Tips for Long Exposure Photography

by Vivek Doshi
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Bridge - Long exposure photography

What is long exposure photography?

Long exposure photography’s photos are images created using a slow shutter speed. Most cameras will go up to exposures of 30 seconds, and you can go even longer when you use “bulb” mode. Night photographers often use longer shutter speeds to brighten up underexposed images in low light

Whenever you leave the shutter open for these extended periods, you introduce motion blur, creating silky smooth waterfalls or waves, magical star trails, milky clouds, and more. Long exposures are a favorite technique of landscape photographers because they help create dreamy, otherworldly scenes, but they can be used in any genre

What you’ll need for long exposures

In addition to your DSLR or mirrorless camera and the lens of your choice, you must have a sturdy tripod and cable release to prevent any camera shake or vibrations during a long exposure. You’ll also want to turn off any image stabilization before taking your photos. We recommend shooting in manual mode for full control over your ISO, which you’ll generally keep as low as possible, your aperture, and, of course, your shutter speed.
To prevent overexposure, you can wait for darker lighting conditions, close down your aperture, or reduce your ISO sensitivity. Still, in many cases, those steps will only take you so far, especially since smaller apertures increase the risk of diffraction, so that’s where you’ll need a neutral density filter

Evening and Clouds - Long exposure photography
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Quick tips for long exposure photography

Choose the right subject

The most important element of a long exposure photo is motion blur, so you’ll want to start with a subject in constant motion, like fluid waves or cloudy skies. The light trails made by passing cars can also work well as leading lines throughout your composition.

Light trails - Long exposure photography
Photo by Joey Kyber on Unsplash

Pick the right time

Cloudy, windy days work best for those lovely long exposure streaks, so check the weather report in advance. The golden hour will also enhance the contrast in your skies, and downloading an app like PhotoPills can be helpful for tracking the sun and moon. The weather and quality of the sunlight can make a significant difference. If you can, visit your location multiple times to get a feel for how the light changes throughout the day.

Be patient

Long exposures rarely provide instant gratification, so don’t forget to enjoy the process. In the beginning, you might spend a whole night at the beach and end up with no usable images; maybe you get the positioning wrong, your images come out too bright or too dark, or your exposure gets interrupted by a gust of wind. You will likely end up with shots that you don’t love right away. That’s okay. 

These “mistakes” can be time-consuming and labor-intensive, but they’re also part of learning. Even if you don’t get the picture you wanted, you haven’t wasted your time. As you get your feet wet with long exposures, be patient with yourself and choose subjects and landscapes you love. During particularly slow shutter speeds, remember to take a moment to enjoy your surroundings while you wait.

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