5 Tips for Getting Sharper Images When Doing Long Exposures

5 Tips for Getting Sharper Images When Doing Long Exposures

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Long exposure photography makes it possible to show the passage of time in a still photograph. It does this by blurring moving elements and sharpening the static parts. But there is a downside to long exposures – any camera movement blurs the static elements. Here are four simple ways you can prevent unwanted blurring.

Salt Lake Sunset at Mandurah

1. Use a Good Tripod

For very short exposures there are ways to hold yourself and your camera steady, like: How to Reduce Camera Shake – 6 Techniques. However, when you’re taking an exposure of a few seconds, you need something steadier than your hands to hold your camera. You may set the camera on a table, or a rock but risk dropping the camera or accidental movement that can ruin your shoot.

The most common way is to put it on a sturdy tripod. You have to get at least a decent tripod as El Cheapo tripods are going to give you camera shake too.

Light Trail Central

2. Use a Remote Shutter Release

Even with a tripod the act of snapping the shutter can cause the camera to shake. There are a couple of ways to combat this problem.

One is to set the delay on the camera (2-sec timer) so any movement is done by the time the shutter snaps. The other is to get a remote shutter release.

Remotes can be connected to the camera by a cable or wireless – either one snaps the shutter without shaking the camera. They are also called remote cable releases. This is a small and cheap accessory which can help you get rid of camera shake.

Rockingham Sunset

3. Use Manual Focus

Autofocus is a wonderful thing. Most of the time it does exactly what you want, making it easier to take great photos. But there are times, especially when shooting long exposure, that it can have the opposite effect.

In low light situations autofocus has trouble finding something to focus on. Even when it seems focused it can readjust when the shutter is snapped. Using ND filters can cause the same problem.

Light Trail IFC

Fortunately, there is a simple solution. When shooting in low light you can use manual focus, or use a flashlight for focusing and once the focus is set, turn autofocus off so it won’t change once the light is off.

For ND filters set the focus manually (either before or after mounting the filter) or autofocus first, turn it off and mount the filter. The shot will stay focused, the picture sharp.

Moving Cloud Sunrise at Kings Park

4. Lock the Mirror Up

If you are using a DSLR camera – and you probably are since you are shooting long exposure – it has a mirror that reflects the image from the lens to the viewfinder. It is between the lens and the camera sensor, so it has to move before the shutter snaps.

That small movement causes vibration. When you turn on the mirror lockup it turns the shutter button into a two stage button. The first click lifts the mirror and the shutter doesn’t open until the second click. The time between the two clicks allows the vibration of the moving mirror to stop.

Light Trail Hong Hum

5. Use Your Aperture Sweet Spot

Closing down the aperture can make you shoot longer. However, when your aperture is too small, it will start to have a diffraction effect which lowers the sharpness.

In most lenses, the sweet spot of the lens aperture is between f/5.6 to f/8. In other words, you will get the sharpest images when using this range.

When you step down to f/16 or smaller, you will get images like that seem out of focus. You can learn the physics about diffraction in the below video by Steve Perry:

Conclusion

Taking long exposure photographs is a science and an art. Like any art, taking long exposure pictures with the right balance of sharpness and blur takes both skill and intuition. These five tools will help you use your skills to turn intuition into great photographs.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Kevin Choi is a freelance photographer who has a love for landscape and wildlife, the founder of CaptureTheMoment, and has been carrying Nikon with him since 2008. He never stops dreaming, as you would too.

  • Philipp Dolder

    I would add 6: turn off image stabilization

  • and 7: learn about hyperfocal distance

  • Doug Sundseth

    For very long exposures, and for this purpose, 30 seconds is a very long exposure, neither mirror lockup nor remote shutter activation is especially useful. The 1/20 second or so of vibration is invisible in the much longer exposure. (It’s comparable to indoor ambient lighting when using flash; so small a contribution to the total exposure that it doesn’t matter.)

    For shorter “long” exposures, say 1-2 seconds, they can be more important.

  • Davide De Luca

    Hi Kevin,
    this is a really great article!!! Thanks for the hints.
    Unfortunately, when I tried to do my first LE pictures, I used to blame just the DSLR quality, but I noticed that it is just one of the huge number of factors which can actually affect the overall picture quality.

    I’ll practice back again with LE pics soon then!

    Please check-out one of my last works on the topic:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/13300587@N08/16638998223/

    Cheers,
    Davide

  • Rich

    Absolutely. Turning IS off is a must for long exposure photography, and next to using a tripod might be the most important of them all. The longer the exposure the more important it is to disable IS.

  • dzakem

    Hang your camera bag from the tripod (within reason) to make it heavier for less shake and movement.

  • dzakem

    Used to be easier with DOF scales on older (fixed) lenses.

  • Geddo Nominac

    Is it true that Time lapse requires proper amount of light & scenes. Here, i tried to click time lapse snaps & i just want a rectification about where i was wrong

  • PML Photo

    Totally agree. Mirror lockup only helps over a range of shutter speeds – for shorter exposures the shutter has closed before the shock of the mirror moving can overcome the inertia of the camera & tripod, and with longer exposures the contribution to the exposure before the camera & tripod stops moving is inconsequential as you say. BEst way is to shoot some test targets with the tripod/body/lens combo of interest over a range of shutter speeds and see where you need to use MLU.

  • Kevin Choi

    I agree with you. I almost forget this point because I am using lenses without VR on landscape photography.

  • Kevin Choi

    Agree. However, you can only use this trick on less windy day.

  • Kevin Choi

    Glad to hear this Davide! Welcome back to long exposure world.

  • Tim Lowe

    Tips 1-4… Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But the 5th point is very well taken and very well illustrated and explained by the excellent video.

  • Tim Lowe

    Depends on the stabilization technology. But you are right, at best it does no harm.

  • Leonardo Chiappisi

    Image stabilization is an “issue” with Canon cameras, which make a large difference… same with the focus. I find the manual focus in live view the most effective option.

    Another suggestion, for very long exposures (say over 30 sec) is to average in post processing several pics of 20-30 secs.

    Here an example, it might become sharper with a larger aperture, you’re right. But how goof are ND filters over 10 stops?

  • Bentley Kyle Boatright

    How do you lock the mirror? I’ve never tried that step..

  • schlem

    “If you are using a DSLR camera – and you probably are since you are shooting long exposure … ”

    Whut? There are a million cameras with which one could make a long exposure, DSLRs are just one of the latest. Don’t be dumb.

  • sase

    It seems there is not enough light in the back ground. You should probably look for a place with more lights.

  • I would add to #1 by recommending the photographer consider using spiked feet on the tripod…helps keep the tripod from slipping in muddy conditions.

  • Mukhtar Ukhwah

    A sturdy tripod, could withstand a high wind of how many KM/h?
    Could sturdy tripod withstand gust?

    Thank you

  • Lyn Wilson

    A good idea and put a small heavy bean bag over top of camera to help weigh it down. Some tripods have hooks below, for the specific purpose of hanging a weight (camera bag or a door stop with a loop on top.

  • Kevin Choi

    On your camera mode switching dial, you can select mirror lock up mode.

  • Kevin Choi

    It is very hard to determine how many km/h. The only way is testing your tripod on the location.

  • Yup good one!

  • if you are Nikon follow Kevin’s steps, if you have Canon or another brand it’s in the menu

  • MikeR

    Don’t be rude.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Mirror Up for long exposure, how significance is a instant small movement on sturdy tripod will lead to significant improvement of sharpness? As long as the tripod is sturdy, an instant movement because of shutter, i believe will not significantly lead to sharpness improvement, perhaps 0.001%? If the exposure is short, then i believe mirror up is practical.

  • Nice article, I also always turn off image stabilization

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  • anthony_tennant

    Thanks for sharing this. I am very much interested in Photography and so this content will help me positively.

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  • Thanks for the hint, It helped me alot and I will base on this topic to take a new picture for my blog. Hope get good quality image

  • mamino
  • Wow, nice powerfull images

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  • Julian Milano

    I don’t think the Nikon D60 supports Mirror Lock up?

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  • Susanna

    I am also very interest in Photograph, you have told me many tips which I have never heard from other peoples, thank you Kevin, and I will share this page to all the friends of me who love photograpy technology. All the tips you shared are right, i think they will also learn many interest knowledge and top tips from your this great post!

  • Joanne Kennedy

    if your camera has Live View, it can help to focus more accurately. Compose the shot, focus manually, turn live view on then zoom the display and adjust focus if needed then turn live view off and shoot.

  • Close your viewfinder cover to prevent light leaks that cause colour casting and streaking. Let your sensor cool between shots to prevent hot pixels. Use aperture priority or AV to baseline your shutter speed then use an ND calcularor to determine your shutter speed in bulb mode. Never use VR or IS on a tripod period.

  • Nice tips about the aperture. For sure, I am excited to try it out. I will be using it for my art photography.

  • ISABEL HUGHES

    Image stabilization is an “issue” with Canon cameras, which make a large difference… same with the focus. I find the manual focus in live view the most effective option.

    Another suggestion, for very long exposures (say over 30 sec) is to average in post processing several pics of 20-30 secs.

    Another point, important when shooting during daytime, close your viewfinder.

    Here an example, it might become sharper with a larger aperture, you’re right. But how goof are ND filters over 10 stops?

  • After read your post I think I will buy a new camera. Thank for share this

  • Charlotte J. Gravely

    A good idea and put a small heavy bean bag over top of camera to help weigh it down. Some tripods have hooks below, for the specific purpose of hanging a weight (camera bag or a door stop with a loop on top.

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