Have you ever seen an image of a waterfall or ocean where the water looks soft and silky, almost unreal or perhaps you’ve seen an image in a city where cars are turned into long red lines? Maybe you’ve even thought these were heavily manipulated. The truth is, it’s actually a rather easy technique made possible with the use of a long shutter speed. After finishing this article you will have learned how to create stunning images by using the technique called Long Exposure Photography.

Long Exposure Photography is a photographic technique that has become very popular during the last years. This style is based on using a longer shutter speed to capture, blur or obscure moving elements. Water gets a magical silk or fog like look and the clouds streak across the sky.

Guide to Long Exposure Photography

Another typical use of Long Exposure Photography, like I mentioned above, is near roads where the lights from cars turn into red and white lines floating over the ground.

These are only two examples of when you can use Long Exposure Photography. The fact is that the only limit is your creativity. This technique can be used in mostly any genre of photography. Here are a few examples of when you can use Long Exposure Photography:

  • Steel wool photography
  • Lightpainting
  • Startrails
  • Cityscapes
  • Streetlife
  • Abstract Photography

The list could continue forever so instead of listing all examples I can come up with in this article you can leave a comment below and I’ll continue the list for you!

What is Shutter Speed

As we mentioned in our Introduction to Shutter Speed, the Shutter Speed is the amount of time the camera’s shutter is open and is measured in seconds or fractions of seconds. A larger denominator such as 1/1000 is a quicker shutter speed than a lower denominator such as 1/10 allowing less light to reach the sensor.

This means that the camera registers anything that moves while your shutter is open. That’s why the water looks like silk and cars leave light trails in certain images.

Before shooting – Equipment for Long Exposure Photography

Before you begin photographing there are a few things I would recommend purchasing. Not all of them are essential for this type of photography but it will both improve the image quality and make it easier for you.

  • Camera with a Bulb Mode function
  • Tripod (Essential)
  • Shutter Release
  • ND Filters

Use a Tripod

For Long Exposure Photography a tripod is essential. You might get creative and use rocks or other objects to rest your camera on but we both know that it’s not nearly as good as a tripod. Dealing with shutter speeds of many seconds, or even minutes, it’s simply impossible to take pictures handheld and get a sharp image. Unless you’re an alien (if you are please don’t destroy the world) you do need a tripod.

In general, I always suggest using a tripod, especially when dealing with shutter speeds longer then 1\60 sec. You can find inexpensive tripods on Amazon and eBay or at mostly any photography store. While it might be tempting to get a cheap one you should consider investing in a more solid tripod, as it’s a very important tool that you want to last. In the long run, you will save money on purchasing quality right, trust me, I’ve broken some cheap ones!

Achieve Longer Exposures with ND Filters

Another helpful piece of equipment is a Neutral Density Filter. While these aren’t essential if you’re photographing in the dark, they are heavily used by landscape photographers to achieve even longer exposures or during the daytime. These filters vary in strength so choosing the right filter determines the effect you will get on your photo.

ND Filters comes in two variations: screw-on and square filters that are placed into a filter holder. They each have their advantages, which I wrote about in our INTRODUCTION TO ND FILTERS, but over the last years, I’ve preferred to use the square filter system.

Long Exposure Photography
For this shot I used both a Graduated ND Filter and a 6-stop ND Filter

The reason I made the move from screw-on filters to square filters is because I often use more than one filter at the time, typically a normal ND filter and a Graduated ND Filter. The filter systems let you stack 2,3 or even 4 images at once, which would result in a serious vignette when using other types. Also, Graduated ND Filters are better as square filters as you can easily adjust it to align with the horizon.

There are many brands to choose between but before you buy any I suggest you read a little about them. Many filters have rather strong color casts and while this is easy to fix in post-processing it can be quite annoying. Personally, I have a great experience with LEE Filters, Singh-Ray, NiSi and B+W.

Prices on these types of filters can vary from $50 to $300+ and often the differences between the cheaper (not the cheapest) and the more expensive aren’t significant.

2 Stop, 6 Stop, 10 Stop: What’s the difference?

You might have heard these terms been used before: 2 Stop, 6 Stop or 10 Stop. These are the description of the strength of the filter and the amount of stops tells how much you can increase the shutter speed.

Very popular among many, especially those who just got introduced to Long Exposure Photography, is the10 stop. If you wish to achieve silky water or streaking clouds etc. the 10-stop filter will let you use a shutter speed that is 1,000 times longer than originally. In other words, it reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor with 1,000! That’s pretty impressive, right? Instead of using a shutter of 1/60 you can do 16,7 seconds!

Guide to Long Exposure Photography
By using a 10 Stop ND Filter I could have a shutter time of almost 2 minutes

What I have experienced with certain filters is that a 10-stop filter might actually be closer to 11 stops. Filters with this strength make it possible to use a shutter speed of many minutes.

Use a Shutter Release

The final piece of equipment I recommend is a shutter release. If you’re doing exposures that are less than 30 seconds it is not essential but I do suggest always using one to reduce unwanted vibration.

Don’t worry; you do not need to buy a shutter release that’s more expensive than your camera. For this kind of shots, it’s fine with a simple remote.

At a later stage, you might find it useful to buy one that has a timer and a lockup possibility.

It’s mainly two reasons why using a shutter release is ideal for Long Exposure Photography:

  1. Using a remote ensures that the camera stands still on your tripod and does not move. (Alternatively, you can use the self-timer function on your camera.)
  2. You’re able to get a shutter speed longer than 30 seconds by using Bulb Mode in your camera.

Setting up the shot

Now that we have gone through the essential and recommended equipment, it’s time to get out and take some shots! This is where the fun part starts.

As I mentioned in the introduction, Long Exposure Photography can work in many different scenarios. Since this is a website focusing on Landscape Photography I won’t go into detail about architecture and other examples when it can be used. Still, the techniques are similar regardless of the scene you wish to photograph.

If you’ve been photographing for a while you might know the importance of a good composition and perspective. When photographing Long Exposures this is just as important, even though many tend not to care about it since the sky/water looks so interesting. Please, don’t fall into the trap and disregard the composition, you will regret!

Ask yourself this simple question: What am I photographing? If the sky is the interesting part of your image it should be included in large parts of the frame, if it’s the water or flowers in the foreground, they should.

The lack of clouds turned my focus towards the water
The lack of clouds turned my focus towards the water

It’s also good to note that if there are no clouds you might not need to do a long exposure, unless you’re photographing a river or waterfall.

Nail the focus

The first thing we do after finding our composition will be crucial for getting the image in focus. When using a dark ND filter such as the 10 Stop you will notice that they are extremely dark. It’s hard to see through the filter and it is impossible for the camera’s autofocus to work. This will lead to an out of focus image. Dealing with long exposures when the sun is rising or setting, we don’t have time for mistakes like that.

Before placing the filter in front of your camera, switch to Manual Focus and use Live View to manually focus. If you’re not comfortable using Manual Focus yet you can focus with Automatic Focus too, just remember to switch back to Manual before you take an image.

If you forget to change and the camera is still operating in Automatic Focus when you begin taking the pictures you will quickly see that the camera is not able to focus since all it can see is black. Therefore it’s essential to have it in Manual Mode as soon as you start photographing.

Related Article: Manual Focus vs Automatic Focus

There’s one more step left before you can begin using the filter: take a test shot. By taking a test image you ensure that the photo is sharp and you know what shutter speed is ideal without a filter. You want to remember this number as it will be important when we calculate the shutter speed with the filter.

Taking the shot

Finally! I know your trigger finger is itching and ready to photograph! Now is the time, so let’s go to the camera settings.

Set your camera setting to M – Manual mode, and choose keep the aperture you used on your test shot. Typically the ideal aperture for landscape photography is between 7.1 and 13. However, this depends on the image you’re taking and what you wish to capture.

More Information: Introduction to Aperture & Introduction to ISO

ISO should remain as low as possible and since you’re using a tripod that should be around 100.

When using a 10 stop filter, or a filter dark enough to require a shutter speed of more than 30 seconds, set your shutter speed to “Bulb” (“Time” in some cameras).  In few words, Bulb mode keeps the shutter open as long as the trigger is pressed. This is why you want a shutter release. Pressing the camera trigger for minutes will lead to a blurry image. This means you can use as long of a shutter speed as you want, either it’s 1 second or 10 hours.

At this point, you might begin to wonder how you’re supposed to calculate the shutter speed when the filter lets through less light. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Long Exposure Photography but it won’t take long before you know the shutter speed by just seeing the light outside.

There are two ways of calculating this, both will give you the same result but one is much quicker and easier (even though I recommend first learning the “harder” technique to fully understand how this works). I’ll be nice and start with the easiest way.

Use technology to your advantage

Technology can both be a pain in the ass and a lifesaver. For Long Exposure Photography there are tools out there that are created to make your life just a little easier. If you have a smartphone there’s an application called “NDCalc” that you should download.

This app automatically calculates the correct shutter speed based on the shutter speed you need without using a filter. This is why you should remember to take that one test shot.

It can’t really get much easier than this, right? It even has a countdown so you know when to end the exposure (this is great if you use a cheap shutter release and use Bulb Mode).

The second method is a bit harder but essential to understanding what you actually are doing. Even though I often related on using NDCalc when I was a beginner, I also used this method to fully understand how the shutter speed is calculated.  This has been beneficial for me and is a huge reason that I today know approximately the appropriate shutter speed by looking at the light.

It really isn’t that difficult, just a bit confusing in the beginning.

So lets see if you have been paying attention. How much less light is let through a 10 stops ND filter? If you answered 1,000, correct! If you answered something else, it’s 1,000.

This means that the ND filter lets you to lengthen your shutter speed 1,000 times. So, if you use a shutter speed of 1/125 you can now extend it to 8 seconds. If you used 1/30 you can use 32 seconds!

Final Words

There’s one thing you should know if you are photographing with a 10-stop ND Filter: you might need to use an even longer shutter speed than you’ve calculated. Make sure you set up in good time so you can take some test shots.

When you have calculated your shutter speed take another test shot but this time with the correct exposure time and filters on. You will easily if the image is to dark or bright and if you need to increase or decrease the shutter.

Long Exposure Photography is really fun but it takes time to fully understand all the aspects. Remember, if we’re taking shots with 300 seconds exposure we won’t be taking hundreds of images!

If you want to learn more about Long Exposure Photography I’ve shared everything I know in my eBook The Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure PhotographyThis eBook is for those who are ready to take their images to the next level and expand their creative vision.

Long exposure photography