In this article I am going to share with you six tips that I have found to produce amazing long exposure night photographs. I have learned the hard way by making every mistake possible and through that finding what really does work.
So here are the 6 tips to make your long exposure photographs at night:
Tip #1: Try to avoid using a Neutral Density filter
On this photo (below) I did a 25 second exposure. That is quite a long exposure and to help prevent it from blowing out, I took the photo right at the end of sunset. There was less light, so that I didn’t have to put an ND Filter on.
If you put an ND filter on it is going to give you a color cast during long exposures. Yes you can use a polarizer, but avoid Neutral Density filters. Shoot when the sun is going down and keep your camera at a low ISO like 100 or 200. Don’t get me wrong, I love ND filters but not at night.
Tip #2: The best time for long exposures is 25 seconds
I know that’s a bold statement. Not as bold as stating that French food is the best in the world, but still a bold statement. Here is why I recommend this; I’ve found that when I shoot at 25 seconds it makes the water silky and the clouds stretchy and this has a beautiful look that sells well. Obviously it’s also an artistic choice, but as a photographer you likely want people to buy your photos. The best indicator that people like your photos is that they buy them.
Here is an example:
Now, in taking the photo I exposed the image for the highlights. So when you open up the shadows, bring down the highlights, and boost the exposure a little bit like so:
I do have all the details of the photo, but the only problem is that the clouds were not moving and the water is not silky.
So I went ahead and put the exposure time to 25 seconds. Now it does seem like the highlights in the photos are a little burnt, but I have found that on city lights it doesn’t really matter that much because it still works great on a print.
To conclude; 25 seconds is the best long exposure, you don’t even need a remote, you just need to put your camera on the 2-second timer and go into manual shooting mode, use a low ISO, and an aperture that is going to work like f/7 or f/8.
If your photo is too bright you can adjust the aperture to f/14 and if it is too dark you can even put your aperture to f/4. Just make sure you check your focus to ensure the background is sharp.
Tip #3: Try different exposures of the same scene
Even though I said that 25 seconds exposure is the best, it’s always good to shoot different exposures because this may be different for your situation. For example, I thought that this first image was my go-to photo.
But in the end the one that I am going to retouch and going to send to the gallery is this one.
So you already have your camera setup and on a tripod. Go ahead and try 8 seconds, 15 seconds, 25 seconds all without touching the tripod and then when you are evaluating your photos for retouching you will have several options.
Tip #4: Shoot towards the sun
When you are doing a long exposure without an ND filter (so as to avoid the color cast, tip #1), a good thing to do is to shoot toward the sun. When it is behind the horizon line it will always give you a nice sky with lots of color and gradations.
You can see on this photo that the sun is setting on the left.
And as I turn the camera more away from the sun and back towards the city you get this view.
You can see that we get less and less details in the sky. But if you shoot where the sun sets you will always have great details even after sunset, and it is the right time for these type of photos.
Tip #5: Make sure you have water and the sky in your photo
Those are two important things for a long exposure which help to really elevate your photos into what I like to call miracle photos.
Tip #6: Try to get the clouds coming towards you
You can study meteorological information to get a sense of which direction the clouds are moving and try to position your shot accordingly. There are even a few apps which great for this.
As I said, this is not always easy but I got lucky on this one. The clouds are going to be stretchy and create leading lines and that help make this photo really interesting.
I hope this helped you and you will be able to capture beautiful places at the perfect time. Please share your long exposure night photos in the comments below.
** NOTE ** If you’d like to know more about this subject, learn more about the brand new dPS course by Jim Hamel on night photography here, so you can take stunning night photos too!