting long exposure is to make the exposure too long. Sometimes a very long exposure can create a beautiful image, but other times it removes all sense of energy in the image. You’ll have to decide for yourself which effect works best for your image. Try varying shutter speeds and see what looks the best.

Aperture

More often than not, you will want a smaller aperture (which means a larger number). This is not dissimilar to a normal landscape shot where you want to maximize the depth of field by using a smaller aperture.

But be careful of going too far here. Many lenses will go up to f/22 or even f/30. But apertures that small will cause something called diffraction. That results in some loss of sharpness in the image.

Most lenses are at their sharpest right in the middle of their aperture range. But going to f/16 is often relatively safe from diffraction.

This was shot with a 90 second shutter speed and a 10 stop ND filter during the day.

ISO

If you are shooting long exposure photography in daylight then you want to use the base ISO of your camera. Some camera’s even have “Low” ISO settings below the base ISO. I try to avoid these Low ISO settings if I can cut the light using more effective methods such as an ND filter.

Use An ND Filter

The easiest way to use an ND filter is to get your entire shot set up, including composition and focus. Then place the filter and adjust the shutter speed to get a correct exposure with the filter on. If the shutter speed isn’t slow enough, then you may need a stronger filter.

Long Exposure In Daylight Without A Filter

If you don’t have a filter, shooting long exposure photography in daylight can be difficult or even impossible if the conditions are especially bright.

But there are a few things you can try.

Use the smalllest aperture your lens will allow. I know I said earlier that very small apertures can cause diffraction. But if that is the only way to cut down on the light coming into the camera, then the diffraction is just something that you’ll have to live with.

Use the lowest ISO available on your camera. Generally, you’ll get the best image quality if you use the base ISO of the camera. This is ISO 100 on a lot of cameras. But some cameras also have “Low” ISO settings that are below the base ISO. Using them can have a slight negative effect on the image quality, but often it is negligible. So take advantage of your lowest possible ISO.

I didn’t need a very long shutter speed (1 second) for the desired effect here and it was late in the day, so I stopped down to f/16 and was ale to do this without a filter.

Test to see what the fastest shutter speed is that still gives you the “long exposure” effect that you are looking for. This is going to be a trial and error exercise. Start with the slowest shutter speed that you can still get a decent exposure with and then try faster shutter speeds from there.

Blend images in Photoshop. If you don’t have an ND filter, this may be your only way to get the blur effect that you want. Start by using the first three methods to get as slow a shutter speed as you can in the camera. Then take multiple images. You can either use an intervalometer or just click the shutter button multiple times. Check your camera’s manual to see if it has built in functionality that can make this easier.

To decide how many images to take, you need to figure out the shutter speed that you want the final image to look like and then divide that by the actual shutter speed you are using. For example, if you want to simulate a 20 second exposure but the best you can do in camera is a 1 second exposure, then take 20 shots.

You can then blend them together by adding all the shots to Photoshop as separate layers and using the “Mean” blending mode. You can get there by going to Layer → Smart Objects → Stack Mode → Mean.

Putting It All Together

Long exposure images are a lot of fun to shoot and doing them in the daytime can seem like a magic to non-photographers.

So get out there and try some of these techniques. Try them right in your backyard by shooting clouds with your home in the background. Practice the techniques. See what works and what doesn’t.

Over time, you’ll be able to create these kind of images without having to think about it that much. So when you find yourself in a beautiful location, you’ll recognize the potential for an amazing long exposure image and be able to make it happen.

Do you have any tips I missed for shooting long exposure photography in daylight? Let us know in the comments below…

Pete LaGregor

Pete LaGregor

Pete is a photographer in New Jersey and specializes in portraits and commercial photography, but loves shooting landscapes and video for fun. You can check out his work on his website.

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