Facebook Pixel Fun 5-Second Photos - Using Long Exposures for Creative Images

Fun 5-Second Photos – Using Long Exposures for Creative Images

long exposures for creative images

Survey your collection of photos, and I’d bet that most will have been taken at 1/30th of a second or faster. Usually, we want to freeze any action, getting as sharp an image as possible. Other times, however, we might want to purposefully use long exposures for creative images.

Silky waterfalls, streaked clouds, oceans waves that look more like mist – those are the images where we might use shutter speeds that last multiple seconds or even minutes. But how about a middle-ground, say a 5-second exposure? What kinds of looks might that give you?

Fun 5-Second Photos - Using Long Exposures for Creative Images
I wanted to tap into the frozen, non-moving ice and the moving fluid water in this photo. I needed an ND filter to get me to the shutter speed I wanted. Canon 6D with Canon 24-105mm lens, 6-seconds, f/22 ISO 100.

For the examples in this article, let’s be a little flexible saying anything between four and eight seconds is what we’re interested in.

Fortunately, Lightroom can filter images by looking at the shutter speed recorded in the Exif data. I was easily able to see which of the over 105,500 images in my Lightroom catalog fell into that range. It was just 1,036 of those or .981%.

So, while perhaps shutter speeds in the 5-second range are not often used for general photography, as you will see, occasionally that range is just right for the look you seek.

Tripod or hand-held?

The “inverse focal-length rule” says that to prevent camera shake blur you should always try to shoot at 1/lens focal length as your minimum for hand-holding your camera. For example, using your 70-200mm zoom lens if you were zoomed wide to 70mm your shutter speed should be 1/70th or faster like 1/100th of a second.

Zoom in to the full 200mm setting, and you’d best be at 1/250th or faster to prevent camera shake.

Fun 5-Second Photos - Using Long Exposures for Creative Images
Keeping the still objects sharp while the water smoothed during this 4-second exposure required a tripod. It was shady and darker here, but I still needed an ND filter. Canon 6D with Canon 24-105mm lens, 4-seconds, f/20 ISO 50.

Those rules apply here. If you intend only to blur those things that move during your 5-second exposure, you’ll definitely need a tripod. However, there might be situations where you could make a 5-second exposure without one:

  • Your creative intent is to show some camera motion blur. A creative “swish-pan” is a good example.
  • No tripods are allowed where you are working. Crowded places, sports events, indoor locations or other places might not allow you to use a tripod. Come up with some workarounds – brace your camera against something, set it down on a bench or something, and use the 2-second timer for a hands-off shot. Maybe you could carry a beanbag or improvise with your jacket. If smaller variations of a tripod are allowed, things like a Gorillapod or Platypod might be the answer.
  • Consider mirror lockup to reduce vibration.


You’re familiar with the “exposure triangle” right? If not, follow this link to learn about it. It is foundational knowledge for all serious photographers. Briefly, it states that all exposures are governed by three things, the “holy trinity” of photography:

  • Shutter speed (how long the sensor is exposed to light),
  • Aperture (the size of the hole through which light enters),
  • ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor to light).

Whether you are in Manual mode, Full Auto, or any other camera exposure mode, those three things are always at work. Now, if we’ve already decided we want a 5-second shutter speed, we’re left with just the other two to control our exposure.

ISO and Aperture – which?

You are likely going to want to choose one of two modes when practicing 5-second exposures: Full Manual (which will give you full control over all settings), or Shutter Priority (Tv on Canon and Pentax, S on Nikon and Sony).

Shutter priority lets you choose and lock in a shutter speed and then the camera adjusts aperture (the f/stop) and ISO (if you have that in Auto ISO). If not, ISO will be locked to whatever you set.

Now, you’ve locked in 5-seconds as your shutter speed, should you use Aperture, ISO, or maybe both to get the exposure right? Like so many things in photography, the answer is, “it depends.”

Let’s speak to ISO first. We’re trying to make a 5-second exposure. Doing so will allow quite a bit of light into the camera. So as not to overexpose the image, dialing down the ISO will help. Many cameras have 100 ISO as their lowest setting. Some can go down to 50 ISO. The benefit of lower ISO is less noise. So, set to the lowest ISO possible, yes? Sure, but that by itself may not get you there, and there are other considerations.

Let’s consider aperture.

Setting the aperture (remember the aperture is the “hole.” The term f/stop is the way we reference the “size of the hole.”) to a larger number, i.e. f/11, f/16, or f/22 will let in less light. That too may help us get that 5-second exposure.

Of course, changing aperture also affects the depth of field. We could also encounter a reduction of sharpness if we use the smallest apertures due to what is called “diffraction.”

Fun 5-Second Photos - Using Long Exposures for Creative Images
Pre-sunrise. I didn’t have a lot of light to work with, so a slow shutter speed helped here. It also smoothed the water a bit at the inlet at the Coquille River Lighthouse in Bandon, Oregon. Canon 6D with Canon 24-105mm lens, 6 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 1600.

Proper exposure while considering the implications of each “leg of the exposure triangle” is always a juggling act. If you’re still a novice photographer who has always used automatic exposure settings, I might have lost you here. If so, I suggested you read up on these things:

Cut the light

So, we have our shutter speed set at 5-seconds, our ISO at say 50, and an aperture of f/22. We check and see the image will still be overexposed. What now? Well, as we might put on sunglasses on a bright day to cut the amount of light coming into our eyes, in photography we use neutral-density (ND) filters.

These come in various grades of darkness. A rating system indicates how many stops of light they reduce. Each increase of ND 0.3 results in one additional stop of light reduction. So an ND 1.8 is a six-stop filter.

That means whatever a good exposure for the scene might be with no filter, putting such a filter on will allow you to adjust to the now correct exposure by six stops.

If all of this makes your head hurt, I suggest downloading a free ND calculator app (Android / iOS) which will tell you the settings you need.

Lee Filters (who makes a 6-stop ND filter called the “Little Stopper,” and a 10-stop filter called the “Big Stopper“) offers a nice free app. To use an example, if I had to shoot in bright daylight and the longest shutter speed I could use was at 1/200th of a second, using a 10-stop Big Stopper could get me down to that 5-second shutter speed.

Another option is a “variable ND filter.” These have two layered polarized filters, that when rotated, allow progressive darkening. They can be nice, but sometimes introduce weird visual artifacts, create color casts and such, particularly at darker settings and when using wider focal lengths. Do some research before you decide to buy one of these.

Standard circular polarizing filters can work to a degree as they will typically cut light by 1.5-2.5 stops. You can stack filters too, but a word of caution here – stacking filters runs the risk of vignetting the image, or worse, sometimes stacked filters can get stuck on the lens. This is a sure way to ruin your day. A filter wrench is a good tool to have in your kit.

ND filters can help you get a longer shutter speed if light conditions are bright.
In daylight conditions, even with a small aperture and low ISO, you might not be able to get to the longer shutter speed you’d like and have the proper exposure. ND filters which cut the light are often the answer. All of these photos were done with such a filter.

Suitable scenes

Okay, techy stuff out of the way. When and why might you want to take 5-second exposures? Let’s look at some example photos.

Flowing water

Use a slower shutter speed for silky water effects.
Silky water effects are a favorite with photographers. Slower shutter speeds allow you to get the look. Note the various shutter speeds on these images. A recommended practice is to bracket your moving water shots. The speed, volume, and proximity of the water to the camera will make a difference when finding that “just right” shutter speed to create the look you like.

Smooth water, streaked clouds

Fun 5-Second Photos - Using Long Exposures for Creative Images
Whatever moves will blur during a longer exposure. Water, waves, and clouds will all have a different look. You need not always go for extra-long exposures either, note the shutter speeds on these were between 6 and 8 seconds.

Special Effects

A longer shutter speed buys you time when creating special effects looks.
A longer shutter speed buys you time for creating special effects photos. The “smoke” in the first shot is actually a piece of dental floss moved during the 6-second exposure. I used sparklers and laser pointers to create the other shots. Note the shutter speeds are all 4-seconds.


Fun 5-Second Photos - Using Long Exposures for Creative Images
I find 6-second exposures are often just right when doing fireworks photos allowing capture of multiple bursts and a nice look.

Zoom during exposure

Fun 5-Second Photos - Using Long Exposures for Creative Images
Longer shutter speeds allow you time to zoom the lens during the shot, producing the kinds of images in the first two photos. In the third image, it was the car that was doing the “zooming.”

Combining with flash

Fun 5-Second Photos - Using Long Exposures for Creative Images
Combine a slower shutter speed with a pop of second-curtain-sync flash, and you get an image like this. The motion blurs during the ambient portion of the exposure, and the flash at the end freezes that part of the exposure. Second-curtain-sync flash shots are two-exposures in one. Canon 6D with Canon 24-105mm lens, 2-seconds, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Low light and night photography

Fun 5-Second Photos - Using Long Exposures for Creative Images
Before sunrise, after sunset, dark days and nights – sometimes you go for a slower shutter speed because there’s not much light. Knowing when to “go slow” can make for some nice images. All of these are between 3.2 and 8 seconds.

Light painting

Fun 5-Second Photos - Using Long Exposures for Creative Images
A longer shutter speed buys you time for light painting. The first image had a 4-second exposure, the second a 5-second exposure. Go read my article on this fun technique.


Fun 5-Second Photos - Using Long Exposures for Creative Images
When you don’t have a lightning trigger, you do it the old-fashioned way – Point your camera where you’ve been seeing the flashes and shoot many longer exposure shots. With luck, you’ll catch a bolt or maybe even several during a shot. Canon 6D with Canon 24-105mm lens, 4-seconds, f/9, ISO 800.

Now go “take five”

Fun 5-Second Photos - Using Long Exposures for Creative Images
Shooting into the sun, a six-stop ND filter was mandatory to get me to a 6-second shutter speed here. Canon 6D with Canon 24-105mm lens, 6-seconds, f/16, ISO 50.

So what is the “right” shutter speed to use? When making long exposures for creative images there is no absolute.

Use the shutter speed that best captures the vision you had when making the image. Learn to adjust aperture and ISO to get you to that speed you want and ND filters when you must. The key is taking control of your camera.

As a master painter knows exactly what brush and stroke to use, you as a photographer can make masterful photos when you know the right settings and controls to use. If you have not typically worked in the 5-second shutter speed range, use the photos in this article as inspiration. Now, go “take five.”

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Rick Ohnsman
Rick Ohnsman

Photography isn’t just a hobby, it’s an adventure! Photography is about sharing my personal vision. From the ’70s, with a film SLR and a garage darkroom, college work with 4×5 view cameras, Kodachrome slides and into the digital age, I’ve pursued photography for over 45 years. An enthusiastic member of the Boise Camera Club, I share this common passion and enjoy teaching new members. See my work here – on 500px and on instagram.

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