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Long Exposure Photography: In-Depth Guide • PhotoTraces

Are you struggling to do stunning long exposure photography?

While long exposure techniques can get you ultra-powerful results, capturing beautiful long exposure images can seem difficult, if not downright impossible.

Long Exposure Photography Guide

Fortunately, creating long exposure photos isn’t as hard as you think.

In fact, in this guide, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about long exposure photography–so that, by the time you finish, you’ll be able to capture long exposure shots like a pro!

What Is Long Exposure Photography?

Long exposure photography is a technique that allows you to capture several minutes (or hours) of a scene with one image.

In other words:

Instead of capturing a photo of a moment, you capture a photo over time. You press your camera’s shutter button, and your camera continues to take a photo.

This allows you to create beautiful motion blur effects, because elements in your scene (such as clouds or waves) move during the course of the exposure. 

Now, there is no easy way of separating long exposure photography from “short” exposure photography. But long exposure photos generally have a shutter speed of less than 1/30s or so, and often go on for far longer; some landscape photographers capture long exposure images that last several hours or more.

Long Exposure Photography: In-Depth Guide 1
Long exposure photo taken at Niagara Falls

Shutter Speed and Long Exposure Photography

Your camera’s shutter speed is a fundamental part of long exposure photography. The shutter speed defines the length of your exposure–and so, if you want to capture long exposure images, you must use a long shutter speed.

But what will shutter speed actually do for your photos?

Well, with a long shutter speed, you can achieve two things:

Illusion of Motion

First, you can create images that include the illusion of motion. This is because a longer shutter speed can introduce blur into a photo, especially if you have a fast-moving subject.

So if you use a long shutter speed to photograph a person running across a lawn, the person will appear blurred in the final image.

Note that blur will be introduced at different shutter speeds, depending on how fast the person is moving (the faster the person, the faster the shutter speed can be while still producing blur).

Long Exposure Photography: In-Depth Guide 2
Capturing motion in Las Vegas at night

Surreal Interpretation

Second, you can create images that offer a level of surrealist interpretation. These photos don’t capture “nature” so much as an artistic version of nature.

Long Exposure Photography: In-Depth Guide 3
I used long exposure to create abstract, surrealistic landscape photo

How to Take Long Exposure Shots

There are two types of long exposure images that you need to be familiar with:

  • Long exposures at night.
  • And long exposures in the day.

Let’s take a look at each one in turn:

Long Exposure Photography at Night

First of all, it’s important to note that long exposure photography at night is not the same as astrophotography.

That said, how do you capture long exposure images at night? What’s the technique?

Well, nighttime long exposure photographers are hampered by one key problem:

They can’t see.

At night, you’re often faced with pitch darkness, or near pitch darkness, which means that you won’t be able to compose carefully for a good shot.

So what do you do?

You scout the location in advance.

Long Exposure Photography: In-Depth Guide 4
I used 15s shutter speed to capture light trails and moving clouds

Step 1: Scout the Location in Advance

And while you’re scouting, mentally note (or write down!) the elements of the scene that can benefit from a long exposure technique.

Any moving elements work well, including waterfalls, breezy water, moving clouds, and much more.

You’ll also want to note the direction and speed of the wind and running water. It will help you to estimate the shutter speed you need to get your desired level of blur. 

For example, fast-moving clouds will let you achieve a long exposure blur effect at much faster shutter speed.

I often combine traditional sunset photography with the night photography session.

I arrive at the location just before the Magic Hours. I photograph sunset during Golden Hour. And I have plenty of time during Blue Hour for scouting before it gets completely dark, and I am ready for night long exposure photography.

Step 2: Set up Your Equipment

If you did location scouting well, you know exactly where to set your camera and tripod.

And make sure your tripod is sturdy because it’s impossible to do long exposure photography without a good tripod. When you keep the shutter open for tens and, sometimes, hundreds of seconds, even small movements of the poorly stabilize camera will ruin your shot.

Step 3: Compose Your Shot

By the time you are ready to shoot, it will be completely dark, and the only way to nail interesting composition is to set up your shot based on composition you defined during scouting.

Again, make sure to bring a sturdy tripod; otherwise, you’ll introduce lots of blur into your image, and not the kind that long exposure photographers are generally after!

Step 4: Focus

Next, set your focus. If it is not completely dark yet, your camera may allow you to use autofocus, so feel free to try it. 

If you succeed with autofocus, make sure you lock the focus once focus is acquired, to prevent your camera from refocusing. 

But if the autofocus doesn’t work out, then manual focusing is always a strong option. These days I do not even bother with autofocus; I always use manual focus for predictable results. 

Step 4: Set Exposure

Once you’ve nailed focus, then switch your camera to either Manual mode or Bulb mode. Note that Manual mode will often only allow you to shoot at exposures of up to 30 seconds, so Bulb mode will be necessary if you plan to go beyond this.

(On Fujifilm cameras, you’ll want to use the T, or time, mode.)

Next, press the Auto Exposure Lock button to lock exposure.

Step 5: Fine-Tuning Exposure with Exposure Compensation

If you don’t use a mirrorless camera that allows you to see the histogram before pressing the shutter button, you should take a test shot, then make any exposure changes based on your test shot’s histogram.

Step 6: Take the Shot

And then, finally, capture your nighttime long exposure image!

To prevent accidental camera shake, make sure you use shutter release (wireless or wired) or 2-second delay camera functionality to trigger the shutter. The camera will shoot the photo 2 seconds after you have pressed the shutter.

Step 7: Verify Captured Image

Make sure to check the final image for accurate focusing the proper exposure.

Step 8: Start Again from Step 3

Long Exposure Photography: In-Depth Guide 5
Long exposure photography at night

Long Exposure Photography in Daylight

Long exposure photography in daylight is similar to long exposure photography at night–except that you generally have too much light to work with, which makes it impossible to create long exposure images with a standard camera/lens combination.

That’s why daylight long exposure photographers carry neutral density filters, which darken the scene and allow you to use a long shutter speed without overexposing the image.

So if you’re shooting a long exposure in broad daylight, use the same instructions that I’ve given above. But after you fine-tune the exposure, mount the neutral density filter and compensate for the necessary exposure changes.

(Why don’t you mount the neutral density filter prior to this point? Because neutral density filters are dark, which means they can make it so you can’t see through your camera’s viewfinder.)

If you’re not sure how to change your exposure based on the neutral density filter, I recommend looking up an ND filter calculator or app, which will quickly and easily generate your adjusted camera settings.

Long Exposure Photography: In-Depth Guide 7
Using long exposure photography in daylight

Long Exposure Photography Without Tripod and ND Filters

I want to share with you a technique I use quite often. The technique allows me to achieve a long exposure effect without a tripod and without ND filters.

I take a series of shots, most often 10 or 12, of the same subject with approximately 1-second intervals between each shot. And later I merge a series of shots into one image in Photoshop.

If you want to learn more about the technique, check my 2 case studies below:

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