In long exposure photography, you take a picture with a slow shutter speed—generally somewhere between five and sixty seconds—so that any movement in the scene gets blurred. It’s a way to show the passage of time in a single image. Let’s look at how to do them right.
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Long exposure photography is all about showing movement and time passing in a single photo; it’s one of the ways you can show motion in still images. While you can use long exposure times to take photos of subjects that you want to stay still—such as the night sky—these aren’t strictly long exposure images because, unless you’re deliberately shooting star trails, they don’t show motion.
The classic examples—and some of the most popular long exposure subjects—are photos of bodies of water like the sea or waterfalls. Look at the long exposure image below. I’ve used a shutter speed of 10 seconds to blur and smooth the water and clouds, giving them an ethereal quality. This is the long exposure look.
I took the next shot about ten minutes later. I’ve used a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second here, and you can see that the water and clouds look very different from the long exposure shot above.
The Technical Stuff
For a long exposure image, you’re really only after one thing: a slow shutter speed. You’ll start to get the long exposure look at around half a second for fast moving subjects, but generally, you’ll want a shutter speed of between ten and thirty seconds. For some photos, you might even want to go much longer. Every other decision you make will be in service to this goal.
A tripod is essential. Without one, you won’t be able to get sharp pictures at slow shutter speeds. So don’t leave home without your tripod.
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Unless you have a compelling reason not to, always set your ISO to the camera’s native setting. For almost all cameras, that’s 100. This gives you the slowest shutter speeds and the highest quality images.
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Aperture is a little trickier to set. With most lenses, you’ll start to see a drop in image quality after around f/18. Around f/16 is normally considered to offer the best balance between a slow shutter speed and a sharp image so it’s the best starting place for long exposure images. You normally want a large depth of field anyway.
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If you’ve set your ISO to 100 and the aperture to f/16 and you still aren’t getting a slow enough shutter speed for the shot you want, you should consider using a neutral density filter instead of a tighter aperture or low ISO mode. Neutral density filters go in front of the lens and block between one and ten stops of light from entering the camera. For example, if you get a proper exposure with a shutter speed of one second without a ND filter, adding a three stop filter will take the shutter speed needed for a proper exposure to eight seconds; a six stop filter will take it to 64 seconds.
Most cameras have a maximum shutter speed of thirty seconds. If you want to go beyond this, you’ll need to use Bulb mode and time the exposure yourself.
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Other Tips and Tricks
The best time to take long exposure photos are in the hours around sunrise and sunset. Not only do you get great light, but since there’s less of it, it’s easier to have slower shutter speeds. You can take long exposure shots at midday, but you’ll need to stack the ND filters.
The longer the exposure time, the more things will blur and the less texture and definition you’ll have in the moving areas of the image. You always need to find the right balance for the look you’re after. One day last year, I went to shoot waves breaking over a local pier. I originally started with a shutter speed of eight seconds and this was the result. It’s not great.
I was dramatically over estimating how long a shutter speed I wanted for the image I had in mind. Here’s a shot I took at 1/5th of a second. Much better.
Play around with different subjects. Water is one of the simplest and can lead to stunning results, but anything that moves can work. Bright objects that move at night—like cars or ferris wheels—are another easy starting place that look great.
Long exposure images work best when you have something moving contrasted with something totally stationary. This is why they’re so popular with landscape photographers. While the water looks cool in all the photos in this article, if it wasn’t for the rocks or landscapes, it would just look like a blurry mess.
Since you have to slow down anyway to take long exposure images, they’re a great time to put serious thought into composition. You can also use them as an opportunity to play around with limited color palettes.
Long exposure images are incredibly rewarding. They’re one of the few areas of photography where smartphone cameras just can’t compete. Most long exposure images are also landscapes, so be sure to check out our guide to great landscape photos as well.
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