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A Beginner’s Guide to Long Exposure Street Photography

a guide to long exposure street photos

You may have done some long exposure photos and perhaps a bit of street photography. But have you combined these two genres for long exposure street photography?

Consider this: Photographs are frozen slices of time, and your camera is a time machine capable of freezing or stretching a moment. A short shutter speed can freeze things that happen far too fast to see. With a long shutter duration, motion is blurred, stretching time. When photographing in busy urban environments where people, vehicles, and other things are on the move, long exposures can create a sense of motion in a static photograph.

man walking near street long exposure
Late in the day when the light was fading, by dropping the ISO to 50 and stopping down to f/22, I was able to get a 1.3-second shutter speed, enough to blur this subject walking past the camera. Note the degree to which he is blurred compared to other people farther away in the shot.

I’d never before considered this quote from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to have photography implications, but considering what we’ll explore here, I like what it says:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Ferris Bueller

Taking photos is one way we “stop and look around.” It’s also a way we share what we see with others. But a limitation of still photographs is they are a 2D, static representation of a 3D, moving world. So how can we better communicate motion in a still photo? A long exposure that leaves the shutter open for an extended period will cause moving images to be rendered as blurs. That look communicates motion to the viewer.

So let’s talk about the mechanics of how to do long exposure street photography.

people walking along outdoor seating
Midday and in full sun; even at the minimal ISO of 50 and an aperture of f/22, I had to use a variable ND filter to cut the light for a 1-second shutter speed. Note the difference in blur between the moving subjects and those seated.

Where to go for the best long exposure street photography

If you’re going to depict motion, you want to go somewhere where things are moving. Busy locations where people, vehicles, and other things are on the move will work well. A busy city street or intersection might be a perfect spot. You could also try a sporting event where the participants are in motion.

For long exposure night photography (which we’ll discuss in greater depth), locations with moving lights and illuminated vehicles work well. Also, consider the interesting looks that can be created when your photograph combines static and dynamic elements. One person standing still in a crowd of moving people can make for an impactful image using the long exposure technique.

group of people walking by long exposure
When people walk, their feet are temporarily still – just for a moment – with each step. Even with a 2-second shutter speed, as in the photo above, while the bodies blur, the steps are visible. Low evening light, a low ISO, and a small aperture allowed for the 2-second shutter (no ND filter was needed).

A still camera in a moving world

You likely want the motion in your photos to be created by the movement of your subjects, not by the movement of your camera. Handholding your camera and keeping it still during a multi-second exposure will be very difficult, so a tripod is a good idea.

(Though consider if you will be able to use a tripod on a busy city sidewalk or other crowded environments. Creating a hazard where someone could trip over a tripod leg is not something you want to do.)

There is also the “attraction of attention factor.” I will confess: I have not done a lot of street photography because of my personal trepidation about having to engage with strangers who want to know why I’m taking their photo on a street corner. Should I decide street photography is something I want to pursue further, that’s something I’ll need to get past.

long exposure at the beach
A high vantage point off a pier assured no one was paying much attention to me as the photographer. A 6-stop ND filter, a low ISO of 50, and a small aperture of f/18 were all needed to deal with the bright sun and get this 8-second exposure.

That said, I guarantee that you will attract even more attention and possible questions if you set up a tripod and a professional-looking camera on a busy street corner and start taking photos of passersby. Perhaps you could find other ways to brace your camera aside from a tripod. Maybe even figure out how to do long exposures with your cell phone to reduce the attention factor.

(If this isn’t a concern for you, more power to you; you’ve already dealt with a major barrier to being a great street photographer.)

What is a long exposure?

Your objective here is to make “long exposures” so that your subjects move during the shot. So how do we define long exposure photography?

An object will render as blurred in a photograph if it changes position from the time the shutter opens until the time it closes. Two factors will determine the amount of blur:

  • The speed of the moving object relative to the duration the shutter is open
  • The relative distance the subject moves during the exposure.

Let’s use a moving car as an example. Say you have a shutter speed of 1/30s. You are taking a photo of a car moving at 40 mph. If the car is relatively close to the camera, it could move completely across the frame and thus be rendered as a complete blur. But if the same car, still traveling at 40 mph, was in the distance and relatively small in the frame, it would only move a relatively short distance across the frame in that same 1/30s – and thus wouldn’t show as much blur.

long exposure with blurry car and person
The car in this shot was moving quite slowly, so I needed to drop the shutter speed to 0.6 seconds for some noticeable blur.
long exposure of people waiting and dog
This car moved perpendicular to the camera, stayed fairly close, and moved completely across the frame during my 1-second exposure, thus rendering as nothing but a blur.

So to simplify, the distance an object moves across the frame during the exposure is what will determine its blurriness. Even relatively slow-moving objects can be blurred if the exposure time is long enough. Take a close-up of a snail with a 5-minute exposure, and you could quite possibly have it appear motion blurred, too!

It’s that exposure triangle thing again

I hope you know what I mean when I speak of the “exposure triangle” – the relationship between ISO, shutter speed, and aperture when making a properly exposed photograph. If you’re not completely familiar, I’d recommend you stop what you’re doing and read all about it here.

Now, if you’re going to make long exposures that are well exposed, you’ll need full control over your shutter speed. There are two basic modes you can use to achieve this: Shutter Priority mode (Tv on Canon cameras, S on Nikons and some other cameras), or full Manual (M) mode.

In either case, you will be able to pick a shutter speed and lock it in. (We’ll talk about choosing a shutter speed in a minute.)

police officer riding a motorbike
1/60s isn’t what we’d normally consider a “long exposure,” but panning the camera with a fast-moving subject blurs the background while keeping the subject sharp.

Let’s assume you decide to make a 2-second exposure. Let’s also assume you are in Shutter Priority mode.

When you meter the scene, your shutter speed will be 2 seconds. Your aperture and ISO (if you are using Auto ISO), will “float,” automatically switching to a setting for a proper exposure. Depending on the ambient light, you might get something like 2 seconds at f/11 and ISO 1000. Locking the shutter speed and letting the camera determine aperture and ISO will allow you to get a proper exposure at the shutter duration you choose.

Using Manual mode can give you even greater creative control. Say you set your shutter speed for the same 2 seconds but stop down to f/16 for some additional depth of field. Your ISO can be adjusted to maintain the right exposure, and you’ll get the same 2-second exposure but at f/16 and ISO 2000.

If you are in Manual mode, you get to do all the adjustments yourself. Assuming you want the same 2-second shutter speed, you dial that in. Then you can adjust either the aperture, ISO, or both to center the exposure bar indicator and get a proper exposure. Should you decide to capture multiple shots from the same spot and the light remains constant, you shouldn’t need to make any additional adjustments.

Two important factors

How you choose your long exposure street photography settings will depend on two important factors:

  1. Your desired shutter speed
  2. Ambient light in your scene

So ask yourself:

  • What shutter speed do I want? Like so much of photography, the answer here is probably “it depends.” How much are the subjects in your shot moving? How fast? How close are they to the camera? What is your desired look? On a crowded street with lots of pedestrians scurrying about, you might be able to make everyone completely disappear in your photo if you use a several-minute exposure. Is that the look you want? Experimentation is the best way to learn the perfect shutter speed for this kind of photography. Try different things, “chimp” your shots, adjust and try again. You will get a feel for what you like and what works best in different situations.
  • What are the ambient light conditions? You might decide you’d like a 30-second exposure but are out shooting in the middle of the day in bright sunshine. Even stopping down to f/22 and ISO 50, a 30-second exposure might not be possible without drastically overexposing the image. Long exposure night images, taken when you don’t have much ambient light to deal with, are much easier. At night, instead of lowering the ISO, you might need to raise it. The same 30-second night image might be something like 30 seconds at f/4 and ISO 1600.

The amount of light you have to work with will impact what you can do. Long exposures in low light are usually easier, as you can always open up your aperture to its widest setting and crank up the ISO (noise is still a consideration but less so thanks to improved sensor technology). But how do you make a long exposure when there’s too much light and the smallest aperture and lowest ISO won’t get you the shutter speed you want?

kids playing soccer with panning technique
A cloudy day, an ISO of 50, and an aperture of f/32 coupled with panning the camera along with the action enabled me to get this impressionistic image of kids playing soccer.

Reach for the “sunglasses”

On a bright, sunny day when the light becomes too intense for our eyes, we’ll often reach for a pair of sunglasses to reduce the brightness. We can do the same for our cameras with neutral density filters (ND filters), which offer different levels of darkness. We can use ND filters to reduce the light hitting the camera sensor, and thus get long shutter durations even in bright conditions.

Here’s an example: You meter the scene, and at your smallest aperture of f/22 and an ISO of 50, the slowest shutter speed you could use and still get a proper exposure is 0.8 seconds. So grab your 6-stop ND filter, add it to the front of your lens, and you’ll be able to use an 8-second exposure. (A 10-stop ND filter could take you all the way to a 2-minute exposure!)

long exposure street photo taken with an ND filter
Even with a minimal ISO of 50 and an f/10 aperture, a variable ND was needed to reduce the midday sun and get a 1/8s shutter speed, not a particularly “long” exposure.

Using ND filters and calculating exposures takes a little study and practice, but the advantage is being able to take long exposures in bright conditions where it would otherwise not be possible. (A nice app to have on your cellphone is an ND filter exposure calculator like this one from Lee, a filter manufacturer: for Android/for iOS).

Lights at night

We’re very accustomed to seeing nighttime long exposures, and light trails caused by moving vehicles are quite easy to photograph, so long as you have a tripod or way to stabilize your camera.

Decide how long you want your exposure to last. Then in Shutter Priority mode, pick an aperture. If you’re set to use Auto ISO, the camera should pick the ISO setting for you. Of course, if you’re in Manual mode, you get to pick all three settings.

Again, determine your desired shutter speed, pick an aperture, and then adjust the ISO to a setting where you get a proper exposure. It could take some trial and error, but once you get everything dialed in, you will be able to make repeated shots without too much need for further adjustment.

Boise at night with light trails
I made a lot of shots to get the look I was after with this image of rush-hour traffic in Boise, Idaho. During the “blue hour” with limited light, I was able to keep the ISO at 100, the aperture at f/13, and a 15-second shutter speed. Nighttime long exposure is often easier than daylight long exposure (as you now know, too much light requires the use of neutral density filters).
experimental long exposure in the back of a car
A different way to create some motion: Put the camera on a tripod in the back seat of your vehicle. Strap it down (or bring an assistant). ISO 100 helps keep down the noise and f/7.1 is a good sharp spot, at least for my Tamron lens. Take a downtown drive and trigger the camera with a 6-second exposure. Try different shutter speeds and take lots of shots. You might get one you like!
long exposure of freeway traffic
Freeway traffic with a 2.5-second shutter speed…
long exposure light trails
I then stopped down to f/22 and tried a 15-second shutter speed. You will find it beneficial when doing long exposure images to experiment with different shutter durations. You will get different looks depending on the speed of your subject, proximity to the camera, and various other factors.
Idaho state capitol building with long exposure light trails
A passing car adds some additional interest to this 10-second exposure of the Idaho Capitol building in Boise.

Beyond the mechanics

Working out the camera mechanics when making long exposures is a matter of determining how to get a long exposure in any given lighting conditions. The rest of making an interesting image is no different than with other kinds of photography. Determine if there’s a “story” you want to tell. Decide how to compose your shot. Use compositional guidelines, vary your perspective, and try different shutter speeds to create different looks.

For street photos of people, it can be interesting to go out with a model, someone who will work with you and pose as needed. Put them in a busy location, but instruct them to stay still while you make your shot. They will remain sharp in the shot while the moving passersby will blur. The contrast of static and dynamic between your frozen model and the people moving and blurring can create some dramatic looks.

people crossing the road
The woman on the corner was not my model, but this illustrates the concept. She remained relatively still during the 0.6 second exposure, while the other people walked across the crosswalk. It’s a good example of the static/dynamic image you can make, particularly if you take a model with you.

Add a flash

Here’s something else you can try:

Put a speedlight on your camera and set it up for second-curtain sync. (If you’re unfamiliar with the technique, make sure to read up on it!)

What you’re after is a long exposure that will motion-blur moving people or objects – but then, just before the shutter closes, the flash will fire. Moving elements will have a blur of motion behind them but be frozen by the burst of flash, like this:

second-curtain sync blurry bikers
Here, 1/8s was long enough to blur the action. A pop of flash using second-curtain sync was enough to freeze a part of the image. The final result is both dynamic and static at the same time.

Just be aware that, if you thought shooting with a tripod on a busy city street might attract attention, firing a flash will make it clear you’re taking photos. What’s nice about having a model with you is that people will assume you’re making photos of the model and not be as concerned about you making photos of them. You’ll even get lots of apologies from people who say, “Sorry, I got in your shot,” not knowing that was your intent all along.

people walking down a narrow road
In early evening without much light, I reduced the ISO to 50 and stopped down to f/16. With a 1.6-second shutter speed, you might get a look like this. The camera was mounted on a tripod, and I tripped the shutter nonchalantly as these people walked by.

Go hit the streets

Learning the mechanics of long exposure street photography is the easy part. Getting out on the streets and making photos, particularly with people in them, is the bigger challenge, especially if you haven’t done much street photography before.

If you pride yourself on being a people person, that will come in handy in this genre of photography. The rest, as they say, is practice. Best wishes!

Now over to you:

Do you have any favorite tips or techniques for long exposure street photography? And do you have any long exposure images you’re proud of? Share them in the comments below!

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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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