The Surreal Landscape: Long Exposure Photography

The Surreal Landscape: Long Exposure Photography


Long exposure photography

It seems to me that we live in a world orientated to a digital generation demanding instant gratification. This extends to photography, encouraged by the prevalence of camera phones and Instagram type apps. How many photographers, when they come across a beautiful scene, just stop and snap a photo with a camera phone and then move on?

Long exposure photography is different. It demands patience, an appreciation of beautiful light and a deep understanding of composition. It is as much about the mind-set of the photographer as it is about the subject. It’s not brash or flashy – you rarely see long exposure photographers use techniques such as high dynamic range (HDR) photography or adding texture layers.

What is long exposure photography? There is no precise definition. I think of it as involving shutter speeds of ten seconds or longer, but I’m sure some photographers will be thinking in terms of shutter speeds of a minute or more. But the aim is the same – to create beautiful and surreal images by leaving the shutter open long enough to record anything that moves within the landscape, such as water, as a blur.

That’s why most long exposure photography tends to take place along the coast. The sea creates an interesting subject, helped by natural features such as rocks and islands, and man-made ones like piers and jetties.

Painting with light is also a form of long exposure photography.

Long exposure photography

Contemplation and the landscape

You may be wondering what one does while waiting for the camera to take a photo when the shutter speed is longer than a minute.

The answer is that long exposure photography is a naturally contemplative pastime. While waiting, take some time to enjoy the beautiful location you are in. Breathe and enjoy the smell of the air. Listen to the sounds. Watch the light as it fades away. This meditative approach will help you notice things an instant gratification seeker will miss.

Getting started

Interested? How then, do you get started? One of the nice things about long exposure photography is that the basic requirements are not extensive:

  • A tripod and a good ball-and-socket head. Beware of inexpensive models – they may be too flimsy to support your camera properly during long exposures. A good aluminium or carbon-fibre tripod is required.
  • A cable release or remote release so that you can activate the shutter without touching the camera.


A polarising filter is useful for eliminating reflections from shiny surfaces, such as a concrete jetty made wet by sea water. It also blocks between one and two stops of light, helping you obtain longer shutter speeds.

Some photographers use neutral density (ND) filters, but they are not essential. You can get started without them by turning up late in the day and taking photos as the sun sets. During twilight you can obtain shutter speeds of thirty seconds or later by setting a low ISO and a narrow aperture.

The benefit of neutral density filters is that they extend the period of time during which you can use long exposures. They come in various strengths; three, four, nine and ten stop ND filters are the most common. Nine and ten stop ND filters are designed to enable long exposure photography during the middle of the day – you won’t need them if you are shooting at dusk.

Learn more about neutral density filters.

Long exposure photography

Noise reduction

Shoot in Raw and turn off the long exposure noise reduction setting. The software you use to process your Raw files will take care of noise reduction for you.


Here are some more resources that will help:

BW Vision

Slices of Silence

Interviews with long exposure photographers

Long Exposure Photography: 15 Stunning Examples

Eight Tips for Long Exposure Photography

Photo Tutorial – Long Exposure Photography

Final thoughts

That’s a lot to take in, so don’t forget the most important thing of all – to go out and take some photos. It takes a while to get the hang of long exposure photography, so don’t be discouraged if your first attempts aren’t as polished as you would like. It takes time to master the techniques and develop the eye for graphical composition required for successful long exposure photography.

Mastering Photography

My ebook Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master long exposure photography and take photos like the ones in this article.

Long exposure photography

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Torben Christiansen

    Just loves long exposures. I have one picture hanging on my wall from a very cold and windy winter afternoon where the subject is a the ocean with some ice and then using the long exposure to great a surreal picture

  • This is one of my favorites kinds of photography. It forces me to slow down and really see what is happening in the scene. The flow of water, the movement of clouds. I really become immersed in the scene and it opens my eyes to a world of creative options.

    I’d define a long exposure as anything that conveys the motion of a scene. At twilight, this might require 30 seconds or more. At midday, it may be less than a second. This is a shot I took with a 13 second exposure. Shot at f/9 to preserve a little depth of field and force a longer shutter time.

    This shot at 1.3s isn’t a “long” long exposure, but it does convey the motion of the scene.

    I would consider both of these examples of long exposure.

  • Mithun Kumar

    Reminded me of a similar image I shot a few weeks ago:

    And another one of the same place…

  • marius2die4

    I like this type of photography. Usually I shoot at twilight with tripod an gradual filter . At my DSLR I have the function mirror look up that eliminate the vibration()about 3-5 seconds is enough). I use also a remote release , viewfinder is closed.

    Some of picture:

  • Ross

    A cable release is not necessary if you have a 2 second delay – as most DSLR cameras have nowadays. Gives you time to remove your hand from the camera and for it to ‘settle’ on the tripod.

  • drdroad

    I’m curious about the advice to turn the camera’s noise reduction feature off. I’ve heard this before. What’s the reason for that? Wouldn’t having that on, plus the ability to do it in further in Photoshop or lightroom, work better?

  • echomrg

    the 2 seconds delay doesn’t help with bulb exposures.

    on a different note i’ve recently noticed that, depending on the tripod and the setup, sometimes 2 seconds aren’t enough, better go with 5 seconds or longer.

  • Zero Equals Infinity

    The key is having element that will remain still, and others that will blur into softness. Hence things like jetties sticking of the water, pebble beaches, and such thing are excellent things to have present.

    A sturdy tripod, using mirror up, a cable release, and ND filters are your tools of choice. An IR filter also make a great ND filter, and adds yet another quality to the image. You had also better bone up on making quality monochrome images, as this is a type of photography that works extremely well in monochrome.

    Bring your imagination and awareness of composition to take advantage of leading lines, golden mean, and symmetry. I am tempted to bring a few props such as a mannequin, or a perfectly still person to add another interesting element. Have fun. This is a very creative form of photography because you have to use your imagination.

    Other subjects include star trails with frozen foreground subjects, clouds blurring over a landscape, and so on.)

    The longest exposure I have seen was a 1 year exposure of the Toronto skyline taken with a homemade pinhole camera. see

  • Caca Milis

    One of the main reasons is because it doubles the length of the exposure, eg. shoot 30s photo and it will take 30s to process the noise reduction, 15min. photo, 15 mins to wait, it saves a lot of time

  • drdroad

    Yeah, I get that. And for that reason I do sometimes turn it off. But I’ve always figured it would result in less noise unless there’s some other reason I don’t know about not to use it.

  • It all depends if you’re using Raw or JPEG. Use JPEG and long exposure noise reduction will make a difference. Use Raw and it won’t. The software you use to process the Raw file ignores the long exposure noise reduction applied by the camera and uses it own algorithms to reduce noise instead.

  • L. Novak

    Thank you for sharing this great article. I just returned from a trip to Natchez, MS and your techniques were put into practice when I did some long exposure shots of the bridge across the Mississippi. They came out great and I am so excited to try this again.

  • Jeffrey

    Nice shot, I love the way the green color pops. This is really fun
    and creative.

  • Ben Pearson

    i dont understand why wait 30 seconds or longer why not use fast shutter speed get the photo quicker

  • Long exposure sunset at Cap de Nice – France

  • Because the aim of this technique is to use the longer exposure you can.

  • Luiz Forster

    Long Exposure, River Thames, London.

  • Luiz Forster

    Long exposure, River Thames, untouched.

  • Guest

    last weekends in my hometown.

  • Guest

    last weekend in my hometown.

  • Ray

    So how about the pictures doing long exposure which the movable objects (say, models, tree branches, leaves, etc.) stay still and sharp? Do we have to take 2 pictures of the same scene using tripod and then use mask tool in photoshop to bring the models out? I’m really curious.

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