8 Reasons to Love Long Exposure Photography

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Long exposure photography is not a new type of photography, but it is one that is gaining in popularity. Many photographers are buying Neutral Density filters (ND Filters – more on them below) to capture their own long exposures. It is quite an addictive form of photography. Over the last couple of years I have added many different ND filters to my kit. I use Formatt Hitech filters, though there are other brands that have them as well. Here are some reasons why I love this type of photography.

Drop-in and screw-in filters

Note: Neutral Density filters or ND Filters are designed to restrict the amount of light that enters the lens and camera. They can either screw onto the end of the lens or you can buy brackets that will fit square ones. They came in different densities, and how dark they are is referred to by how many stops of light they block. The most common ND filter is the 10 stop which many brands make. The neutral refers to them having no colour, supposedly. They are meant to have no colour and cause no colour cast in your images, though the more stops the filter has, often the more likely you are to get some colour cast. Cheap ND filters always have a colour cast, usually magenta. If you want to get serious about doing long exposure photography, then purchasing good quality filters from the start is something you will never regret.

1 – Get a smooth look to water, or show how the water moves

One of the more popular ways of using long exposures is to smooth out water to make it look still or frozen. This can be done with the ocean, rivers, and lakes. It can make the water in a scene less distracting because the water doesn’t have any movement in it. The image is then more about the sky, the rocks or whatever else is there.

LeanneCole-7reasons2lovelongexposures-daveysbag

A pier at Davey’s Bay, the long exposure has blurred the clouds and smoothed the water – 5 minute exposure.

Another alternative is to do long exposures of around a second, so you can see the movement of the water. As the tides come in and out on the beach, you can see where it has been, it almost looks like a slow motion capture. It’s a wonderful effect and we are seeing it a lot more. Though water moving on the beach isn’t the only way to use it, water falling over rocks can be just as engaging.

Waterfalls are another type of long exposure that people love. Though many waterfalls are down in canyons, you still need a ND filter to get that smooth marshmallow effect with the water as it flows down. Though, you don’t often need a multi-stop one like you would for the previous water examples.

LeanneCole-7reasons2lovelongexposures-taggertycascades

Adding a few seconds (1.33 seconds) to an image of a waterfall gives it a lovely marshmallow effect. You can also see the movement of the water.

2 – Get blurred clouds

Architecture is a very popular subject for long exposures because you can blur the clouds. It gives the image a different look, and it almost seems like your subject is lost in time. With blurring the clouds, it also makes the building(s) you are photographing your main focus point, and gets rid of any distractions.

LeanneCole-7reasons2lovelongexposures-melbourne

Melbourne from across the river. The long exposure (4 minutes for this shot) gives the view a different feel to what we normally get.

3 – You can clear spaces of people and traffic

If you love photographing areas in towns and cities, but one of the challenges of that type of photography is that people are always around, long exposures using filters will help you clear those distractions. Exposures of several minutes can almost clear a scene of people, though it depends on the density of them. A scene where there are only a few people walking around can come out with the appearance of being empty with a long exposure. However, where there are many people you will find that they just blur, though this can be a great effect as well.

LeanneCole-7reasons2lovelongexposures-youngandjacksonscorner

Photographing a busy intersection with a ND filter makes people look like ghosts – 30 second exposure.

4 – There is a quietness about the work

Once people are introduced into a scene that you are photographing, it brings with it noise, as in how people see the images. They can be noisy, and whether people looking at the images realize it or not, they hear what they would hear if they were actually there. Vehicles can have a similar effect.

LeanneCole-7reasons2lovelongexposures-bourkestmall

Bourke Street Mall at peak hour, a 10 minute exposure has removed the people and given it an empty feeling.

If you do a long exposure of the same thing, that noise is gone. Often when you see a long exposure image it has a quietness to it. Fill a room with images done this way and put people in it, they will feel as though they have to be quiet.

5 – Take photos of a common subject and give it a completely different feel

In every city around the world there are iconic places and scenes that everyone is trying to photograph differently than others. If you have some ND filters and your tripod, you can create an image that not many others get. Especially when travelling, not many people have filters with them. You would have an opportunity to get something quite different to the thousands of other photos that are taken in those places. Of course it is a given that they are places where you can set up a tripod.

LeanneCole-7reasons2lovelongexposures-eurekatower

Eureka Tower is a very photographed building in Melbourne, the image on the right is similar to what most people get, but by adding a ND filter you give a well photographed building a different look. Left image: 1/200th – Right image: 6 minutes.

6 – Give a landscape a sense of time, or time passing

When you have images of clouds being blurred as they go over the top of a building or a landscape, it seems like you have captured time. Many people feel like they are looking at time passing. The long exposure is taken over a period of time, so it makes sense that you would get that feeling when you look at those images.

LeanneCole-7reasons2lovelongexposures-banyuleflats

Dead trees in a dried out swamp, and the moving clouds give the impression they have been there for an eternity – 3 minute exposure.

7 – Images have a surreal look and give you a different perspective

One of the great aspects of long exposure photography is that you can set up your camera, your tripod, and slot in your neutral density filter, but you won’t know what you will get until the image is taken. It will give you an image that is nothing like what you can see with your eyes. When you get the images onto your computer it is always a surprise to see exactly what you have captured.

LeanneCole-7reasons2lovelongexposures-dragonshead

The same image, one take without the ND Filter and the second one with it. It gives the scene a completely different feel. Top image: 1/50th – Bottom image: 13 seconds.

8 – Night Photography is great for the same reasons

Night photography gives you an opportunity to take photos and not have to worry about filters. You can expose for however long you need. If it;s a windy evening and there are clouds in the sky, you will get movement in your images. If you are taking photos across a water way, then the water will be smooth, and you will get reflections of the lights if there are some on the other side. For all the reasons stated for long exposures, night photos have the same effect.

LeanneCole-7reasons2lovelongexposures-melbournestar

A night long exposure makes the Melbourne Star blurred and you can see how it moves – 2 minute exposure.

These are the reasons why I think long exposure photography is wonderful. If you are curious and want to try doing these then I am sure you will become addicted like many others. If you already do them, you might have your own reasons and perhaps you would like to share with us what they are in the comments below as well as your long exposure images.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Leanne Cole

is a fine art photographer based in Melbourne, Australia. She loves Melbourne and photographing it, along with other parts of the state. She likes doing architectural and environmental photography. You can find her on her website or on Instagram.

  • Other examples of long exposure photography. No ND filter required.

  • dp full course

    Great advice thank you so much for share

    Free digital photography full course https://freedpfullcourse.blogspot.com/

  • You’re welcome and thank you.

  • Yes, night photography doesn’t need ND filters, thanks for sharing.

  • Deb

    Thank you Leeanne, as usual wonderful advice. I recently used a ND filter for the first time and just loved it.

  • They are very addictive Deb, I don’t go anywhere without mine these days. You just never know when you might be able to use it. Have fun with it, enjoy. Thanks.

  • Norma

    Great article Leanne. Long exposure is my favourite kind of photography 🙂

  • Thank you Norma, it is fast becoming mine too.

  • Lyn Collins

    Great article with good examples comparing shutter speeds. So lovely to see photos of my home town featured. Also had a look at Leanne’s website. More beautiful long exposure shots.

  • Ty Young

    Hi Leanne, do you have any tips/advice for correcting colour cast when using the cheaper filters?

  • MaryAnn

    Were most/all of these photos taken in broad daylight? (Except for the Melbourne Star) Thank you!

  • Thank you Lyn, glad you enjoyed the article. I do love doing them, I think I am becoming addicted, or maybe I already am.

  • do you mean the magenta look you get? You can minimise it in Photoshop, but hard to get rid of completely. I would work in Black and white, then it doesn’t matter. I hope that helps.

  • They all were, except that one of the Melbourne Star.

  • Ty Young

    Thanks Leanne.

  • Claude B.

    That’s what I was looking for. Thanks.

    Do you do all pictures at 100 ISO?
    How do you determine the length of exposure and the speed?

  • Leyden

    With a ND 10 you can subtract 5 f stops and 5 shutter stops from the ‘normal’ reading you took just before you put the filter on……or 10/0 …. or 0/10. Are ISOs one stop i.e. is going from 3200 to1600 the same as going from f/8 to f/4 ?

  • Steven
  • I try to get as close as I can, and usually yes, sometimes at ISO 50.

    I have an app on my phone, Exposure Calculator, that helps me out. You can do lots of things with stops and working out, like the answers below, but most people use a table or such to help them calculate it. YOu learn after awhile as well, or get an idea of what the exposure will be. But I do have to say there is a lot of guess work, trial and error, especially in the beginning.

  • I just use an app on my phone, it can start seeming like a maths class after a while. Though, as I just said, you do get to be able to just look at scene and think you will need this time or that time. Thanks for that.

  • I’m sure others will find that useful. Thanks

  • MaryAnn

    Thank you. I’m going to give this a try. Been admiring the technique for a long time. 🙂

  • Good luck MaryAnn, it is a lot of fun, but can be frustrating to begin with, like learning any new type of photography.

  • Marc Thibault

    thank yu ..i have nd10…67MM hAIDA…and ring to adjust..the size..in my.few different lens

  • That is a good way to do it. The ND 10 is a good all round filter, not great for bright sun, but most other times. Have fun, enjoy. Thanks

  • Marc Thibault

    check this one i took nd 10….

  • Marc Thibault

    thank yu..

  • It works for that.

  • Marc Thibault

    and before long exposure……naturel..shot

  • Marc Thibault

    this in a chart to know the time you need…exactly..

  • David A.

    Great article, Leanne. I love long exposure photography and have suffered lots of sunburns doing it. I would recommend sun blocker as part of the “kit” for any one trying this out. I want to share two images. The first one is from Chichen Itza, in Mexico. It exemplifies 3 of the items discussed in your article:
    – Clearing people and traffic
    – Getting blurred clouds
    – Giving a sense of time

    The second was taken at Elk Island Park in Alberta, Canada. I almost deleted this image since I forgot to cover the viewfinder and had all sorts of light contamination and color cast. The day was very windy too and my tripod couldn’t handle it so it was blurry. But instead of deleting it, I went “crazy” in post-production and ended up with an interesting image, in my opinion. Sometimes mistakes could lead to unexpected results.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Sean Farrow

    Hi Leanne,
    Great short writeup… and many familiar locations (I grew up in Frankston, and now live in Cranbourne).

  • That’s great David, looks like you really enjoy doing them as well. Thank you so much for sharing your images.

  • Thank you Sean, that’s great, yes you would recognise most them I would imagine. I still need to get to Frankston, haven’t been there to take photos yet.

  • Gayelene Blair-templeton
  • That’s a great shot Gayelene.

  • Well written article.. I love long exposure shots.. Here’s the one which was shot recently

    https://flic.kr/p/MmVByk

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