9 Long Exposure Photography Tips And How to Start Shooting Today
I’ve been intrigued by long exposure photography ever since I got my first camera that could shoot in manual mode. It is an opportunity to be creative, have fun, and capture something unique and beautiful.
Long exposure photography really separates the casual cell phone snaps from photos shot on a camera. And while it may be a little daunting to get started, it is very rewarding.
I’ll be sharing my best tips I’ve learned about long exposure photography, and also a short how-to for anyone who hasn’t tried it yet.
I started shooting long exposure photos on a Canon Powershot, the first camera I bought. It could take up to 15 sec photos, and had manual mode, yet was limited in a lot of ways, such as lacking any way to attach an ND filter.
I learned some of the basics of shooting in manual mode with this camera, but soon upgraded to what I still use today, a Sony a6000 mirrorless camera.
Let’s take a look at a quick how-to.
A Short Guide to Shooting Long Exposure Photos
To start, you really just need a camera that will allow you to manually set the shutter speed, and a tripod makes life much easier.
One of the first long exposure photos I shot was of car trails on a busy road at dusk. I set my camera on a tripod, put it in manual mode and started playing around with the settings.
For shooting long exposures, the biggest challenge is controlling the light going into the sensor. You have to limit it significantly in order to not overexpose your photo when leaving the shutter open for long periods of time.
There are two was to do this; use a small aperture, such as f16 or f22, or use an ND filter.
I didn’t have an ND filter at the time, so I set my aperture to the smallest setting (f16), changed the ISO to 100, and then set the shutter speed for 5 sec. I checked the result, and adjusted as needed. If your test image is too dark, increase the shutter speed to 10 sec, 20 sec or even 30 sec and see how it looks. If your test photo is too bright, then you can adjust to 1 sec shutter speed, or wait until it gets a little darker out.
(If you have live view, or an electronic viewfinder on your camera, you can get a pretty good preview of the image you’re about to shoot, which reduces the guesswork.)
Additionally, you can set your camera in aperture priority mode, and set the aperture to f22, iso 100 and then let the camera choose the shutter speed to properly expose the photo. This doesn’t work in all situations, such as shooting photos longer than 30 sec.
That is the basic starting point for shooting long exposure photos. Anything that has movement can make for a good photo, such as cars, planes, clouds, water, etc.
Now here are some simple tips for improving your shots.
9 Tips for Better Long Exposure Photos
1. Use a Sturdy Tripod
My first tripod was light and inexpensive, but it wasn’t very sturdy. As long as there wasn’t much wind, I was fine, but with a light breeze I would start to see the tripod wobbling, ruining the photo.
I’ve heard it said that there are three characteristics of a tripod, and you can only have two. They are weight, cost and sturdiness. If you have the money, get a light, sturdy tripod but be aware it will cost hundreds of dollars. A better option might be to get a sturdy but heavy tripod at a reasonable cost.
Some tripod tips I’ve heard from others or learned along the way: If your tripod has a center column, don’t use it unless you really need the extra height. Adding a small bag of rice on top of your camera can help hold it down in windy conditions. Hanging a backpack from the tripod may cause it to sway more in windy conditions.
2. Use a Wide Angle Lens
Most long exposures will probably be of landscapes or cityscapes, and a wide angle lens does a great job getting everything in one photo. I use a 12mm Rokinon lens and it is my favorite lens and a great multipurpose lens when it comes to landscapes or night photography.
If you’re using a kit lens, like an 18-55mm, buying a wider lens will go a long way in improving the photos. (but don’t expect a wide angle lens to make great photos on its own! Start with the kit lens.)
3. Shoot in Manual Mode
Don’t just shoot in manual mode, understand it. When it comes to long exposure photos, playing around with the settings can be fun. But if you are trying to catch a sunset that is fading fast, getting the right settings on a 2 minute photo will make or break the shot.
I learned to shoot in manual mode by practicing, a lot. There are lots of resources online that teach how aperture, ISO and shutter speed all work together, and once you understand these, shooting full manual is a breeze.
Shooting in manual mode also allows you to set your camera to ‘Bulb’ mode, which makes it possible to take photos of any length. To do this, you will need a remote, which is the next tip…
4. Get a Remote
Using a remote shutter control does two things: it removes any camera shake if you were to push the shutter button, and it allows you to shoot in ‘Bulb’ mode for photos of 2 minutes, 3 minutes, or whatever you like.
There are lots of remote shutter options available these days, and I use both a wireless remote and a cable shutter release. I use the wireless remote more often because of the convenience, and they each cost about $10 on Amazon.
If you don’t have a remote shutter (yet) there is a simple trick to help remove camera shake from pressing the shutter button. Just set the timer or shutter delay on your camera to 2 seconds and that will help keep your photos sharp.
5. ND filters
An ND filter is basically tinted glass you put in front of your lens (usually it threads on or goes in a holder) that reduces the light by some amount.
Using an ND filter opens up many more possibilities for long exposure photos. There are expensive ND filter sets available that do a great job, but you can also find much cheaper options that also work well. Be aware that some cheap ND filters may cause weird color cast on your images.
ND filters come in a variety of levels of tint. If I want a photo lasting 30 sec to several minutes, I use a 10 stop ND filter (also known as a ND1000). I also have a 3 stop ND filter for shutter speeds of 1/3 sec to 5 sec or so.
The image below was shot at midday, but tanks to an ND1000 filter, I was able to shoot for 10 seconds, giving a nice movement to the waterfall.
6. Foreground and Background Interest
In classic landscape photos you always want points of interest in the foreground, mid-ground and background of a photo. This creates great depth, and lots of things to look at. If you’re shooting a waterfall, this could mean rocks in the foreground, the waterfall in the mid-ground, and mountains or sky for the background. (of course, isolating a single subject for a minimalist image also looks great.)
I usually try to have something that is moving, and something that isn’t – I don’t always follow this, but I find it makes for a nice contrast when you have some elements in the photo showing movement, like clouds or water, and some things totally stationary, like buildings or rocks.
Framing photos with the right elements in the photo takes a lot of practice and skill, and is something I’ve still got a long way to go on.
7. Shoot During Sunrise and Sunset
Sunrise and sunset are the most dramatic times of the day when the light is changing rapidly and many unique colors cascade onto clouds and landscapes. It is an ideal time for shooting long exposures not only because of the great contrast and color available, but also because of the lower amount of light, meaning you can shoot longer photos.
8. Get movement in the Clouds
I love long exposure photos where the clouds are blurred across the sky, showing the movement and direction of the wind. To do this, you generally need to shoot around 2 minute exposures, depending on the speed of the wind. You also need a bit of wind to make the clouds move. Sometimes shooting just 30 sec on a windy day will result in some nice movement in the clouds.
9. Experiment and Practice
The best advice I can give is to experiment with different subjects and exposure lengths, and then practice getting the image you want.
I typically shoot photos 2-4 times a week, and I’ve been doing this for almost three years now. I’ve still got lots to learn, but I’m here for the journey, not the finish line. I love shooting photos, and that is what motivates me to keep learning and trying new things.
I hope these tips were useful, or better yet, inspire you to go shoot some long exposure photos.
If you’re interested in shooting photos of the stars or milky way, I recently shared How I shoot the Milky Way.
Keep up with my latest shots on Instagram.
Thanks for visiting!