Step-by-step Guide to Long Exposure Photography

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Step-by-step Guide to Long Exposure Photography

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In the past few years, thanks to the diffusion of useful accessories and photographic filters with good quality and low prices, the technique of long exposure has become increasingly popular among photography enthusiasts. Even if this technique can be used both in studio and in a urban environment, the perfect playground of long exposures is landscape photography.

Unfortunately often it happens that the result we get is far from our expectations, and we end up classifying the long exposure as a demoniacal technique. However, following this step-by-step guide to long exposure photography, you’ll see how easy it is to get a good result on the first attempt (or almost).

Picture 1

Step One: study the weather

A day with a cloudless sky is a good day to drink a beer with friends, not to make long exposures. Likewise it cannot rain forever, so do not resign yourself to an afternoon with your PlayStation. You should study satellite images rather than the meteorological sites, trying to figure out if there is an incoming storm, or if the downpour is about to end.

Step Two: visit the location well in advance

Scout the location ahead of time, as you need a lot of time to find the perfect composition, or at least more than the time needed for a “short exposure”. In fact in a long exposure the world is completely different from how you see it with your own eyes. You have to try to see it with your mind, looking for a harmonious composition that includes moving subjects, trying to predict the direction of the clouds or the force of the sea. Try not to put the sun into the composition because its movement will ruin the shot and it will create area of overexposure that is not recoverable. If you cannot avoid the sun, wait for it to hide behind a cloud.

Picture 2

Step Three: use a tripod

Mount your camera on a tripod and install all the accessories such as the remote shutter release and the filter holder (if you are using drop-in filters). However, wait to actually install the filters. Very important!

Step Four: compose the image and lock focus

Refine your composition, focus on the subject and lock the focus. If you are using manual focus, just do it. If you are using the autofocus mode, you should focus by half-pressing the shutter button, and once the focus has been made, while still holding down the shutter button halfway, push the lever from Auto Focus to Manual. In this way, your camera will maintain the focus (or alternately you could use back-button focus).

Picture 3

Step Five: set the exposure

Now set your camera to Manual (M) mode or Aperture Priority (A/Av) mode. Then set the aperture to an appropriate value for the scene (for landscapes I suggest between f/8 and f/11) and take a “Test Shot”. The test is complete when you get a correct exposure. To determine if the exposure is correct, check the histogram (do not trust your display, it is too bright). It is true, there is no universally correct histogram, but there are histograms that are universally incorrect, namely moved completely to the right or left side (the image is respectively overexposed or underexposed). Once the test shot is successful, write down the shutter speed you used for that shot.

Step Six: add your filter

Now add your Neutral Density (ND) filter. If the filter is very strong, for example 10 stops, you will not be able to see through the viewfinder or the Live View. Do not worry, because if you have followed the guide up to this point you will notice that we have already made the composition and the focus too. You are blind, but your camera will see everything perfectly.

Picture 4

Step Seven: change to Bulb mode

Set the shooting mode to Bulb (B) in order to take over the thirty second limit of the camera. Do not change any of the other settings (ISO and aperture) used in the test shot.

Step Eight: take your long exposure shot

It is finally time to take our long exposure shot. But how long will you to leave the shutter open? It is less difficult than you might expect. First of all, recollect the shutter speed that you noted down from the “Test Shot” you did in Step Five above. Now you must compensate by the number of stops introduced by the filter. For example, if your test shot was 1/15th of a second, adding 10 stops will get a shutter speed of approximately 60 seconds. There you have your shutter speed. No need to be stuck in the mathematics: on the internet you can easily find conversion tables and applications for your smartphone that will do the conversion for you.

Picture 5

Step Nine: check the histogram again

Once you’ve taken the shot with the calculated shutter speed, check the histogram. If the new histogram is approximately equal to the one of the test shot, mission accomplished. If it is shifted too far to the right or to the left, repeat the shot again correcting the shutter speed.

Easy, isn’t it? Now fill your backpack with your camera and filters and go to practice in the field. For any doubt or if you need any help, don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comments below. Please share your long exposure images as well.

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Francesco Gola is an Italian engineer who's fallen in love with photography. Born in Italy in 1981, as soon as he started taking pictures he fell in love with long exposures of seascapes. For him a long exposure is a parallel universe in which to escape from the frenzy of modern life. His passion for the sea and for travels let him to visit some of the most iconic locations on this planet looking at them with different eyes. See more of his work on 500px or his website or join one of his Workshops around the world!

  • Max Ortiz Aguilar

    Hi Francesco, great article!
    I have a question for you. Have you seen vignetting in your photos when you do long exposure shots? In the last one I did, the longer the exposure the stronger the vignette. Do you know why this happens?

    Thanks,
    Max

  • Francesco Gola

    Ciao Max!
    Assuming that the problem is not due to the use of a filter or an adapter (the vignettting should be constant at any shutter speed), probably the effect is due to your lens.
    In fact, in almost every lens, the light transmission is different from the center to the border of your lens, and further you go from the center, lower the light transmission is.
    This mean that in every shot you make, the light that reach the sensor is greater at the center than at the edges, resulting in a sort of underexposed area on borders.

    Almost every post production software (like Ligtroom or Capture One) have the possibility to correct this issue using some preinstalled lens profiles..also many cameras have a built in option to correct this issue, but obviously they only correct the JPG files (and previews).
    So my conclusion is: don’t worry, it’s not your fault, try to solve the issue in post production.
    If you tell me the lens you used I can try to check the transmission light graph.
    All the best 🙂

  • Max Ortiz Aguilar

    That makes sense, I have done the profile correction before for other photos. I haven’t retouched the photo in LR yet. I used a Canon 16-35mm f/4 L IS. For this shot I used a B+W circular polarizer, 10stop ND and 2stop GND (both LEE with the WA adapter ring). This is a quick snapshot of the RAW file, you can notice how the center is well exposed but the edges are darker. I will post the final version once I’m done with post production.

    Thanks for your quick response!

  • Francesco Gola

    You are using a real great lens, but as the perfect lens doesn’t exist, you should try to correct the issue in Lr! 🙂
    With your filter setup (slim (?) pola + 3 filters) you should not be affected by gear vignetting until 19/20mm
    Btw, great image! I can’t wait the final result after the PP!

  • Max Ortiz Aguilar

    Thanks Francesco. Yes I have a slim circular polarizer plus the 2 filters. The shot was done @ 16mm; I believe the vignetting definitively is due to the lens somehow. This is a snapshot of the final image after PP. LR corrected it perfectly after enabling the profile correction. I uploaded a higher resolution version here: https://500px.com/photo/123700047/maligne-lake-by-max-ortiz-aguilar?from=user_library

  • Francesco Gola

    So great Max! And your image is wonderful!!

  • Vaibhav Gupta

    hey can u plz give me the Exif-

  • Alexis Mars

    Hello Francesco
    I like your photos and i try to make the same tecnics but i don’t know why my pictures have a red light when i use my ND Lee Filters? It is a red line who ´s vertical when my camera is vertical and horizontal when my caméra is horizontal.
    Thanks for your help

  • Francesco Gola

    Hello Alexis!
    You’ll find the answer of this issue at #9 of this new article I wrote:

    http://digital-photography-school.com/10-common-mistakes-in-long-exposure-photography/

    All the best!

    Francesco

  • Melvin Wanye
  • Melvin Wanye
  • Melvin Wanye
  • Ariel

    Hey, I’m going to Austrian Alps very soon and have a few questions. First, I had tried my hand at long exposure in NH USA this month for the first time but it turned out quite poorly. The pictures were all over exposed, I used an 8ND filter, tried lowering the ISO, setting the Aperture as low as possible, ect and it still came out that way. It was a wintery setting so did the snow cause this? or is my filter just very cheap? They are Neewer filters, not sure if that helps. I then added a 4ND filter on top of the 8ND and the exposure came out better but a bit reddish, making me think it really is my filters rather than how I originally had my settings. Another question related to this is that since I’m going to the Austrian Alps, should I adjust any of the steps mentioned above for snowy settings?
    Thanks for the help,
    Ariel

  • Francesco Gola

    Dear Ariel,
    Don’t give up! Regarding your filter, remember that an ND8 is “just”a 3 stop reduction, and this means that is quite hard to get a real long exposure (>1 minute) in a sunny or bright (scene with snow) day! My suggestion for this kind of weather (and so for you Alps adventure) is to try something stronger like an ND1024 (ND1000) filter. My advice is to try the lovely Haida ND1000 Pro II: great quality, low price, easy to find (amazon).
    Regarding the Alps, remember that the snow will fool the light meter of your camera, so
    remember to over expose of +1 or +2, according to the light situation.
    Test Shot is essential in such environment to get a correct exposure before applying filters!
    Have a lovely trip, and never stop exploring!

  • Oscar Cordeiro

    So nice article Francesco. Thank you for your tips. Sadly I did not find it before make my choices and inverted the priorities and bought a 16 stops and 13 stops Firecrest before the 6 stops. I do not regret but need to pop up my iso a bit on cloudy days at evening shots. On the other hand, those became handy in Portugal during summer days or shiny shots as the one I put here. I became a Formatt Hitech fan first in resin filters NDG, then some ND 0.3 to 0.9 and finally Firecrest on glass. I use a Canon 6d with a 16-35L F4. Had a hard time to find a polarizer with no vignette on full frame. I now use a Lucroit 100mm filter with the 112mm polarizer of those and 2 slots; finally got my kit working. Your shots inspire amateurs as me and I believe many of us that take photography as a hobby. For those interested on the exif or additional geographical details here is the link of my photo. Once again, thank you and keep the good work.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/oscarcordeiro/23963938154/in/dateposted-public/

    OC

  • Ola Warringer

    nice, except I would crop away seom water to get more focus on the skyline.. sure the reflections are nice and all, but I would crop it more panoramic.

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