How To Take A Long Exposure

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Long exposures are used to blur moving subjects and create an effect that can be dramatic, beautiful and creative. There are many subjects and situations for photographers to experiment with long exposures, including city lights, traffic, people and weather.

When you take a long exposure, you need your tripod and cable release to prevent camera shake and blur of non-moving objects during the extended time the shutter is open. You can also use your camera's self-timer if you don't have a cable release. Set your camera's mode dial to manual or bulb shooting mode and select a slow shutter speed (we recommend 5-25 seconds).

Long Exposure Subjects

Waterfalls are great for experimenting with long exposures. The longer the exposure, the softer or mistier the water appears. Bracket the exposure times to compare the difference an extra five, ten, or 20 seconds gives. Scenic landscapes, cloud formations, water masses and weather patterns at long exposures can result in eye-catching images that would look average with a short exposure. 

In the city, if you use a long exposure in a populated area with people coming and going, the effect will emphasize action and movement. The concept of time never standing still can be explored. There is some unpredictability with colors because you never know when a brightly dressed person will come into view and add a burst of red or green to your image. Be careful to protect your camera gear when getting this kind of long exposure urban shot. Besides ruining your picture, a person looking at their phone rather than where they are going could knock your camera and tripod over, causing damage. 

At nighttime, you can get stunning long exposure images with car lights leaving a soft blaze of light while static lights such as street signs stay as you see them with the naked eye. Fireworks, fire and light shows, and sparklers are also good subjects for practicing your long exposures. Amusement parks, casino areas and anywhere with bright moving lights is a playground for photographers trying out long exposures. 

You don't even need to go outside to try long-exposure photography. In your studio or at home, you can use still life subjects to teach yourself how to capture slow exposure imagery. In the kitchen, try using sugar or salt being poured onto food, and in the bathroom, you can photograph water falling. If you have children, they probably have moving toys that could look interesting with a long exposure. The opportunities are endless once you start looking.

Taking The Photo

You've found your subject, have your camera on the tripod and are ready to take the photo. Start with a shutter speed of 5 seconds. Focus on the subject and make sure your composition is nice. Start with f8 for your first test shot and f11 for your second test shot. When you find the correct exposure, you can play around with the exposure times. When you are starting out, go from 5 seconds to 30 seconds, increasing in five-second increments. When you become more experienced with long exposures, you will get to know what shutter speed to use. 

Play around with the settings and remember to factor in the speed your subject is moving. Slow vehicles will create a different-looking image compared to fast-moving ones. 

Long exposures can take some practice, and you often don't know exactly what you have until you get your work downloaded onto your computer to view on a bigger screen. You could compare it to sports photography when that perfect shot could be amongst hundreds, and it's hard to see detail in the small images from the back of your camera. 

The maximum shutter speed setting on your cameras is likely to be 30 seconds. If you master long exposures and want to try longer ones for minutes or even hours, you can use the bulb exposure setting in manual mode. Then you can start the exposure when the shutter release is pushed and let it stay open for as long as you hold it down.

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Using Filters

Filters are also useful for long exposures in the daytime, so your images don't look too bright. 

If you get really into long exposure photography, you will eventually attempt one of the biggest challenges, which is photographing lightning. It might involve chasing the weather, checking weather apps often and having an ideal shooting venue available such as a covered rooftop. Safety is your first concern as you don't want to get your camera gear wet or be in danger of being struck by lightning yourself. You can start with an aperture of f5.6 and use manual mode and focus on something in the distance, such as buildings or trees. You will need to play around with the exposure since the lightning brightness and distance will be unpredictable and different for every shot. 

During a thunderstorm, you have a chance to get that epic lightning strike image that you see in nature and photography magazines. It takes a lot of patience but can also be very rewarding. But to start, definitely try a waterfall or ocean scene, which will be much easier. 

We hope this article has inspired you to try your hand at long exposure photography. It is a fun and creative technique that can elevate your photography portfolio to new levels. It might spark your interest in landscape, nighttime or urban photography and is often seen in fine art photography. There are many paths that long exposure photography can lead you to, so don't wait too long before you try it out!

8 thoughts on “How To Take A Long Exposure”

  1. Great article and perfect timing with my photography journey! Thank you David for another great tool!?

  2. Regina Glauder

    Fascinating article for us newbies to long exposure photos.
    You mention filters. But I reread that last section and couldn’t find filter suggestions?
    Thank you! ????????

    1. David Molnar - Your Photography Mentor

      Regina, GREAT question! Take a look at one of my other blogs An Introduction to ND Filters. It is packed full with filter information!

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