Crash Course on Long Exposure Photos

Start using slow shutter speeds in your photography for magnificent effects!

By Simon Davies

magical blue light
(Above image: 6 second exposure)

Getting to grips with long exposure photos is one of the most fun things about learning photography! You must have seen lots of examples of images that feature beautiful smooth, misty water, or long traffic lines snaking through a city road?

Well, the purpose of this article is to enable you to create those same effects in your pictures. I'm going to guide you through all the steps involved in taking this kind of shot.

But let's start at the very beginning: what is long exposure photography? Well, there's no strict definition as to what comprises a 'long exposure'. But, as a rough guide, any photograph taken with an exposure time (or exposure value) of more than a second or so qualifies.

'Long exposure photos' could be produced with a 1 second exposure, or even a 1 hour exposure!


What Equipment Do I Need?


What Subjects Can I Shoot?

The subject matter for this kind of shot is almost as limitless as your imagination! Results will vary from subject to subject, so experimentation is needed.

Some great subjects to "cut your teeth on" are moving water - ocean waves, waterfalls, streams - and made-subjects like fairground rides, road traffic and fireworks.

Basically, play around with anything that you can imagine looking interesting when blurred - either a little or a lot.

carnival ride
(Above image: 4 second exposure)

(Above image: 10 second exposure)


What Effect Do Long Exposure Photos Produce?

You'll get a great feeling when you look at the results of your first long exposure photo, because the effect is so striking and different to what the naked eye is able to see.

You are essentially stretching time by capturing all the movement that took place over several seconds in a single frame! It often creates a very peaceful, calming effect. If that makes no sense to you at all(!), review the basics of shutter speed here.


magical blue light

(Above image: 6 second exposure)

Another possible effect is to make things disappear! Moving objects - like people and cars in a busy town square - can simply disappear when captured as part of a long exposure shot.


Setting Up Your Camera/Tripod

Right, let's move on to taking the actual shot.


Setting Aperture, Shutter Speed and Focus

Now you need to make your adjustments to aperture and shutter speed.

(Above image: 10 second exposure)

What was once a chaotic surge of water is now a serene, milky flow through your image!


Using a Neutral Density Filter

Now, earlier I mentioned ND (neutral density) filters. These little things can be invaluable to the landscape photographer, and are essential for taking long exposure photos in daylight. They allow you to open up the shutter speed in broad daylight without over-exposing an image.

ND filters reduce the amount of light entering the camera. The 'neutral' part of the name refers to the fact that they have little or no colour cast. In other words, they reduce the amount of light without influencing the appearance of colours in a scene.

They come in several incarnations, but mainly fall into 2 categories: screw-in filters and square system filters. I really like the square (or sometimes rectangular) variety because they come with a holder that allows you to stack numerous filters to increase their strength or combine different effects.

The most popular manufacturers of square system filters are Cokin and Lee Filters; Lee Filters being aimed at the pro end of the market.

ND filters are graded by the amount of light they prevent from entering the camera. This is measured in 'stops'. So a 4 stop ND filter will reduce the light entering the camera guessed it, 4 stops.

Each stop represents a whole single unit on the exposure value (EV) scale. The strongest ND filter that is easily obtainable, and the one that's often the most useful to photographers, is the 10 stop. This has quite an extreme effect, and in some conditions would even allow you to draw out the exposure time into the minutes - enough to produce other-worldy effects for seascapes.


Taking Long Exposure Photos at Night

With the right subject, night time long exposure photos can bring incredible results, and don't require the use of ND filters. (This article on night photography techniques will give you some useful hints.)

The city is a great place to start exploring this, where there's lots of traffic and every car, truck or bus has variety of bright lights to paint the scene.

Set up and compose your shot as above. But this time you have to anticipate the direction of the traffic lines. Be sure that the vehicle lights flow through your scene, as though they were a stream of water.

Because of the limited available light at night time, you will often need to use a slightly wider aperture. Focusing and checking the meter reading is always a bit trickier at night, but you'll soon get the hang of it.

Shutter speeds can often get up into the tens of seconds when capturing traffic lines, so make sure that you get the timing right. Also, make sure the traffic is flowing before you fire the remote shutter (otherwise it will be burnt out in one area).

(Above image: 6 second exposure)

The same approach can be applied to all sorts of night time situations, like fairgrounds and fireworks. Fireworks are really fun to capture because you can trace the whole course of the display as it illuminates the sky, rather than just freezing it at one moment.

It's worth just giving a quick warning to be careful when heading out into a city at night with lots of expensive photography gear. It can sometimes be wise to take an 'assistant' with you. This guide to night photography techniques offers some more useful advice.

The Photography Crash Course: 17 Short Lessons To Camera Mastery

Where Next?

The Ultimate Digital Photography Course

Selling Stock Photos

Photographing Beach Sunsets

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