Change your view with long exposure photography!  Use longer shutter speeds to create texture, depth and light in your scene!

Long exposure photography is a straight forward technique that can add new depths to your images.  By simply changing the length of time we leave our camera’s shutter open, we can completely change the images we create.  Using longer shutter allows us to get creative with texture and light so that we can convey motion and emotion in what may otherwise be a static and dull scene.

What is Long Exposure Photography?

Long exposure photography is a technique that uses a longer shutter speed to change the elements in a scene from what you experience with the naked eye.  By leaving your shutter open longer, you can make lights brighter, convey motion or change the texture of an element in your scene.  Seascapes with silky smooth water or cityscapes with bright red light trails are both examples of long exposure photography.

When should I use long exposure photography?

You can use long exposure for several reasons, including any of the following:

  • To blur or smooth water or clouds
  • To convey motion, such as with vehicles, animals or people
  • To create light trails
  • To use light painting
  • To properly expose night scenes
  • To create star trails or create night sky scenes
  • To capture lightning or fireworks
  • To “write” with sparklers
  • To properly expose the ambient lighting of any scene while using flash to properly expose your subject

This is by no means a comprehensive list of when you can or should use long exposure photography.  You are only limited by your imagination and creativity!

learn to do long exposure photography

Equipment for long exposure photography

Before we dive into technique, there are a few pieces of gear you’ll need to accomplish a long exposure image.

  1. A camera that allows you to fully control shutter speed
  2. Tripod
  3. Remote or shutter release (optional)
  4. Neutral density filters (optional)
  5. Speedlight (optional)

I’ll describe using a neutral density filter and the speedlight  a little later.  But at a minimum, you’ll need to have a camera that functions in manual mode, preferably with a bulb mode and a tripod.  If you don’t have a tripod, you can use sandbags or otherwise stabilize your camera, but high quality long-exposure shots usually require the use of a tripod.

A remote

A remote also helps stabilize the camera because you can fire it remotely, eliminating any shake your camera might have from the physical act of your finger pressing the shutter.

Bulb mode

In some cases, you’ll want to hold your shutter open longer than your camera settings can accommodate.  That’s when bulb mode comes in.  Bulb modes lets you hold your shutter open for as long as the shutter button is depressed.  You can hold your shutter open for 45 seconds or 4 minutes.

ND Filter

If you’re shooting a scene outside in bright light, you may come to a point where you can’t close down your aperture enough to compensate for the longer shutter speeds.  That’s where a neutral density filter, or ND filter, comes in.

ND filters screw onto the end of your lens or fit into a frame at the end of your lens.  They are kind of like sunglasses for your camera.  A neutral density filter blocks light from entering your camera lens, letting you leave your shutter open longer.  Quality ND filters won’t affect any other aspect of your image, like sharpness or color temperature, that’s why they are called neutral density filters.

ND filters give different levels of darkening and are rated with both a numerical designation and a “stop” designation.  The “stop” designation makes more sense to me because I understand that for every stop of the filter, my scene is losing half my light.  So a 10 stop ND filter blocks 10 stops of light.  Put another way, it reduces the light coming into your lens by 1000 times.

Make sure you have a high-quality ND filter.  A poor quality filter can cause a significant loss of sharpness or vingetting as well as affect color.

To use the ND filter, set up your camera, lock in focus and then put the filter on the scene.  These filters are incredibly dark, so much so that sometimes you can’t even see the scene through the view finder with one on.

For more discussion and techniques on using a ND filter, head on over to this article!

How do you take long exposure shots with water?

One of the most basic long exposure shots to master is depicting water.  No glorious waterfall?  No problem!  A basic bathroom or kitchen faucet will allow you to practice the technique without booking a trip to Yellowstone.

Begin by setting up your tripod.  Because we will be holding our shutter open longer, we will use the tripod to overcome camera shake.  Go ahead and turn OFF your vibration reduction or image stabilization mechanism.  We won’t need it.  In fact, if you leave it on, the VR technology outthinks itself and actually causes blur.

Put your camera in manual mode and position it so that you can capture the flow of your faucet.  Set your focal point and dial in some basic settings.  Try starting with f/4, ISO 100 and adjust your shutter speed until you achieve a proper exposure, per your in-camera light meter.

But we want to create that silky smooth look, so we want to start increasing the time our shutter is open.  Remember that you’ll need to adjust your aperture too, closing it down to compensate for the increased shutter speed or you’ll blow out your image.  Take a few shots at a few different shutter speeds and see what happens to the texture of the water.  As you continue to leave your shutter open for longer periods of time, you’ll see the texture of the water change.  That’s long exposure success!

You can use the exact same technique to shoot waterfalls with silky smooth ribbons of spill or smooth out waves, plants, clouds or smoke!

create light trails with long exposure

Creating light trails with long exposure

The same basic technique is used to create light trails in a scene, but instead of holding the shutter open to capture the water, you’re holding the shutter open long enough for lights to move through it.

A great place to practice is any street at night with some amount of vehicle traffic.  Begin with your camera on the tripod turned to manual.  Compose your shot and start with the aperture and ISO you feel best compliments your scene.  Take a test shot and see how it looks.  Are the cars’ headlights appearing as points of light or as long threads of light?  If it’s the former, lower your shutter speed a few clicks and adjust your other settings accordingly if needed.  Keep lowering your shutter speed and adjusting your other settings until you achieve the light trails you want!

This is also the same technique I use to capture fireworks and lightning.  I compose my scene, aiming my lens at approximately where the fireworks or lighting is firing and then hold my shutter open hoping the lightning fires and I get it in my scene or the fireworks go off in the frame.  With fireworks, I vary the length of my shutter speed using the bulb method to create different looks.  You can hold it for two seconds and create a small light trail, or hold it open for several seconds and catch multiple fireworks bursts.  Same thing for lightning.  You can keep it open for 30-45 seconds and sometimes catch multiple lightning strikes or cloud lightning in a single frame.

Convey motion with long exposure

Convey motion with long exposure photography

If a fast shutter speed stops action, longer shutter speeds can create action.  You can use a longer exposure to create blur in a single part of your image, conveying to the view that part of the scene was moving.  A great example is a person standing still while a subway, bus or train roars past them.  The person is still but the blurry roaring subway shows motion and creates an entirely different feel to the scene than if you simply stopped the action with a slow shutter.

One technique to try is panning– shooting with longer shutter speeds and move your camera with the subject, keeping them in focus while the background goes blurry.  Start by tracking your subject as it comes into your scene and locking focus.  Then pivot your body slightly to keep your subject centered in the viewfinder.  Keep your body pivoting with the subject while you fire your shutter.  Continue to track the subject and pivot with your body through the shot.  The key to this if finding a good rhythm and making your movements fluid and smooth.

light painting and long exposure

Dragging the shutter – using ambient and flash to create drama

You can also use long exposure in conjunction with flash and really up the creativity factor.  Essentially you are working with two different light sources – ambient and flash.  Using a longer exposure allows you to capture the ambient light and expose the scene to your liking and the flash exposes your subject to your liking.  This technique is often called “dragging the shutter” because your shutter is still open when the flash is done firing.

Wedding photographers will use this technique when shooting at the reception.  During the first dance, for example, the bride and groom may be dancing in a spotlight.  If you simply expose for the bride and groom, you may get nothing but the couple spotlighted against a black background.  But if you “drag the shutter,” and shoot with a shutter speed of 1/60 or so, you’ll let in that soft ambient light to bring out details in the background and let your flash do the work of properly exposing the shutter.

This is also how photographers achieve photos of couples illuminated under a night sky or the Northern Lights or products illuminated by flame.

How do you do long exposure on a Nikon camera?  How do you do long exposure on a Canon camera?

Regardless of the camera brand, the technique will be the same.  My advice is to start in manual mode, represented by M on most camera dials.  Choose an aperture and ISO that fit how you want the scene represented and start with your shutter at something like 1/60.   Increase your shutter speed or decrease your shutter speed from there to achieve the desired effect.  I can’t give you precise settings because every scene is different and the perfect look is entirely a personal preference.  My beautiful blur may be nonsense to you!  The trick is trying different shutter speeds (and adjusting your aperture or ISO as needed) to get a look you love!

A minute to learn a lifetime to master

Long exposure photography is so much fun to experiment with and use creatively to build dynamic images.  I must warn you, though, it can be addicting.  Once you harness the power of long exposure photography to bring a scene to life, you won’t want to stop.  Experiment with different shutter speed lengths, different times of day and night and different scenes to find a look that makes you happy.  Not a big fan of waterfalls?  Use long exposure with athletes, animals, clouds, smoke, fire or even the weeds and wind in your backyard.  Get creative and get shooting.

For more in-depth articles on specific long exposure techniques, check out these great tutorials:

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