How to Do Long Exposure Photography
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How to Do Long Exposure Photography
by Mastin Labs

Blurry images are often discarded. They typically represent a failure to dial in the settings of your camera to account for the motion of a subject and the available light. In long exposure photography, however, blurring is the whole point.

Long exposure photography is a technique that celebrates objects in motion to produce an artistic, time warp effect. Using slow shutter speeds (1 second to several minutes), long exposure photography captures the path of movement in a scene. This technique is frequently used in landscape images that feature a swirling night sky, roadways streaked with headlights, and soft, cloudy water, crashing against a sharp, jagged shoreline.

How to Shoot Long Exposure Photos

If you have never harnessed the power of movement with long exposure photography, use the tips in this article on long exposure photography to get started. Learning this technique will unlock a number of artistic possibilities.

Camera Gear Needed for Long Exposure Photography

You’ll need just a few items to get started with long exposure photography.

  • Camera: A camera with manual options is necessary.
  • Tripod: With long exposure photography, the shutter remains open for an extended period of time. A tripod keeps the camera still while the shutter is open, and reduces unwanted camera shake.
  • Remote Shutter Release [optional]: Sometimes even the smallest push of a button can shake your camera and negatively affect your image. Use a remote shutter release to take the long exposure image hands-free. This is not a necessary piece of gear; an on-camera timer will have the same effect.
  • Neutral Density Filter [optional]: This filter tames the light that enters your camera, enabling you to keep the shutter open for longer without risking overexposure. This is not a necessary piece of gear, but it does allow you to take long exposures in brighter scenes.

How to Choose A Location for Long Exposure Photography

The first step to finding the right location is to think about places that are marked by motion. When you have a location in mind, visit it, sit still, and study the pattern of movement. Try to predict the direction and speed of the elements in front of you, and think about the lines they’ll create and how those lines will interact with one another. To give the image structure and perspective, find a location that has still (sharp) and moving (blurry) elements. The contrast will create drama and add interest.

Long exposures are easiest to achieve in low light, or just as the sun is setting. If you’re just learning to do long-exposure photography, practice during golden hour and right before sunset, and select your location accordingly. If you don’t get it right the first time, don’t be afraid to revisit the same location and try again. The light and movement will be a little different each time, and you’ll get varied results as you experiment.

Composing Long Exposure Photos

Whether it’s the motion of clouds across the sky, the current of a river, or the neon lights of a theme park, once you’ve identified all the moving elements of your scene, it’s time to compose your photo. In composition, consider the placement of each element and their predicted movement patterns. This is a great time to think about any elements that will create leading lines, and how you can use them to accentuate the mood and artistry of the image.

Pro tip: It’s best to not include the sun in long-exposure composition, as it is likely to create an overexposed spot on your image that is unrecoverable.

Instructions for Long Exposure Photography

Camera Gear Set Up for Long Exposures

Once you’ve composed your image, lock your composition into place with a tripod. It’s very important to use a tripod in long exposure photography because your shutter will be open for an extended period of time, and will be very vulnerable to camera shake that leads to undesirable blurring.

Once your camera is mounted to a tripod, set up your remote shutter release (or self-timer) to make your camera fully hands (and shake!) -free. Disable your flash, and make sure your camera is set to shoot RAW for optimal editing control in post processing.

Camera Settings for Long Exposures

Long exposures are best shot in manual mode for optimal control of your camera. There is no one-size-fits-all rule for long exposure photography; the best settings for your camera will be based on your unique circumstances and your desired effect. Here are a few general rules to guide you as you get started experimenting with long exposure.

Focus Mode for Long Exposures

Focus your camera using one of the following techniques. Either use autofocus to sharpen your image then switch to manual focus so that it does not refocus mid-shot, or use back button focusing to obtain (and freeze) focus.

Shutter Speed for Long Exposures

Select Bulb mode on your camera to enable the shutter to stay open long as you want. Set your shutter speed according to your preferences. Don’t set it any longer than you have to in order to achieve the desired effect. Consider how quickly the subject is moving and how much light is available to you.

If your location is flooded with ambient light at the time of the photo shoot, choose faster shutter speeds. If you are shooting when there is very little ambient light, you can use longer shutter speeds without washing out the image.

If your image ends up washed out or too blurry, you left the shutter open too long. If the blurring effect isn’t visible, or the effect is less dramatic than you intended, your shutter wasn’t open long enough.

ISO for Long Exposures

Set your ISO to a very low number (typically, 50-200) so that the image does not become overexposed during a long exposure. The ISO greatly affects the length of time your shutter can remain open.

Aperture for Long Exposures

Set your aperture to expose your image. Typically, you will want to set your aperture between f/8 and f/16, depending on the available light and your shutter speed.

Common Types of Long Exposure Photography

Light trails: Light trails are typically taken roadside, and are caused by headlights and taillights speeding through a frame. Light trails appear as neon, hyper speed parallel streaks of light. To take a light trail, compose your shot slightly from above looking down at a road when it’s close to sundown. Select a small aperture, and set your shutter speed to several seconds for long streaks of light.

Soft water: With long exposure, you can make water look cloudy and give it an ethereal sense. The longer you expose, the softer the water will look. Take soft water photos at golden hour using a small aperture and a slow shutter speed.

Night sky: Night sky long exposures can be a beautiful way to capture the movement of the solar system. Choose a location with very little ambient light, set a very low aperture, focus the lens to infinity, and set a very slow shutter speed. The longer your shutter is open, the more dramatic the effect. A shutter that remains open for several hours can result in a crisp image of a night sky full of swirling stars.

Taking long exposure images can be a big challenge and take some time to get used to. Long exposures depend on a photographer’s ability to imagine a world in motion and capture it in a way that cannot be seen with the human eye. Through practice and experimentation, you can learn to use light, motion, and time to create unique and stunning images with long exposure photography.

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