Long exposure photography can be addictive. It makes everyday scenes look otherworldly, like snapshots from a dream. And yet, all you’ve done is leave the shutter open for longer.
Getting great long exposures doesn’t require any special expertise. If you have a tripod, a remote shutter release (or cable release), and a camera with bulb mode, you’re well on your way to taking an amazing long exposure.
The only extra piece of equipment you might need is a neutral density (ND) filter. This dark filter fits over your lens and blocks out the light, so you can keep your shutter open for longer even with bright lighting. It’s necessary for daytime long exposures, but if you don’t have one, just plan to shoot at night or in a dark indoor setting.
The key to getting incredible long exposures isn’t expensive gear. It’s time, practice, and patience.
Unlike regular shots, which take a fraction of a second, long exposures take at least a few minutes. Even if the long exposure is short, like 5 or 10 seconds, you have to set up the tripod, adjust the camera settings, put on the filter, etc. You might also need a few minutes (or much longer) to get the exposure right.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to plan your shot and composition before you set up and shoot. Otherwise, you’ll spend a few minutes taking a long exposure, just to find out that a different angle would be better.
When planning your shot, keep in mind that the best long exposures typically have something moving and something static. For example, you could have moving clouds or water with static mountains or skyscrapers. This contrast between solid and blurred elements creates drama and helps to show the passing of time.
At night, sources of light could also be considered “moving” elements, even if they stay still. While they may seem static to the naked eye, they are actually emitting light waves that do move in a specific direction. Your camera will register this “movement” of light, making it appear brighter and more dramatic in your photo. Just like water or clouds, this light will give your viewers a sense of time passing.
Finding the right balance between movement and stability can take a while. You have to predict how a scene will change over time, which can be challenging even for experienced photographers. If your first few shots are disappointing, don’t give up! Each shot helps you understand the environment better. They’ll all be worthwhile in the end, when you finally capture a fantastic long exposure.
If you’re excited about the idea of long exposures but don’t know where to start, first try to narrow down the type of long exposure you want to take. There’s a wide range of possibilities, but in general, long exposures fall into the following 7 categories.
- Light Painting
- Light Trails from Cars
- Other Sources of Light
- Indoor Long Exposures
Once you’ve got a shot in mind, read some detailed instructions about taking long exposures, like this guide from the Digital Photography School. Then, get inspired by these amazing shots from our Flickr community!
Oceans, waterfalls, fountains, and rivers are all classic subjects for long exposures. Flowing water is a popular choice because it’s so beautiful and predictable. Unlike many other moving subjects, like clouds, you can rely on the water looking more or less the same from day to day. This predictability can make planning the shot much easier.
However, the popularity of water long exposures also means that the bar is higher for your photo. To make your shot stand out from the rest, you have to think creatively. Try interesting angles by positioning your camera higher, lower, or from a different location. You can even wade into the water and set up your tripod in a shallow area. (Just make sure you have hip waders if the water is cold.)
For more tips on shooting long exposures with water, check out these instructions from Envato.
One of the best/only ways to capture a starry night sky is by taking a long exposure. With a long exposure, the stars become clear and bright instead of barely noticeable. While astrophotography may look complicated because it’s so stunning, it’s actually quite simple.
If it’s a cloudy night, or if you live somewhere with light pollution, you can still take interesting long exposures at night. All you need is a source of light to “paint” images for the long exposure. A flashlight, sparkler, or LED light all work great.
You might also want to invite someone to help you with light painting. Though you can certainly experiment with the technique by yourself, extra hands are nice to have. At the very least, a friend can watch your camera and gear while you’re painting with light, making sure no one steals your stuff.
For a thorough guide to light painting, read this article from the Digital Photography School. It’s pretty simple. You don’t even need to leave your home; just turn off the lights and have fun!
Light Trails from Cars
If you’re stuck in the city, photographing light trails can be a great way to spend an evening. It’s pretty easy, too. Like with star trails, the main challenge is getting to a location that’s worth photographing. Only instead of a spectacular night sky, you’re looking for a road or highway that’s visually striking.
There’s no perfect “type” of road for light trails. A variety of places can be striking, from bridges to curving country roads. However, you do want something of interest in the photo. This point of interest could be in the background, like a cool building, or it could be the traffic itself. Roundabouts, big highways, and unique intersections can all lead to interesting light trails.
Other Sources of Light
While cars and stars are the most popular subjects for nighttime long exposures, there are countless other light sources you can photograph. Tunnels, airplanes, lightning, traffic lights, telephone booths… No matter where you live, you can find a unique source of light for a long exposure.
Most long exposure subjects are limited to either the night or day. For instance, a beach can be a beautiful subject during the day, but once darkness sets in, it can disappear from view. Likewise, when the sun rises, a stunning night sky will vanish.
Buildings are one exception to this rule. They can be equally striking during the day and night. As long as the building is illuminated at night, you can photograph it whenever you want.
When photographing architecture during the day, remember that you want to include something moving in your image. In most cases, this movement will come from either clouds or people. With clouds, your main challenge is watching and waiting for the right weather. You want a good balance between clouds and blue sky, so there’s more contrast and drama.
If you’re stuck with a lot of cloudless or overcast days, you can try including people in your photo instead. This approach will give you more flexibility with weather, though you’ll still need to plan your shot carefully. For instance, you might get better shots during rush hour than in the early morning, when fewer people are out.
Regardless of when you’re shooting, make sure you’re not in the way of pedestrians and other traffic. It’s both safer and less likely to draw attention (and security guards). If you have to get in the way of pedestrians for a good shot, try shooting at night instead. Then, you won’t need clouds or people–just a little light.
Indoor Long Exposures
Most long exposures look better with movement except for indoor shots. You don’t need movement with indoor long exposures because your goal is different. Typically, with indoor shots, you’re not trying to capture the passing of time. You’re trying to solve the problem of poor lighting.
If you’re taking a regular shot in a poorly-lit building, you have two basic options. You can use a higher ISO for a sharp photo with more noise, or you can use a lower ISO for a blurry photo with less noise.
If you want a sharp, noise-free photo, you have to take a long exposure. Because light is “magnified” in a long exposure, you can use a low ISO without any blur–as long as you’re using a tripod and photographing a still subject.
This technique can be exactly what you need to capture the eerie atmosphere of an old theater or the beautiful stained glass in a cathedral. While you won’t be able to take as many pictures, as usual, the ones you do take will be of higher quality. And since all you really need is one perfect shot, the extra time will be well worth it.