Master long exposure photography

Long exposure is a well-known photography technique that seems to intimidate a lot of new photographers, but capturing silky smooth water images, star trails or blurred clouds is actually much simpler than you think.

If you have an understanding of photographic fundamentals such as shutter speed, aperture and how to expose an image, you’ve already got most of what you need to start shooting long exposures.

This technique can also be used for much more than just landscape or night photography though, so if you’d like to learn how to master long exposure and take more creative images, keep reading.

Night sky shot using long exposure in Joshua Tree National Park
Seascape image
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What is long exposure photography?

Long exposure photography involves using a slow shutter speed when taking an image. This technique is most commonly used to capture a sense of motion when photographing moving subjects, but it can also be used in other situations, for example when shooting in low light or even during daylight when combined with flash to make the subject stand out against an underexposed background.

This technique can be used for photographing anything from night skies, to waterfalls or busy street scenes. Using slow shutter speeds allows us to capture star trails, blur water and even make people ‘disappear’ from a scene.

Seascape long exposure of pebbles and water
Eiffel tower with long exposure car trails
Water motion blur using long exposure

How to do long exposure

Although there’s no single way to shoot long exposure images, the following steps should provide a guide next time you head out with your camera.

Step 1: Plan your shot

While there’s nothing wrong with heading out with your camera and shooting what you see, you have better chances of creating a great shot if you plan it.

Try and identify locations that have potential and try to figure out what time of day would be best to shoot them. You can use certain apps to nail down details such as the weather, position and angle of the sun, and tides.

Apps like TPE and Photo Pills are good resources that you can use to better plan when and where you're going to shoot.

Step 2: Visit the location before

Once you’ve decided on where you’re going to photograph, it’s worth visiting the location before the actual shoot.

This can help you get an idea of what your composition will be, saving you time when you’ve actually got your camera out!

If you can’t get to the location beforehand, make sure to arrive early so that you have plenty of time to figure out your shot, set up your camera, and determine your settings. The last thing you want is to arrive in a rush and miss the best timing.

Model infront of waterfall with long exposure

Step 3: Compose your shot

When you arrive, take a minute to have a look around before getting out your camera.

The earlier recce should have given you a good idea of the best places to shoot, but you never know how things might look on the day.

Once you’ve had some time to look around, get your camera out and experiment with different compositions. It’s easier to frame something up without your tripod.

Seascape long exposure at sunset

Step 4: Set up your tripod

Only once you’ve found the best composition is it time to get your tripod out. Because long exposures typically use shutter speeds of several seconds, a tripod is essential to eliminate camera shake.

If you don’t have a tripod, look for things like benches or walls where you may be able to rest your camera while taking the shot.

Step 5: Take a test shot and set your focus

With your camera fixed in position, take an initial test shot.

This will help you finalise your composition, set your focus point and determine your settings.

It’s best to shoot using manual focus so that nothing changes between shots. So, once you’re happy with how the shot is looking, don’t forget to change your focus mode if you need to.

The initial image doesn’t have to be a long exposure, in fact taking a quick shot of the scene with a ‘normal’ exposure will help you more quickly determine your settings later on.

Step 6: Recalculate your settings

Having taken a quick test shot, it should be easy to figure out what settings you need for the long exposure.

For example, if you’re photographing a river and want to create smooth silky water, a shutter speed of just a few seconds should be sufficient. So if your test shot was correctly exposed using a shutter speed of 1/30 at f4, then a five-stop change to 1” at f22 should give a similar exposure but with more motion blur.

Below is a useful video that explains in more detail how to quickly calculate very long exposures by using higher ISOs to discover the shorter correct exposure first.

Step 7: Add a filter & readjust your settings (Optional)

If you find that you don’t have a large enough aperture range to correctly expose the image while using a slow shutter speed, you may need to use filters.

These can be helpful for darkening either the whole of the image (if you’re using a neutral density filter) or just part of the image (if you’re using a graduated neutral density filter).

Knowing which filter to use can take a bit of trial and error (you may even need multiple filters) and you’ll probably need to re-adjust your settings once you’ve found the right one(s).

Step 8: Take the photo using a shutter release cable

With your filter(s) in place and your settings set, you’re ready to take the picture. To minimise the chance of moving the camera I’d recommend using a shutter release cable. Depending on how slow the shutter speed is and how steady your hand is, this isn’t a must, but it can help.

If you don’t have a shutter release cable, another option is to set the camera’s self-timer to two-seconds. This, along with the mirror lock-up function, can be a good way to help further reduce any camera shake.

How to take long exposure photos in daylight

If you think about long exposure photography, you probably imagine star trails or landscape images at sunset. But long exposures can be done at any time of day or night.

Because a slow shutter speed is often used for long exposure, lower light conditions generally work best, but using filters can overcome the problem of shooting in bright daylight.

Filters like the LEE Filters Big Stopper can reduce the light by 10-stops, making it possible to shoot during the brightest parts of the day.

Daylight long exposure of DC 3 wreck

Long exposure photography ideas

Long exposure is a technique you can use for almost anything, as you can see from some of the images I’ve taken.

Selection of long exposure ideas

Long exposure night photography

Photographing long exposures is probably easiest to do at night for the simple reason that there’s less light, which means you don’t have to worry too much about having to balance your shutter speed and aperture. You can get really creative, photographing anything from star trails to car headlights or even nighttime cityscapes.

Long exposure portraits

Long exposure isn’t a technique that’s only for landscape or night photography. With a little creativity, you can even photograph people using this technique.

Introducing people does, of course, result in additional challenges like keeping the subject sharp while still achieving the correct exposure, so it’s often used in conjunction with studio lighting.

This is a technique you can see in my ‘Seascape fashion photography’ class and ‘Skogafoss waterfall shoot’.

Long exposure and product photography

When photographing products, because the subject is perfectly stationary, it’s easy to use the technique of long exposure (as long as your camera is in a fixed position).

This is a technique I’ve shown in classes such as my sports footwear photoshoot and also in my floral fine art live show.

Using a slow shutter speed for product photography doesn’t only allow you to get creative using techniques like light painting, it can also serve a more practical purpose in allowing you to add additional light and overcome equipment limitations.

As you can see, long exposure is a great photography technique, both creatively and practically, and as long as you understand the basics of photography and have a tripod, it’s incredibly easy to get out and practise. The points above should offer a good starting point to help you master long exposure, and you can also find additional classes throughout our site with even more great photography tips.

Recommended Content

To learn more about how to do long exposure photography, make sure to take a look at other photography tutorials. These include useful tips and techniques to help you master this technique, as well as some additional inspirational ideas. Below are just a few of our most popular long exposure tutorials to help get you started.

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