Some of my favorite photo effects are created using long exposures. A long exposure is simply a photo that is taken using a very slow shutter speed. By extending the shutter speed you can take an everyday shot and make it truly interesting. I’m going to take you through how to use this technique to get some great results. Before we dive into techniques I want to mention gear because it’s very important for long exposure photography.
Long exposure gear
There are a few pieces of gear you will want to have. The single most important of these items is a tripod. Long exposures require a steady frame for a long period of time and this makes having a tripod a must.
I also recommend a shutter release cable for triggering the shutter without having to touch the camera. While you can get away with the two or ten second timer I find the shutter release cable invaluable. You can pick up a basic one for less than $10, which makes it a no brainer for every photographer.
Depending on how serious you want to get with long exposure photography you may want to have a Neutral Density filter. This is a filter that blocks out light by a set amount, allowing you to leave your shutter open longer even in daylight hours.
Once you have your gear together you will want to make sure it’s setup in a way that ensures there will be no shake in the frame. Your tripod should be setup on firm ground and I would recommend weighing it down as well to prevent any movement. You can also try to help shield it from the wind by standing upwind from the tripod and protecting it with your body. Do not extend the center post for these types of shots, the taller the tripod is the more susceptible it is to shake. Also be sure to either secure or remove the camera strap to prevent it from flapping around and moving the camera.
If you are using a Neutral Density filter you will need to set your focus before attaching the filter. You probably won’t be able to see through the filter to set your focus and autofocus will be useless if the filter is attached. Once you’ve set your focus, carefully attach the filter then switch it to manual focus. If your camera has a viewfinder cover this is the time to use it. If not you can cover it with any material that will not allow light to bleed through. This is important because it will limit any light entering the camera housing. Since we are dealing with such limited amounts of light, any stray light entering the housing can affect the final image.
You will want to keep your ISO down to limit noise and keep the colors from degrading but this will depend on how bright your scene is. If you do find an issue with colors you can always try to convert the photo to black and white which should resolve the problem. You can set your aperture for your desired depth of field but keep in mind the aperture can also control how much light gets through, if you find you need more or less. Shutter speed will need to be adjusted based upon subject and available light. Remember, shooting in Live View Mode can give you an idea of the final image so it’s useful for preparing the shot.
You want to shoot around sunrise or sunset since there’s less sunlight and you can leave the shutter open longer. If you are shooting landscapes it’s best to shoot when are moving quickly, this will add movement to the sky. I don’t recommend shooting in full sun for long exposure photography as there will be too much light.
Landscapes make a great subject for long exposures, especially if there is a body of water. The clouds will add movement to the sky and the water will become silky smooth. Waterfalls, rivers and streams also create amazing effects with smooth water flowing over and around rocks.
The shot below is a perfect example of what I mean about smooth waterfalls. Here the water looks more like a jet and the foam forms tendrils at the bottom. I took this shot was with a shutter speed of just 1/5 sec.
The fire dancer was twirling two fireballs but by using long exposure, it appears like there were many more.
For this last shot I used a 30 second exposure time as a train passed by. I captured all the lights but the train is absent since there was nothing to light it up.
The options are endless get into long exposure, anything with some movement can be a really interesting photo. Patience and persistence wins when it comes to this type of photography. Don’t be afraid to try things and make mistakes! Once you get the basics down you can start to experiment and see what you can make.
Want to learn more? Check out my other guides!