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What is Long Exposure Photography?

 24th Jun 2021


When you’ve got a handle on camera settings, and understand the fundamentals of how they work together, long exposure photography is a really fun style to experiment with.

It offers some fabulously creative opportunities and can teach you a lot about light, composition and working with movement.

Plus it allows you to get to know your camera and all it’s fantastic functions really well.

If you want to get experimental, stretch those creative muscles and broaden your brilliant brain, give it a try!

In this blog I’ll share some useful information about long exposure photography, such as how you calculate exposure time. I’ll provide tips on how to capture a starry night scene, and cover the all-important kit you need for shooting long exposures at any time of day.  

What is long exposure photography?

It is a technique that utilises slow shutter speeds to create mesmerising and interesting images. Often used to capture the motion of moving elements, as well as being a great way to get more light from a dark scene. 

Long exposure photography is common among many styles such as landscape, portrait, street photography, abstract, architecture and more.

Take a look at these photos of a waterfall in Vietnam.

waterfall dropletsVietnam Waterfall

You can see the difference quite clearly between shutter speeds. I wanted the waterfall to look as though it was in full flow. This creamy texture is often associated with long exposure images of water. 

The aim for this kind of photo is to keep stationary objects sharp while those in motion are blurred. You might see that the branch in the second image is also blurred - that’s because it was moving. The camera will pick up what it sees, for how long it sees it.

If you’re thinking about dabbling in long exposure photography, you need to be confident with using shutter speed, ISO and aperture. They all play an important part in shooting long exposure images. If you don’t feel you quite grasp how they work individually, or how they work together, I’d suggest hopping onto a course to learn more.

Take a look at my 7 Building Blocks course. I’ll take you step by step through each setting. As the course progresses these lessons are brought together, leaving you with the understanding and practical know-how to make them work as an harmonious orchestra. 

You have to calculate long exposure

That’s right, there’s a little science (or in this case maths) behind getting your long exposure right. 

Long exposure is all about shutter speed, which determines how much light reaches the camera sensor. It’s a period that is measured in seconds or fractions of seconds. For example, 1/1000 is a larger denominator and therefore quicker shutter speed than a lower denominator, such as 1/10.

Any movement that occurs in the frame while your shutter is open will be registered. So, it’s important to really take in your surroundings and analyse what motion will be captured and whether you’d want it in the shot or not. 

As a rule of thumb you want to make sure your shutter speed doesn’t exceed the focal length of your camera lens. 

The good news is there’s a tonne of apps and charts available to help you with setting exposures - the wonder of the digital age!

Light can really be your nemesis and overexpose your shot. To avoid this I recommend using nifty neutral density (ND) filters. I’ll explain a step by step process later in the blog.

You can learn more about using ND filters in my ‘How to use lens filters’ blog.

London Red

How to shoot a starry night scene (in brief)

Pinpoint stars create a brilliant backdrop to an interesting foreground. Perhaps you have a beautiful lake or a jagged tree line.... Depending on what natural light you have, from the moon for example, will determine whether you need to light up the foreground manually. 

If you want to capture stars as sharp points in the sky, put your lens as wide an f/stop as it will allow. Then you want approx 20 seconds of shutter speed. Then just increase the ISO until you’ve got a good exposure. You’ll need to do a bit of trial and error here to get it right.

Be aware, if you leave your shutter open too long, you’ll start to get that blurry shooting star effect.

However, if that’s what you’re after, then depending how much trail you want your stars to have will decide the length of exposure. 

Kit-wise for your night shoot, you’ll need a nice sturdy tripod, a camera that can shoot manual mode. For lenses you can use your standard kit - there’s no need to buy a new lens if you’re just starting out or experimenting. However, most people opt for a wide angle lens. For shooting star trails, you’ll also need an intervalometer (remote shutter release) if your camera doesn’t have one built in. 

Another thing to think about if you're shooting a lengthy exposure, is to have spare memory cards and charged spare batteries to get you through the whole shoot.

Star trails make for a magical and artistic picture, but they don’t always lend themselves to a backdrop. If you have things in the foreground, it could all become a bit too messy. Use your photographer brain and decide what works best for your image. 

Equipment required for long exposure photography

You’ll need to have a camera with manual settings so that you can adjust the shutter speed, ISO and aperture.

Most DSLRs will allow for shutter speeds of up to 30 seconds. If you want to shoot for longer, then you’ll be looking for a camera that has Bulb Mode or Time Mode.

A tripod is essential. You might find yourself on location without one and try to get inventive using what’s around you, rocks, trees etc. but let’s be real - that’s not going to be a safe and viable solution. 

If you attempt a long exposure with your camera handheld, even if you’re being super super still, you are still going to get an unfocused and blurry outcome. What you want to be sharp won’t be. That’s just the nature of it.

This is why most long exposure photo shoots aren’t spontaneous, unless you’re always prepared. Every photographer should have a tripod in their kit, or else you may as well just be a happy snappy with a smartphone.

You don’t need to go and buy the most expensive looking one on the market, just get something sturdy, reliable and a not-too-budget-option (these tend to break easily if used often). Remember you might be lugging it about, so make sure you’ve got a decent way to carry it.

Having a remote shutter release is handy if you do decide to go bulb / time mode, allowing for a longer shutter speed to take place. Plus it counts for any unwanted vibrations when you press the button.

Neutral density filters. I mentioned ND filters earlier in the blog. You might get away without one, but ideally if you plan to shoot in the day, you’ll want some filters to hand.

Related content: How to use lens filters.

How to take a long exposure photograph

Now you know what it is, how it works in different ways and what you need to do it well. Your next step is to give it a go! Get out there and work with your camera to see what creative images you can come up with.

It’s best to approach your scene or subject as you usually would. Thinking about the lighting and composition. Choose your main subject, what do you definitely want in sharp still focus (if anything) and what movement do you want to capture, and avoid. Is there motion that will detract from your subject? If so maybe don’t include it…

Position your camera on the tripod, set the focus on your key subject. Next take a few shots in different positions, at different angles, and choose what looks most interesting to you. If there’s no reason to use a slow shutter speed, i.e. no moving elements or need for letting in more light, then there won’t be much benefit in doing it.

Next you need to:

  • Set a standard aperture (in manual mode)
  • Take some test shots until you’ve got the right exposure (checking the histogram rather than relying on the display)
  • When you’re happy,  write down your shutter speed (this is your baseline)
  • Put a 2 or 3 stop ND filter in place and tweak the aperture to get the correct exposure
  • You can then start to play with bigger ND filters (e.g. Lee Big Stopper) to extend the shutter speed even further… until you achieve your preferred result.

FYI: a 2-stop ND filter reduces the light by 4 times (2×2) and a 3-stop filter reduces the light by 8 times (2x2x2). This is known as the Filter Factor
Looking for some more support?
If you find yourself struggling to grasp the necessary camera settings and techniques, or your pictures just aren’t coming out as you’d hope, I can help.

Join me in a workshop or sign up to one of my detailed online courses, where I can help you master the fundamentals of photography.

You would also benefit from joining one of my Art of Exposure webinars. You only need to commit 1.5 hrs and you’ll leave knowing how to use your three main camera settings for exposure excellence.