Long Exposure Photography Guide
This is a guest guide to long exposure photography by astrophotographer Matthew Saville.
Long exposure photography is an eye-popping way to capture a real photo in an unreal way, resulting in an image that is impossible for humans to see with their own eyes!
A long exposure is a clever way to use the passage of time, and the light-sensitive nature of a film or digital sensor, to capture the movement of different subjects within a static scene.
You can also capture an abstract image of total blur.
At night, long exposure photography is powerful enough to depict Earth’s rotation itself.
During the day, a long exposure can turn familiar sights into a visually accurate yet mind-bending final image.
In this article, I’ll showcase some examples of various creative long exposure ideas, such as capturing star trails at night or motion blur in bright sunlight.
I’ll explain the technical details that go into each type of shooting condition, and offer any extra tips that will help you achieve amazing imagery!
How To Do Long Exposure Photography
You’re probably itching to go take pictures at this point, so let’s cover the technical basics before we head out to shoot!
Some of it is very obvious, but there are quite a few neat tricks that you can learn which will make everything a lot easier.
1. Steady Your Tripod
First and foremost, make sure your tripod legs and ball head are locked tightly.
Make sure your tripod feet are stable and secure on solid ground, and not sinking slowly into sand, snow, or anything else “squishy”. (Never stick your tripod feet IN a tidepool! Always be respectful of the local flora and fauna.)
NOTE: Doing long exposure photography of waves on rocks is a beautiful but dangerous activity. Always pause for a few minutes before approaching the rocks at first, to see what the cycle of the swell is.
There may be “sleeper” waves that are much bigger than the rest.
Then, any time you are near crashing waves, always keep observing the incoming waves, and be prepared to back away from anything dangerous long before it gets to you.
2. Set Your Composition and Focus
As a general rule, you want to frame your shot and set your focus before you start taking very long exposures.
Nobody wants to wait 5 minutes only to find that their shot isn’t in focus, or is terribly exposed, or the wrong composition!
If you’re using a very dark neutral density filter, (any darker than 3-5 EVs) you should frame your composition and set focus without the filter.
This will save you so much time and frustration in the long run! Just be careful not to bump your lens’ focus or zoom rings when you put the ND filter on after framing the shot.
3. Choose the Total Amount of Time You Want to Expose
How much motion do you want to capture in your shot? The right exposure length will vary greatly, depending on whether you’re shooting star trails, fast-moving vehicles, or something in between.
(See the creative inspiration examples above for suggested exposure times.)
The trick is to balance your other exposure settings (aperture and ISO) with your desired creative effect (shutter speed).
You might have to compromise a little bit on one of your settings, using a slightly higher ISO or a slightly faster aperture, if there’s too little ambient light or if you don’t have the right ND filter.
Additional Tips for Great Long Exposure Photos
1. Grab Your ND Filter for Daytime Long Exposures
In broad daylight, or even just before sunset or just after sunrise, you’ll need an ND filter for most long exposures.
Why? Because even at f/22 and ISO 100, you’ll probably over-expose an outdoor daytime image by the time you get to ¼ or ⅛ sec, or 1-2 whole seconds if you’re shooting around sunset.
Any longer than that, and the image will be completely blown out.
So, you’ll need a neutral density (ND) filter. In fact, you’ll need a very dark one. To achieve a 15-30 second exposure in broad daylight, you’ll need about a 10-stop ND filter.
To reach shutter speeds measured in minutes instead of seconds, there are 13 and 14-stop ND filters. Again, see the specific recommendations in the above creative inspiration examples.
What about variable neutral density filters?
Unfortunately, most of them develop an “X” pattern, or some sort of uneven illumination, when they are set to their darkest setting such as 9-14 EVs.
So, you’re better off just getting a dedicated 10 or 14-stop ND filter even if you also own a variable ND filter for use at around 3-6 EVs.
2. Set Your Camera’s Bulb Mode
Pretty much all cameras these days, even beginner cameras, have what’s called “Bulb Mode”.
Some cameras put this exposure mode on its own exposure mode dial next to “PSAM” (Canon) while other cameras (Nikon) just put bulb mode after the 30-second exposure point.
(Note: On some Sony cameras, you’ll have to make sure that your camera is in single-shot mode and mechanical shutter, otherwise bulb mode is unavailable.)
On most cameras, here’s how bulb mode works: You hold the shutter down the whole time!
Unfortunately, this means that if you try to do it by hand, with your finger on the shutter the whole time, you’ll probably wiggle your camera and tripod a little bit during the exposure, blurring it.
This is why having a cable release is critical. With a cable release (wired or wireless), you can simply lock down the shutter release, and then unlock it when you want to end the exposure.
One last note: on Nikon cameras, and maybe some others, there is one additional mode, which used to be called “Time” exposure, but is now just labeled as “–” on the shutter speed scale.
This feature/setting allows you to leave the shutter open without holding down the shutter! Just hit the shutter button once, and the shutter will open, then hit the shutter button again to end the exposure.
If your tripod is solid enough, and you are very gentle, you can usually start and finish the exposures using this trick without shaking the camera.
It’s a quick-and-dirty way to shoot a long exposure on Nikon if you forget your cable release.
3. Check Your Histogram Quickly Using ISO 6400 Instead of 100
As I mentioned, you never want to sit around waiting for a 4-minute long exposure only to find that it is totally underexposed or overexposed.
So, here’s where the magic of the exposure triangle will be extremely useful: Set your aperture to your ideal setting for the scene, put your dark ND filter on if necessary, and then set your ISO to 6400.
Shoot test exposures until your histogram looks right, and then note the exact exposure settings.
The reason to use ISO 6400 is that it’s exactly six stops above ISO 100. Which means you can shoot a 1-second test exposure at ISO 6400, and it would equal a 1-minute exposure at ISO 100.
It’s just an easy-to-remember number translation that allows you to skip six stops!
Of course, a 2-second test exposure at ISO 6400 equals a 2-minute final exposure at ISO 100, or a 5-second test exposure equals a 5-minute final exposure, and so on and so forth.
Why test your exposure with the ND filter on, if you know it’s a 10-stop ND filter? Well, because unfortunately, don’t all seem to perfectly match their stated rating.
You may find that the particular ND filter you bought is actually off by a stop or so, especially the super-dark ones.
As another example, a shutter speed of 1 second, f/2.8, and ISO 3200 would equal a 30-second exposure at f/5.6 and ISO 400.
Calculating these exposures quickly in your head is a simple matter of knowing the exposure triangle.
My secret? I count the stops on my fingers. Hey, it works!
4. How To Stack Multiple Shorter Exposures for One Long Exposure
If you don’t have the right ambient conditions or the right ND filter, you might not be able to capture a single exposure that has the ideal shutter speed for your creative vision.
However, you can always blend multiple exposures in post-production!
This is very common for star trail photos at night: shooting 30-second or 1-4 minute exposures back-to-back for an hour or more, and then layering them all together for one long star trail.
During the daytime, let’s say you only have a 3-stop or 5-stop ND filter, but you want to create the effect of a 2-4 minute long shutter speed.
You can shoot back-to-back ~5-second exposures by using your external trigger and locking the shutter button down…and then let the camera run for 2-4 minutes.
Then, in post-production, layer all the images together, set each layer’s blending mode to “Lighten”, and watch them all meld together into one long exposure!
5. Long Exposure Photography with a Smartphone
Yes, you can absolutely take long exposure shots on your phone! The key will be to treat your phone like a professional camera: clamp it to a tripod or other means of stabilizing it (they make phone clamps with tripod clamp adapter feet (!) or check out our full review of smartphone and iPhone tripods to help make your choice).
Then, it will depend on how much manual control your camera offers. Some camera phones offer total manual control and shutter speeds as long as 30 seconds, while other camera phones may not.
You can try download a specialized app that allows you to control the exposure.
If you want to shoot a long exposure during daytime on an iPhone or cell phone, all you need is a tiny square of ND filter gel sheet.
With a bit of gaff tape, cover the lens completely with the ND filter gel square, and be sure to avoid any light leaks!
Types of Long Exposure Photography
1. Long Exposure Photography at Night
Making long exposures at night is relatively easy, because it’s already so dark that you need to use a long shutter speed just to get a correct exposure.
Of course, you also brought your tripod with you, right? :-)
A lot of things can happen with a long exposure at night. With an exposure of just 15-30 seconds, you’ll see blur in water, clouds, people, and vehicles.
(See here for other photography techniques that you can experiment with at night, or with a longer shutter speed.)
2. Star Trail Long Exposures
Truth be told, 30 seconds isn’t much time at all on a cosmic scale. Sure, it’s long enough to blur some subjects, but at night you’ll need a much longer exposure to capture certain types of motion.
It may also take a very long shutter speed just to get the correct exposure for a nightscape!
The image above required a 6.5-minute shutter speed, and the foreground is still rather dark.
Indeed, to capture a star trail, your total exposure time must go from seconds to minutes, or in some cases, even hours.
With such incredibly long exposure times, you’ll begin to capture the movement of stars in the night sky, thanks to the earth’s rotation.
One of the coolest things to do with star trails is to find where the North Star (Polaris) is, and allow the earth’s rotation to create circles in the night sky.
You’re literally creating an accurate visual representation of the earth’s polar axis!
This circle-in-the-sky effect will be slightly different depending on where in the world you are.
However, the concept is very similar wherever you are.
If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, use a compass (or a compass app on your phone, even though they’re too inaccurate for navigation) to locate the general direction of the North Star.
If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, you won’t see the North Star, and you’ll want to point your camera directly south.
I’ll cover more of the technical side of long exposures, both night and day, further along in this article.
3. Long Exposure Photography in Daytime
Long exposures during the daytime are an exciting way to create a unique perspective on anything that moves in the world.
Waves on the beach turn into a silky, blurry mist. Clouds streak across the sky, creating blurred shapes and lines.
All sorts of other moving subjects, from humans and animals to cars and other things, begin to blur or even vanish entirely.
By the way, why do some things completely vanish during an extremely long exposure, instead of creating a trail of their motion?
Well, if a subject is moving the entire time the shutter is open, and never holding still in one place, then it is spending only a tiny fraction of the total exposure time in any given spot.
If the subject has no bright lights or anything else, then it simply vanishes or turns into the faintest ghost.
This is how some photographers use ultra-long exposures to create an “empty” look to a scene that actually has a lot of motion in it. If your exposure is long enough, things begin to vanish.
More Creative Long Exposure Photography Ideas
Here are some ideas that will inspire you to try some long exposures! I’ll include technical details for each image so that you can understand exactly how it was made.
1. Creating Long Exposure Motion Blur in the Clouds
One of the coolest things to see in a photograph is the motion of the clouds. Unlike crashing waves or moving cars, clouds usually move so slowly that we can barely notice it.
However, with an exposure that’s measured in minutes, you’ll see clouds appear in a truly incredible series of shapes and streaks that “move” across the sky.
- Ideal Shutter Speeds: 2-4+ minutes
- Ideal ND Filter: 5-9 stops for sunrise/sunset, 10-14 stops for bright sun
- Aperture: f/5.6-11
- ISO: 100-400
2. Creating Silky Smooth Water with a Long Exposure
The motion of water is one of the easiest things to capture in a long exposure. In fact, just after sunset or before sunrise, you may not even need a neutral density filter!
Water that is moving swiftly will begin to blur with a shutter speed that is just a few seconds long, and will turn silky smooth when you start to expose in minutes instead of seconds.
- Ideal Shutter Speeds: Anywhere from 1 sec to 30 sec, or longer!
- Ideal ND Filter: 3-5 stops for sunrise/sunset, 5-9 stops for bright sun
- Aperture: f/8-16
- ISO: Your lowest native setting (64, 100, or 200. Avoid “LO” ISOs to avoid clipping highlights)
3. Long Exposure Motion with Human Subjects
If a person holds very still, then you can create a single exposure which depicts some elements of blur, such as water, and some elements of perfect sharpness (the human subject).
It helps if the subject can brace themselves against something, or maintain a pose that allows them to hold very still for at least 2-4 seconds depending on how fast the other elements of motion are.
- Ideal Shutter Speeds: 1-5 sec
- Ideal ND Filter: 3-5 stops for sunrise/sunset, 5-9 stops for bright sun
- Aperture: f/4-8
- ISO: 100-400
4. Long Exposure Light Drawings
Long exposure light drawings are a lot of fun, and a creative way to “paint” in a photograph. Simply open the camera shutter, and then use a very bright light to “draw” in the air around your scene.
Then, close your shutter whenever the ambient light is well-exposed, too.
For the above image, I opened my shutter and then ran around and popped a flash (at medium-low power, probably 1/8 or 1/16) aimed right at the camera.
Because my aperture was set to f/11, each pop of the flash turned into a starburst! I was “invisible” to the camera because I never held still; I moved constantly the whole time.
The movement of vehicle traffic and other manmade objects can easily make for dramatic, interesting long exposure imagery, without any special techniques or tools besides your tripod.
Heck, at the right time of day, you could even make long exposure images like this using an iPhone or other cell phone, as long as it offers manual exposure control with slow shutter speeds!
Equipment for Long Exposure Photography
So, what do you need to capture long exposure photos? You don’t need much: just a sturdy tripod and a shutter cable release.
If you want to shoot long exposures during the day, you’ll also need a very dark neutral density (ND) filter.
What about the right camera and lens?
Well, usually you’ll be making long exposures at a low ISO such as 100, and a small aperture such as f/8 or f/11, so to be honest almost any camera and lens will do the trick!
You might want a slightly better camera and/or lens for nighttime long exposures, but you still don’t need to break the bank.
Mastering the technique, and having all of these aforementioned accessories, is much more important.
As far as tripods go, getting good, sharp long exposures is simple: You want as rock-solid of a tripod as possible.
A lightweight travel tripod or a cheap wobbly knock-off tripod will just be a risk for camera shake, and image blur or softness.
Using a Cable Release for Long Exposures/Shutter Speeds
Cable releases come in a few different types. You can get a very basic wireless remote trigger that is compatible with most cameras.
However, depending on the camera and the trigger, it may be difficult or impossible to take exposures longer than 30 seconds using bulb mode.
It could require holding down the shutter release during the entire exposure. Your fingers might get cramped!
So, it’s usually best to get an actual cable release or interval timer that plugs into a port on your camera.
These physical triggers will usually have a lock-down mechanism for the shutter that lets you hold down the shutter release for as long as you want without having your finger on the button the whole time.
(We’ll talk about “bulb” mode soon!)
Lastly, for star trails, you may need to actually use the interval timer to capture multiple exposures, back-to-back, so that you can merge them together later in Photoshop.
You want to avoid having to capture a single 3-hour long exposure, because such long exposures will potentially introduce severe noise with most digital cameras.
The Best Neutral Density (ND) Filters
The last piece of special equipment is an ND filter. You might not need one at night, but if you want to take truly long exposures during the day, it’s strictly necessary.
The question is, do you need to buy an extremely expensive ND filter?
No — you can get started with a moderately priced or affordable one, just to see if you even like the artistic possibilities of long exposures.
Then, if you really find that you absolutely love long exposure photography, you can invest in a more expensive one.
Keep the first one as a backup, in case you ever drop and crack/break the good one.
(My rule of thumb is, if you’re passionate enough about something to invest a lot in it, you probably ought to have a backup anyways.)
Here are my recommendations for the best ND filters on the market:
- Best Neutral Density Filters: Breakthrough Photography X3 Solid Neutral Density Filters
- Best Budget ND Filters: Hoya Pro Neutral Density Filters
Hopefully, I’ve turned this seemingly advanced technical challenge into something very simple that you can start practicing and master very quickly!
If you have any questions about the gear, the techniques, or a creative idea, please leave a comment.
Good luck, and good light to you!
Disclaimer: All recommendations are impartial and based on user experience, with no bias to the products or the brand. The products in this post may contain affiliate links.