Long Exposure Photography – Tips, Settings, Examples & Ideas

The art of Long exposure photography

A quick search on the internet about long exposure photography will lead you to the understanding that this involves keeping the shutter button pressed down and thereby the aperture open for a long period of time. How long? Well it depends on what you are trying to achieve. That makes each long exposure image unique. Its an eye popping category of photography that many people do not attempt. Let’s discuss about how to photograph long exposure shots.

Virgin River Zion National Park

Nikon D70S, 1/5 Sec, f/11 | Photo: Bir Azam

Essential Tools

Neutral Density filters

Keeping the aperture open for that long can get the pictures washed out in day time. Neutral density filters helps you to achieve long exposure or slow shutter speed even during bright day light. At night getting a long exposure is not a problem. But in bright day light even after using all of your camera settings (smaller aperture and lower ISO), it is difficult to achieve desired slow shutter speed due to bright ambiance light.

Haida 10-stop ND filter, 30 Sec, f/11.0, ISO 100 | Photo: The Q

Neutral density filters are used to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor without creating any color cast. Thus their name “neutral”. They come in two different varieties, graduated and normal and in varying degrees of densities making each one suitable for stopping a specific amount of light. You will have neutral density filters tagged as ND2, ND4, ND8 and ND10 (available at Amazon | Adorama | B&H). These are one stop, two stop and three stop ND filters respectively. Each progressive number suggests that it can half the amount of light reaching the sensor. So a one stop ND filter (ND2) will allow ½ the amount of light to reach the sensor for a given aperture setting, allowing you to half the shutter speed. Consequently ND4 will allow only ¼ (½ x ½) of the available light at the same aperture setting to reach the sensor, allowing a four times slower shutter speed. Read more on ND filters here

Tripod

A tripod is almost as important as having a neutral density filter. It will ensure that the camera does not shake while the exposure is being made. Read more on tripods here

Remote shutter release

Really long exposures such as those in excess of 60 seconds would require you will have to keep the shutter button pressed down for the entire duration of the exposure. This could lead to camera shake. The solution is to use a remote shutter release. If you don’t have one, use camera’s self-timer instead.

Camera settings

In long exposure photography our main goal is to keep the shutter open for longer. Because shutter speed is fixed, we have to focus on other camera settings (aperture & ISO) to compensate or balance exposure.

It can be done in both manual or auto mode. In auto mode, my preferred mode is shutter priority mode. In Canon cameras this mode is marked as “Tv” and “S” for Nikon. In case you are using a point & shoot try “Night Scene” mode. Check your camera manual for more details. In this mode you set your desired shutter speed and camera sets the appropriate aperture accordingly. Remember to set ISO manually at low (100-400) and never use auto ISO mode. Otherwise camera will use a higher ISO settings to compensate low light. Lower ISO helps to keep digital noise down and produce clean image with fine details. Shutter priority mode is good as long as your shutter speed remains within 30 seconds. Beyond that it is advisable to shoot in full manual mode.

Canon vs nikon mode dial

In manual mode you have to set everything (shutter speed, aperture, ISO) manually. Numbers of apps now available for android & iOS devices to calculate long exposure. You can also read our exposure triangle and basics of exposure articles for further references.

There is another mode called “Bulb mode”, is also useful in long exposure photography. However to work in this mode a remote or cable release is a must. In “Bulb” mode you set your aperture, ISO manually and shutter stays open as long as you keep your shutter pressed.

Focusing

Most of the time auto focusing will do just fine. Putting some Neutral Density filters on the lens, specially in day light, will reduce the amount of light significantly (depending on the density of the filter). For example, if you are using a ND8 or ND10 filter there may not be much light for the AF sensors to lock focus. In those situations composed and focus the shot before you put the neutral density filter on. Then switch to manual focusing to lock the focus.

Some example of long exposure photography

Long exposure photography is something that has the potential to create some amazing results. Star trail, light trail, blurry sea water, waterfalls. We’ve written on the topic numerous times (see links below) in our archives but to whet your appetite – here’s some great long exposure images. Focus on shutters speed provided!

SLT-A77V, 30 Sec, F/9.5 , ISO 100 | Photo: mariusz kluzniak

Canon 350D, 22mm, 10 Sec, f/11, ISO 100 | Photo: Chris Gin

Nikon D50, 50mm, 0.7 sec, f/11, ISO 200 | Photo: Sarah

Canon 5D II, 25mm, 13 sec, f/22, ISO 50 | Photo: CJ Schmit

Canon 6D, 200mm, 20Sec, f/4.5, ISO 50 | Photo: Tom Raftery

f/16, 3min, ISO 160 | Photo: Tony Beverley

Canon 5D II,154 Sec, f/4.5, ISO 100 | Photo: Pedro Pinheiro

Pentax K0D, 30 Sec, f/22, ISO 100 | Photo: Jens Auer

10 stop ND filter + .9 ND, 32 Sec, 8.22 AM | Photo: David Yu

Nikon D90,1.5 Sec, f/22, ISO 100 | Photo: Werner Kunz

Canon 7D, 30 sec, f/8, ISO 100 | Photo: Tc Morgan

Nikon D700, f/3.5, 6Sec, ISO 200 | Photo: Otis Blank

18mm, 1.4 sec, f/22, ISO 100 | Photo: Zoe

10mm, 0.6 Sec, f/11, ISO 100 | Photo: Chris Gin

Nikon D700, F/2.8, 30 Sec, ISO 6400 | Photo:  Carl Jones

D700, ISO 3200, f/1.4, 20 Sec | Photo: David Kingham

Olympus E-M5, f/22, 90.2 Sec, ISO 200 | Photo: Thomas Leuthard

Nikon d40, 43.6mm, 6 Sec, f/20, ISO 200 | Joe Penniston

Taking perfect long exposure images needs lots of practice. Your shutter speed can be anything from 1/60th of a second to several minutes. There are endless creative possibilities with this awesome technique. Good luck!

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