What is Long Exposure Photography and How to Do It (With Examples)
One of the most beautiful aspects of photography is that it allows us to rediscover the world like we've never seen it before. From intricate macro patterns to the farthest galaxies, a camera can make us feel just like Galileo did when using his telescope to look up at the sky. And best of all, we can share these newfound wonders far and wide with our photography website.
Among everything, one of the most interesting opportunities is the chance to capture how the world moves around us. Long exposure photography allows us to record the trail of any movement, as far or slow as it may be. Because this is something our vision can never experience, the results are simply awe inspiring. If you’re looking to learn more about long exposure photography and how to do it, this guide will teach you everything you need to know.
What is long exposure photography?
Long exposure photography is the name given to the technique in which the camera’s shutter is left open during a somewhat lengthy period of time. The resulting image captures the trail of moving objects in front of the camera, while showing still elements razor sharp.
Also known as slow-shutter or time-lapse photography, this technique is used to show the effect of passing time in a scene, be it light trails or smooth dynamic elements. It is widely used across many types of photography, from landscapes and urban shots to portraits and product images.
There isn’t a clear definition of how slow a shutter speed needs to be in order for a picture to be considered long exposure photography. However, a setting in which it’s not possible to handhold the camera and get a clear shot generally falls under this category.
Preparing the photoshoot
Look for inspiration
If you’ve never worked with long exposure photography before, it might be hard to envision the shots you could capture. This is why it’s important to start off by searching examples of what others are doing. In addition to scrolling through photography Instagram accounts, take the time to see the work of historical figures in the field such as Michael Wesely, who is known for his extremely long exposure shots of construction sites (up to three years!
Scout the location
Being familiar with the place where you’ll be capturing your long exposure photos can make or break a shot. This might seem obvious when talking about night or landscape photography, as the scenery plays a major role in the image. Yet, knowing your surroundings will give you a huge advantage even if the location itself is not in the frame, such as in portrait photography. Whenever possible, visit the place in advance in order to get a general feeling of it as well as come up with potential compositions for your images.
Check the weather
There are two main things you need to take into account when it comes to weather and long exposure photography. First, you’ll probably need to spend a significant amount of time outdoors and therefore should prepare according to the temperature. Second, the forecast will have a huge impact on the images themselves.
For example, if you want to shoot during the photography golden hour you’ll want to get some clouds in the frame in order to capture their movement as well as a more interesting sky in terms of color and contrast. On the contrary, clouds are terrible news if you have astrophotography in mind, as they’ll block any view of the stars you’re trying to get.
Get your phone ready
Nowadays, smartphones play a nearly irreplaceable roles in our day-to-day lives. Like a small, genius assistant always ready to remind you of upcoming appointments and give you the answer to the most random questions.
There are several photography apps you can use before, during, and after the photoshoot to ensure everything goes according to the plan. From tracking the sun position, to calculating your exposure, to sharing the results on social media, and more. Download all of them beforehand in order to save up battery while on the assignment.
Packing the gear
There is an endless amount of photography quotes that remind us that the camera is nothing but an instrument to make your vision come to life. While it’s true that a good photographer can capture outstanding images with any equipment, sometimes the situation requires certain traits that not all cameras offer.
When shooting long exposure photography, you’ll need a camera with manual settings (preferably including Bulb mode) and a sensor that performs well under low-light conditions. The former will enable you to manipulate the shutter speed to capture long exposures, while the latter will minimize the damage of long exposure noise.
If your goal is to become a professional photographer, get ready to carry a tripod with you pretty much every time you leave the house. While it might seem like a drag at first, you’ll soon realize just how much it can affect the way you work and the quality of your images. When it comes to long exposure photography, a tripod is simply an absolute must.
A long exposure photo can require an exposure time anywhere between a couple seconds up to half an hour. Needless to say, hand-holding your gear during this period will cause an irredeemable amount of camera shake. This is where a sturdy tripod comes in. Simply secure your camera and wait for the exposure to end.
When working with slow shutter speeds, any small camera movement can have a negative impact on the final result. Using a shutter release instead of pressing the camera shutter to start the exposure will ensure nothing interferes with the camera position. If this tool is not yet part of your camera accessories, you can also use the delayed shutter option in your camera.
Daylight long exposure photography requires some darkness to be shone in the scenery in order to not overexpose the image. If your creative photography ideas take place in a well-lit environment, you can use a neutral density (ND) filter to minimize the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor, which will allow you to lower the shutter speed.
ND filters are rated in “stops,” each of which doubles the previous number’s exposure time. For example, a five stop ND filter will turn an original 1” exposure into a 32” one, while a six stop one will require 64”.
Choosing the settings
There isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when it comes to long exposure photography settings. However, there are some standard requirements you should keep in mind. As we mentioned early on, you’ll need to have access to manual camera settings that allow you to set a slow shutter speed. Essentially, this narrows it down to two camera modes: Manual and Shutter Priority.
In most cases you’ll want to stick to shutter priority, as it will make your work significantly easier. However, if you feel comfortable enough with your photography skills you should aim to shoot in manual and have full control over each and every aspect of your images.
As a general rule, you should always shoot in RAW rather than JPG. This type of files contain minimally processed data about the image, providing you with much greater control over the final result. Shooting in RAW will give you the chance to recover under or overexposed shots, as well as bring the resulting photo as close as possible to what you experienced. To achieve the best results possible, use your preferred premium or free photo editing software and dedicate as much time to it as necessary.
Your camera shutter is the true star of long exposure photography, for it controls the outcome of each shot. As such, it should serve as a foundation value upon which the rest of your exposure settings are based. The shutter speed will entirely depend on the type of scene you’re shooting and your creative vision. For example, sports photography pictures will likely require a faster speed than still life photography images as the scenes are inherently dynamic. If you’re shooting in manual, make sure to start off by setting up your shutter speed.
Much like shutter speed, aperture will largely depend on the image you’re capturing. But unlike other types of photography where both camera settings are given the same degree of importance in the exposure triangle, here shutter speed takes the spotlight. The range of values within which you can move will be determined by how much light will reach the sensor with the shutter speed you determined.
Typically, the aperture will be set between f/8 to f/13 for landscape photos, and as wide as possible for portraits. Of course, these values can also be altered by the use of ND filters and the creative photography ideas you want to bring to life.
One of the most well-known photography tips for beginners is that you should always shoot as close to the lowest ISO value as possible. This ensures that you’re not forcing the camera sensor above its limits, which would result in nearly irreversible noise damage. However, when it comes to long exposure photography settings, you should allow yourself a bit more of a maneuver range.
Prior to photoshoot day (or night), put your camera to the test by seeing how each ISO level performs. Make sure to see the results on a big computer screen, not simply on the LCD one. This will allow you to see how far you can push your camera sensor without damaging your images excessively. In the field, use ISO to balance the exposure based on the shutter and aperture settings - and always without surpassing the limit you discovered during the test.
More often than not you’ll find that nailing the focus is one of the hardest parts of long exposure photography. In most cases it will be due shooting a poorly-lit scene, while others you’ll be using an ND filter. Either way, auto focus is out of the picture.
There are a few ways you can overcome this challenge. The best one is to use your liveview to zoom into a lit area and manually set your focus. If your subject is too dark, such as if you’re shooting the night sky, set the focus near infinity. Afterwards, simply compose your image without altering the focus.
Long exposure photography examples
Now that you know the theory, it’s time to grab a hold of your gear and put all that knowledge into practice. From dynamic trails of light in daylight portraits to static long exposure night photography out in the desert, the only limit is your imagination. Here are ten long exposure photography ideas to both show you the mindblowing results this technique allows you to achieve and get your creativity going.
By Judit Ruiz Ricart
Editor of the Wix Photography Blog