Long Exposure Photography (Step-by-step Tutorial)

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What Is Long Exposure Photography?

Long exposure photography is a type of photography where a long shutter speed is used to create a blurring effect for objects that are moving in the frame. The shutter speed can be as short as a second or as long as multiple minutes.

Long exposure images allow a photographer to capture movement in a scene even though it is a still image. It also allows you to smooth out movement in the frame such as ripples in a lake or use long exposures of waves in an ocean to change the look of a photo altogether.

You can also use a long exposure for creative purposes like creating light trail photos or cool effects like light painting with sparklers.

So here are the steps for long exposure photography that I use all the time.

What You’ll Need

Camera & Lens

Just about any camera will work as long as it has the ability to attach a tripod mount. A DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera is the ideal option as they typically have all the functionality you’ll need for long exposures, always have a tripod mount, and the ability to switch lenses gives you the versatility to get creative with your compositions.

While you can create amazing long exposure images using any focal length, if you are looking to capture motion blur across a large area, then a wide-angle lens usually works best. Capturing a wide field of view makes it a lot easier to get more motion into the frame.

But don’t disregard longer focal lengths for long exposures. While you won’t be able to capture those large sweeping vistas or clouds streaking across the sky, a longer focal length will let you focus on a single subject and use the long shutter length to blur the background to further isolate the subject.

Check out our guide to the Best Lens For Seascapes.

So the bottom line here is to be open minded about your approach and experiment. Don’t limit yourself to one approach.

Tripod

The key element of long exposure photography is capturing the frame over the course of time to create motion blur.

So you need to ensure that the camera stays steady during that time so a solid tripod is necessary.

ND Filter

A neutral density (“ND”) filter cuts down on the amount of light entering your lens.

This is an essential piece of gear for shooting long exposures. It can be very difficult to get a good exposure at longer shutter speeds without an ND filter.

ND filters come in varying degrees of strength denoted by the amount of stops of light that they cut out. A 6-stop and 10-stop ND filter are among the most commonly used for long exposure shots, but you can find them as high as 15-stop too.

It’s a good idea to invest in a quality ND filter because the cheap ones can cause a loss of sharpness and add a color cast to your image that can be difficult to fix in post-processing.

I use ND filters from Breakthrough Photography because they are among the sharpest out there and don’t shift the colors in the image. For more detail on choosing one, check out our guide to the best lens filters.

Remote Shutter Release

If you want to shoot longer than 30 seconds on most modern cameras, then you will need a remote shutter release. This is a device that you attach to the camera that lets you trigger the shutter remotely.

To shoot with shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds, you can set the camera on “Bulb Mode” and press the shutter release once to start the exposure and again to end the exposure. Some will let you set a timer in the device itself and others require you to time it yourself.

Recommended Course For Learning More…

Mastering Long Exposure Photography Mastering Long Exposure Photography

This course from Creative Live covers all the basics of long exposure photography as well as some creative uses of it and advanced techniques.

Photography Goals is reader-supported. When you buy products through the links on our site, we may earn a commission.

Finding The Right Location

Getting a good landscape photo means finding the right spot, and long exposure photography is no different. In fact, finding the location and planning the shot is even more important.

Looking For Movement

Using movement in the frame effectively is really the key to good long exposure photography.

To create a good long exposure image you need some kind of movement in the frame. Even the longest exposure just looks like a normal snapshot if nothing in the frame is moving.

But you can’t just have any movement. Things like people or animals moving in the frame during a long exposure just look like a blurry mess.

The type of movement that works best is when you have consistent movement along a certain path. Things like clouds or water are great examples. But you can also use stars to create star trails or car lights moving along a street for light trail photography.

This first image was shot at 1/25 of a second. At that shutter speed, you can see the structure and detail in the waves even though we know they are moving.

Nikon D750 | 1/25 sec. | 23mm | f/11 | ISO 100

Now, compare this image below that was shot with a shutter speed of 30 seconds. This was shot at the exact same location just two minutes after the shot above. I used a 10-stop ND filter to get the 30-second exposure.

Nikon D750 | 30 sec. | 23mm | f/11 | ISO 100

You can see the dramatic effect that the longer exposure had on both the water and the clouds above. The waves have blurred into an almost glassy appearing sheet while much of the detail in the clouds have disappeared.

You also see that the reflection of the sun on the water has softened considerably. This can often be a helpful technique for softening or eliminating overexposed reflections on water, especially when combined with a polarizing filter.

Interestingly, the people fishing were staying remarkably still and are still relatively sharp!

Composition For Long Exposure Photography

Just like any type of photography, good composition is critical to creating a compelling image.

The same composition techniques that you would use for any other type of photography still work great for long exposures but there i san additional element that you need to take into consideration…

The path and direction of the movement in your image is often the most critical compositional element in a long exposure.

Because you can’t always visualize this before taking the photo, you may need a few tries to get it just right. Be sure to look at each image after you take it and adjust your composition if necessary.

You’ll also notice that when you are dealing with movement in nature such as clouds or water, every image will be a little bit different. So don’t stop after one shot. The next one may be even better.

As you shoot more long exposures, you’ll get better and better at being able to visualize how the photo will look before you actually take it. Like anything…keep practicing.

Setting Up For The Shot

One common mistake made by photographers shooting any kind of landscape photography is setting up in the first spot they find and never trying new locations.

To avoid this, I like to walk around a place and take some photos with the camera still in my hand. You can even use your phone for this. It will help you visualize all the different compositions available.

Once you have your shot and composition chosen, the first thing you want to do is make sure your tripod is solid and stable.

In most cases, this will be as simple as opening the tripod.

A few things to keep in mind though:

  • If your tripod has a center column, don’t extend it. Keeping it lowered will give the camera more stability.
  • Extend the thickest sections of the legs first. Avoid using the skinny bottom sections if you don’t need the height.
  • If you are shooting on softer ground like sand, dig the legs into the sand. If your tripod has spikes, this is the time to use them.
  • Hang your camera bag or something else heavy on the center of the tripod if it has a hook to let you do so.

Now that your tripod is nice and steady, you’re ready to figure out the camera settings…

Make sure you secure the tripod for a long exposure photo, especially on unstable ground.

Camera Settings For Long Exposure Photography

There are no right settings for long exposure photography, but there are some things to keep in mind when you are setting up for the shot.

Aperture

There’s nothing unique about shooting long exposures when it comes to aperture. You should use an aperture of at least f/8 or higher to ensure that as much of the scene is in focus as possible.

Using a higher f-stop (which means a smaller aperture) also helps you use longer shutter speeds without needing as strong of an ND filter. In lower light environments, you may even be able to avoid using one altogether.

However, make sure you avoid going to the extreme here. Using the smallest apertures your lens is capable of will introduce something called diffraction. This causes a loss of sharpness in the image even when it is in focus.

ISO

You should almost always be able to use the base ISO for your camera when using long shutter speeds. That will ensure you have the cleanest and sharpest images possible. With longer shutter speeds, not having enough light shouldn’t really be an issue, so being able to use the cleanest ISO shouldn’t be a problem.

Very long shutter speeds can introduce noise into the image (similar to what you might get at higher ISO settings) so keeping the ISO low will give you the best chance to minimize that.

The one time when you might end up increasing the ISO is when you don’t have quite the right strength ND filter and need to add a little more brightness to the exposure but don’t want to change the shutter speed or aperture. In that situation, just increase it ever so slightly to get the proper exposure.

Shutter Speed

So the whole point of long exposure photogrpahy is to use long shutter speeds, right?

But exactly how long is a long exposure?

There are no hard and fast rules as to how long the exposure needs to be. You can create a “long exposure” with a shutter speed anywhere from 1/2 a second to an hour or more.

It really depends on what you’re shooting, how fast the movement is, and what effect you are going for.

The best way to explain what settings to use for your long exposure image is with some examples below…

Long Exposure Examples

The best way to get comfortable with long exposure photography is by trying it out. Here are some examples of long exposures I have taken over the years. I’ve included the settings with each image. Keep in mind that for most of these, I also used an ND filter to be able to shoot at these settings and still get a proper exposure.

Waterfalls and Rivers

When you are shooting something moving rather quickly, you don’t need an extremely long shutter speed to show the movement and create motion blur. Flowing water such as waterfalls and rivers moves rather fast.

In the image below, I used a 1.3 second exposure to smooth out the flowing water.

Nikon D5100 | 1.3 sec. | 20mm | f/8 | ISO 100

A much longer exposure for shots like this can blur the water so much that you can lose all sense of movement and dimension in the flowing water. It can still be a nice effect for certain situations, though. So experiment and see what works best.

Waves On The Sand

Waves at the beach are another example of fast-moving water. You can see in the image below that a 3-second exposure was plenty long enough to create motion blur for the waves.

For this kind of image, you don’t want to go too long (like the 30-second exposure above) because you tend to lose all the definition and motion in the waves. Here, you can still see some structure of the waves in the form of white streaks from the foam. These highlights in the wave are what really capture the viewer’s eye and can be used as leading lines.

Nikon D5100 | 3 sec. | 20mm | f/8 | ISO 100

You can also see in this image that the shape and definition in the clouds is still visible. So let’s talk about clouds…

Clouds

Clouds move slower than waves, at least from our perspective down here on the ground. So to show the movement in clouds, you’ll typically need a much longer shutter speed.

This image below was shot with a 270 second shutter speed (that’s 4.5 minutes!).

Nikon D5100 | 270 sec. | 24mm | f/9 | ISO 100

Another thing to keep in mind when shooting clouds is that the clouds at the top of the frame (which are the closest to you) will blur more than the ones farther out on the horizon. Even though all the clouds in the sky are moving at roughly the same speed in the sky, the ones closer to you will travel farther within the frame due to the perspective, especially with a wide-angle lens.

Lakes and Still Water

Not all long exposure photos need to be about movement. Sometimes you can use a long exposure to change the appearance of certain things in your image. For example, a lake that is relatively still but still has ripples in the water can be made to look glassy smooth.

The image below was taken at a large reservoir lake. There was just a very light breeze that day but I wanted to smooth out even the slightest of ripples in the water. So a 15 second exposure took care of that. The clouds weren’t moving too fast so that shutter speed allowed me to retain the detail in the clouds too.

Nikon D5100 | 15 sec. | 18mm | f/16 | ISO 100

When you are shooting any image with water, it is always a good idea to experiment with different shutter speeds (including some long exposures). I didn’t go into the image above planning a long exposure, but after the first few shots, I wanted to simplify the composition and remove the distraction of water ripples.

So I put on an ND filter and was able to get the shot I wanted.

Car Lights

Light trail photography is a lot of fun and a unique way to use long exposures.

The shutter speed to use for this type of shot depends on the speed of the vehicles and the length that you want the light trail to be.

In the image below, it took each vehicle about 2-3 seconds to pass the portion of the road that is in the frame. So I started with a 2.5 second shutter speed and then adjusted the aperture to make sure the image was properly exposed.

Nikon D5100 | 2.5 sec. | 17mm | f/14 | ISO 100

The image above is actually multiple images layered on top of one another in Photoshop. I took a single frame for each vehicle that went by and then combined them to include all the trails in one frame. The ones higher up in the air were from a bus that went by. Sometimes a little luck can help your image.

Common Questions About Long Exposure Photography

When should you do long exposure photography?

The best time (and easiest) is when you in a low light environment. Before sunrise or after sunset are great. But you can shoot long exposures anytime with a strong enough ND filter. You should use long exposures to blur motion in the image, either to show movement or to change the appearance of an element in the frame.

How long is a long exposure?

A long exposure can be anywhere from a few seconds to minutes or even hours. There is no real rule to what is considered a long exposure. Any time you are lengthening the shutter speed to create motion blur on purpose in your image, it can be considered a long exposure.

Is long exposure the same as slow shutter speed?

Yes, long exposure is essentially the same as slow shutter speed. Long exposure is generally used to refer to the effect or type of photography while slow shutter speed is the way you can achieve a long exposure image. Sometimes you will use a slow shutter speed when there is no movement in the frame just because there is very little light. That typically wouldn’t be referred to as long exposure photography…just a slow shutter speed.

Why do photographers use long exposure?

Photographers use long exposure to use the effect of motion blur in their images for creative purposes. That can be to add the feeling of movement in a still image, smooth out certain elements of the frame, or to create special effects like light trails or star trails.

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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