5 Tips To Transform Your Photography With Long Exposures

5 Tips To Transform Your Photography With Long Exposures


Employing long exposure photography techniques is a great way to create an image that makes others go “Wow!”.  If you’re unfamiliar with long exposure photography the major ingredient needed is low light conditions, which will require your camera to expose for longer periods of time. In fact it’s even possible to use filters to reduce the amount of light that comes through your lens so as to produce long exposures even during the brightest times of day.  Long exposures enable photographers to create an abstracted or surreal visual experience as opposed to reproducing a scene as we might see with our naked eye. In this regard long exposures allow you to artistically create something from a subject or scene that might otherwise seem ordinary with more standard photographic techniques.  With that in mind here are 5 tips to transform your photography with long exposures:

1. Create Atmosphere

Use long exposures to create an ethereal atmosphere. Weather conditions are often thought of as static, but in reality they shift and change slowly.  In many instances these changes occur too slowly to be held in our visual memory, but our camera can record these changes. Misty, foggy or smokey scenes can be created with moving clouds, surf, etc.

2.  Discover Hidden Movement

We are often so rushed that we seldom pause to take note of slow moving subjects. Once you start to look for slow moving subjects you quickly open a door to a new world of photo opportunities. Clouds, shadows, stars, plants and even people or animals make great long exposure subjects.

3. Create Using A Canvas of Light

While your camera shutter is open your sensor or film is in essence a canvas. Normally that canvas is open very briefly but with longer exposures the light running over your sensor acts a brush. If you let a scene unfold before you with your shutter open it is “painted” onto the sensor yielding blurs of light. If you work in an environment where there is little light you can manually paint light into a photo with strobes, flashlights, cell phones, etc. to create a unique image.

4.  Alternate Reality of Color

Back in the days of film there was a phenomenon where the color in your image could shift in long exposures from reciprocity failure. Different film types would experience reciprocity failure at different exposure times and produce varying types of color shifts. For many photographers these color shifts were seen as something to avoid, but many artist have employed this phenomenon to create very neat photographs. If you’re still shooting film this may be something you want to experiment with. If you’re shooting digital you can get color shifts by creating or using pre-made presets in Photoshop or Lightroom.

Note: This was taken with Fuji Velvia film whose reciprocity characteristic is to shift colors toward green hues.

5. Photograph the Ordinary to Make the Extraordinary

When you show someone something new that is under their nose all the time it reawakens their interest in it. Highlighting one or a combination of the visual effects previously discussed with long exposures of ordinary scenes will catch eyes. To find that eye catching photo you’ll need to experiment though as the net effect(s) of a long exposure may not be apparent until you view it.

To learn more about long exposure and slow shutter techniques check out my new eBook Photographing the 4th Dimension – Time .

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jim Goldstein is a San Francisco based professional photographer. An author as well as a photographer Jim has been published in numerous publications including Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photo Pro, Popular Photography and has self-published a PDF eBook Photographing the 4th Dimension - Time covering numerous slow shutter techniques. His latest work and writing can be found on his JMG-Galleries blog and on 500px

Some Older Comments

  • xelf March 25, 2012 06:00 pm

    Nice tips, will remember. This is one of my shots.
    Street at night

  • Benn January 25, 2012 03:35 pm

    Here is a blog post with a couple of longer exposure on it, down the bottom I think. As a wedding photographer I don't get much time so I take what I can get and try to make the best of what there is. If you can scout a location and with for the right conditions you can get some amazing results like those seen above, beautiful images Jim!!

  • Benn January 25, 2012 03:07 pm

    Great pics!! and very good advice:)

  • Lensman kc January 22, 2012 06:49 pm

    great article very helpful...what about some articles on long-expo fine art with use of filters like Lee, ND and image process after shoot on light room, photoshop or Nik...looking forward :)

  • Bjarne Winkler January 18, 2012 03:08 am

    When people read long exposure most people (see above) things night and maybe what to do with water but your number 2 Discover Hidden Movement is very seldom explored.

    See example of showing time itself:
    See Photo

  • Samir Al-Haj January 16, 2012 07:37 pm


  • Mandy January 15, 2012 08:50 am

    I've booked myself onto a night photography course that I'm really looking forward to!

    Love the image on number 3, how do you create them?

  • Salvador III January 15, 2012 03:23 am

    My best try using the ''long exposure'' technique


  • Bill B January 14, 2012 02:21 pm

    Great article. My favorite shots are always long exposure it seems. I especially like the 3rd tip and have tried numerous times to experiment with light movement in my shots. My best along this line to date is one walking through the woods at night with a lantern. The flow of the lantern turned out very cool. If you'd like to see it - check it out here... http://www.flickr.com/photos/billboydphotography/5402962682/

    Thanks - Bill

  • PaulB January 14, 2012 06:11 am

    I like this topic,being a fan of low light photography. The rock and light trail picture was effective, I might have been tempted to add some motion blur?

  • anotherphotographynoob January 14, 2012 05:08 am

    also the classique..

    .. make water look like a gel spread over stone...


    ..thanks for some great tips ... always nice with new inputs

  • Robert Rodriguez Jr January 13, 2012 11:51 pm

    Great tips and article Jim - and also a great way to look and photograph familiar scenes and landscapes with a different mindset. I especially like and use #1 to create atmosphere and mood where otherwise it would just be a generic landscape.

    So often we think we need to travel to some exotic or iconic location, but using these techniques we can create exciting and eye opening photographs right from our backyard. Thanks for sharing!


  • Philip Persio January 13, 2012 09:34 pm

    Great article and tips, and the accompanying photos are good samples. Am just getting started inot photography and this site has been a big help.

  • Clint January 13, 2012 08:18 pm

    I love this type of photography!

    Please check out my attempt - http://www.flickr.com/photos/clint_milner/6170606382/in/photostream/

  • imamtho January 13, 2012 05:59 pm

    i love to take a long exposure photography, it's addicted.
    here is some of my shots

  • Jennifer January 13, 2012 05:46 pm

    Love, love, love the star trail. You have inspired me to go and shoot some night shots for my 365 project!

  • Jeff E Jensen January 13, 2012 02:27 pm

    Excellent tips.

    I've been on a light painting kick lately. Here's a bit of recent work:



  • Jim Goldstein January 13, 2012 12:11 pm

    @Mridula, @CJ, @Guitar Builders, @Stila, and @richard hall Keep up the great work

    @Erik Kerstenbeck works great. Definitely is in line with Tip #5

    @Shawn Hoke the slow process of waiting for film to develop after a night out with your camera always adds to the experience. Sharp image. Keep up the great work with your film photography.

    @Jason St. Petersburg Photographer great example of how a long exposure can change the atmosphere of an image and subject.

    @Tim great star trail photo with the Saguaro cactus!

    @scottc unplanned events like that can often add to the photo. Keep an open mind and next time aim for the traffic to be included.

    @Utah Photographer glad to hear you recognized the photo :)

    @Semjaja fun shot with the light painted halo.

    @tim (UK) I like the idea of the superimosition - when you put one online point me to it. I'd be curious to see how you're employing it. I'd imagine it'd be easy enough to do with the right blending modes selected.

  • Fotofanatix January 13, 2012 09:47 am

    Awesome Tips - as usual - with brilliant accompanying shots, i will be getting out tonight and practicing with long exposure, and when i get a 10 stop neutral density filter i will be doing the same in daylight too!!!

  • DaynawithaY January 13, 2012 08:23 am

    Tim, would you please post an example of your third technique?

  • Heiko January 13, 2012 07:01 am

    Some of my older pics, cause less time to make nice nightshots:


    Greetz Heiko

  • Kent West January 13, 2012 04:37 am

    Thanks for the article, just got done playing at La Jolla Cove.

    All the best!



  • Salinas January 13, 2012 04:17 am

    Im a huge fan of long exposure shots and do them often, mostly while traveling to really capture the city, bridges, light reflections, movement and water. Usually my best and favorite shots! :)

  • Tim January 12, 2012 09:46 pm

    Useful article and great example shots.

    I use 3 techniques:

    1) low light - dusk or night-time

    2) massive filtration (I don't want to afford a Big Stopper, so I use two Cokin-P circular polarisers crossed and mounted back-to-front and a bunch of ND filters)

    3) superimposition: when you stack many images on top of each other, the effective exposure-time is the sum of all the individual shots.

    The way I look at it is that it helps the viewer cease concentrating on the real-world object (be it water or car lights) and the object becomes a mere abstract element in the design (area of silver haze, or bright line, respectively).

  • Semjaja January 12, 2012 06:54 pm

    I love light painting, here are two of my best ones.



  • Utah Photographer January 12, 2012 03:37 pm

    I saw the one with the twirling stars all over the internet. Good to know it's from Jim M. Goldstei. Epic! :)

  • raghavendra January 12, 2012 01:10 pm

    I have taken a picture for long exposures.
    It covers many aspects


  • Richard Hall January 12, 2012 12:16 pm

    I have recently been exposed to the art of light painting with some interesting results, heres one, more on flickr

  • Scottc January 12, 2012 11:14 am

    Great article and tips, and the accompanying photos are outstanding examples. I enjoy long exposures, but still need to work on the technique.

    30 seconds, the bus just showed up unplanned......


  • Tim January 12, 2012 10:15 am

    I love long exposure shots. As Jim said in his post, they add an instant uniqueness to your shots. Here are a couple examples of mine:

  • Average Joe January 12, 2012 09:27 am

    I'm really starting to like this idea of long exposure shots. Great post! I really liked that swirled light/rock picture, and now I want to try something like that! Thanks!

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer January 12, 2012 07:19 am

    Very nice collection of images to represent the long exposure topic Jim. I especially like the star trails. Were you able to get that result on your first try or were some extra recalculated shots necessary?

    I like the idea also of long exposures making the ordinary look much more interesting, which I did in example with a hotel photographed during the day and then at night with light trails:


  • Shawn Hoke January 12, 2012 03:57 am

    Great tips; I do long exposures a few times a month, but still use film to do it. Here is a shot from Monday night of the Empire State Building:


  • Stila January 12, 2012 02:45 am

    I love long exposures! There's always so much to try.
    I've been playing with light painting for example:

  • Erik Kerstenbeck January 12, 2012 02:36 am


    Wonderful article - I love to shoot long exposures of landscape involving water. I have also started shooting urban scenes with traffic. I like to get right into the mix of things. Like this shot of traffic in San Diego's Gaslamp area - looks like I am almost about to be hit by a car!


  • Guitar Builder January 12, 2012 02:07 am

    I Love night photography! Just last Saturday I took the following photo in an almost black alley with a light at the far end. The iso was way high, and the exposure time was aprox. 6 seconds.

    I am pleased how it turned out (:


  • THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com January 12, 2012 02:05 am

    Nice photos! This is very applicable to my fielf of phtography.

    I do Car Photography for http://CustomPinoyRides.com

    I've done some long exposure shots at night that really give a "standout" effect if your subject (car) is stationary while the other cars in the background are moving and you see light trails. Also with buildings in the background at night.

    But this article you've written gives me an idea that I should try the same technique with star trails! It should be interesting! Also with moving clouds. Hmmm I'll see what I can come up with within the next coming days. Thanks for sharing th ideas!

  • CJ January 12, 2012 01:52 am

    Nice article. My most successful attempt at long exposure photography was a picture of my neighborhood early in the morning. http://www.flickr.com/photos/squeege40/6281932442/in/photostream

  • Mridula January 12, 2012 01:39 am

    Very beautiful. My only attempt at long exposure.