Are you struggling to capture beautiful long exposure photography? Do you want to learn the long exposure basics – and even take some pro-level images?
Long exposure techniques may seem difficult, but they’re really not. With a little bit of know-how, you can start getting stunning results…
…and that’s what this article is all about. I’m going to give you a simple, step-by-step process for long exposure images. By the time you’re done, you’ll see how easy it is to get satisfying shots on your first attempt, and you’ll know exactly what to do the next time you’re faced with a great opportunity.
Let’s dive right in.
Step 1: Study the weather
Long exposure photography can rise and fall depending on the weather. If you look at the long exposure shots throughout this article, you’ll notice that I make extensive use of clouds to create intense, eye-catching skies.
Therefore, partly cloudy skies are often best for long exposure photography, though you can also work with mostly cloudy or even moody, overcast horizons. Flat white skies (i.e., clouds with no texture) are best avoided – in general, the long exposure effect will be lost on these scenes, and you’ll end up with a drab shot.
Most important of all, a day with a cloudless sky is a good day to have a drink with friends, not to make long exposures. No clouds means no drama, and as with flat overcast skies, a long exposure won’t actually do much.
Step 2: Visit the location well in advance
In a long exposure photo, the world looks completely different from how you see it with your eyes. You must see a long exposure scene with your mind, imagining the look of moving clouds or the force of the sea. And this takes time – certainly longer than it takes to shoot a single, fast-shutter-speed composition.
To address this issue, and to ensure you return home with a strong shot or two, I recommend you scout the location ahead of time. Think about any moving objects you might encounter, such as clouds, water, or even birds. Try to determine how they’ll move on the day of your long exposure photoshoot (you might even take some long exposure test shots).
Also, use a photo planning app to determine where the sun will be positioned during your final shot, then take steps to avoid putting it in the frame. Why? Well, the sun moves across the sky, so if you include it in your composition, you’ll end up with a bright streak of light, which generally does not look great in an otherwise magical long exposure shot.
Step 3: Set up the right gear (including a tripod)
Long exposure photography isn’t especially gear intensive. You need a camera, and while I recommend a DSLR or a mirrorless body, you can even get away with using a smartphone. You also might need a filter, depending on the lighting conditions – more on that later.
But you definitely, one-hundred percent do need a tripod.
A tripod will keep your camera steady over the course of a five-second, ten-second, or even ten-minute exposure. Without a tripod, you’re bound to end up with a blurry shot, no matter the power of your camera’s in-body image stabilization.
So don’t risk missing out. Invest in a quality tripod, one that can withstand significant wind (especially if you shoot near the coast), and it’ll pay you back for years.
At this point in the long exposure shooting process, you’ll want to mount your camera on the tripod, then set up any relevant accessories, such as your filter holder (if you plan to use drop-in filters), and your remote shutter release (if you plan to use one, though you can also get away with a remote shooting app on your phone or your camera’s self-timer).
Note: While you’ll need to install the filter holder on the front of your lens, wait to actually add the filter. This is very important!
Step 4: Compose the image and lock focus
Refine your composition, then set your focus.
In general, you’ll want to keep the entire shot sharp from foreground to background, so focus at the hyperfocal distance (about a third of the way into the scene). If you’re struggling to determine where to focus, try using a depth of field calculator such as PhotoPills.
If you are using manual focus, go ahead and set the lens’s focus ring exactly where you want it. If you are using autofocus, position your active autofocus point over your main subject, half-press the shutter button to engage the focus, then toggle your lens from Autofocus to Manual. That way, the focus will remain locked, even if you accidentally press the shutter button again.
Step 5: Set the exposure
Now it’s time to choose your essential camera settings. First, set your camera to Manual (M) mode or Aperture Priority (A/Av) mode and your ISO to your camera’s lowest native value (probably ISO 50, ISO 100, or ISO 200).
Check your histogram to determine whether you’ve nailed the exposure (do not trust your display; it is too bright!). The test is complete when you get a correct exposure, so adjust your shutter speed or exposure compensation, then keep shooting until you get the result you want.
(Side note: It’s true that there is no universally correct result on the histogram, but there are histograms that are universally incorrect; namely, histograms skewed completely to the right or left side, indicating overexposure or underexposure, respectively.)
Once a test shot is successful, write down the shutter speed you used for that image, then move on to the next step.
Step 6: Add your filter
Now add your neutral density filter. If you’re shooting in near darkness and you don’t need an ultra-long exposure (e.g., you’re okay with an exposure in the five-second to thirty-second range), you can get away with shooting filterless, but for most long exposure shots, a filter is a good idea.
If your filter is very strong (10 stops, for example), you will not be able to see through the viewfinder or Live View. Do not worry, though – if you have followed the guide up to this point, you will notice that we have already made the composition and set the focus. You may be shooting blind, but all is prepared and your camera will see everything perfectly.
Step 7: Switch to Bulb mode
Bulb mode allows you to discard your camera’s thirty-second shutter speed limit, so if your camera has this option, I recommend using it. If your camera doesn’t have Bulb mode, or if your filter isn’t especially dark and/or you’re shooting in strong light, you may not need to make this change.
Step 8: Calculate the right shutter speed and take your long exposure shot
You’re almost there; how are you holding up? In this step, all you need to do is determine the perfect shutter speed, which requires a simple calculation.
Remember the shutter speed that you noted down from the test shot you took during Step 5? Now you must adjust the shutter speed to compensate for the number of stops introduced by the filter.
For example, if your test shot was 1/15s and you’re using a 10-stop filter, you’ll need to decrease the shutter speed by 10 stops, for a shutter speed of approximately 60 seconds.
(If you’re not using a filter, then you’ll decrease your shutter speed by zero stops.)
Also, don’t let the mathematics intimidate you. On the internet, you can easily find conversion tables and apps for your smartphone that will do the conversion in moments.
Finally, take your photo!
Step 9: Check the histogram again
Once you’ve taken the shot, check the histogram as a final precaution.
If the new histogram is approximately equal to the histogram of the test shot, you’ve accomplished your mission (feel proud!). But if the new histogram is shifted too far to the right or the left, repeat the shot again, but adjust the shutter speed accordingly.
Long exposure photography: final words
Well, there you have it: a simple guide to long exposure photography.
Easy, isn’t it? Now fill your backpack with your camera and filters and go practice in the field!
Long exposure FAQs
You can do long exposure photography at any time provided you have the right equipment. I recommend starting out with long exposure photography in the very early morning or the very late evening; that way, you’ll be able to see what you’re photographing, but the limited light will allow for impressively long exposures. Generally speaking, the easiest time to do long exposure photography is any moment when the light is limited.
Yes! However, you’ll need a neutral density filter. Otherwise, your long exposure images will turn out too bright.
If your long exposure photos are white, then you’re overexposing your images. You’ll need to increase the shutter speed, narrow the aperture, or drop the ISO to compensate for this issue.
Long exposure refers to a technique where you keep the shutter open for an unusually long period of time. So instead of capturing an image in a split second, you trigger the shutter button and wait – often for minutes or even hours – until the exposure is finished!