Long Exposure Photography

Long exposure photography has become very popular in recent years. In this article I share my step by step guide to taking long exposures.

The concrete jetty at ISthmus Bay on Derwent Water in the Northern Lake District

I was recently asked by a fellow photographer how I approach long exposure photography. When I sat down to think about it I decided that it is actually quite complicated and that the best thing to do was to write it down so that I didn’t leave out anything important.

What is long exposure photography?

Typically a long exposure is when you aim to use a relatively slow shutter speed in order to blur movement.

In landscape photography the most common use for long exposure photography is to blur movement in water. This might be to smooth out the ripples on the surface of a lake or to add an ethereal look to a waterfall.

Long exposure photography is becoming more and more popular and is a handy technique for any photographer to master.

A 4 minute exposure of Ullswater in the Lake District
Typically I use long exposures to smooth out ripples in the surface of the lakes where I shoot. Here I used a shutter speed of 4 minutes for this image of Ullswater in the Lake District.
What will you need?

Long exposures work best when the stationary objects are pin sharp whilst the moving objects are blurred. As exposure times can often run into the minutes a tripod is absolutely essential to avoid unintentional blur through camera shake.

You will also need to be able to control the shutter speed so will also need a camera that allows you to set the exposure and focus manually.

Often it can be difficult to slow the shutter speed enough to produce the desired effect so neutral density filters will come in very handy. ND filters act like a pair of sunglasses to reduce the amount of light that reaches a cameras sensor therefore increasing the time the shutter must remain open in order to correctly expose the image.

ND filters are rated by the number of stops they increase the exposure time. I typically carry 2 ND filters:

  • A Lee Filters Little Stopper which increases exposure times by 6 stops pushing a shutter speed of 1 second up to 60 seconds.
  • A Lee Filters Big Stopper which increases exposure times by 10 stops pushing a shutter speed of 1 second up to 16 minutes!

A remote shutter release that you can use to trip the shutter without touching the camera, again to minimise camera shake.

Finally taking long exposures using a digital camera can drain the battery so having a few spare batteries is probably a good idea.

A 3 minute exposure taken at Derwent Water in the Lake District
A tripod is essential for long exposure photography. Without one there is no way I would have been able to hold the camera still for the 3 minutes needed to get this shot of Derwent Water in the Lake District.
Step by Step Guide

As I have already said long exposure photography can be quite complicated but if you follow this step by step guide you won’t go far wrong.

  1. Set up your camera on the tripod and compose your image as you would normally.
  2. Switch the camera to manual mode and select an appropriate aperture. As with any landscape photograph I typically start with f/11.
  3. Focus the camera. If you use autofocus remember to turn it off once the camera is correctly focused to avoid it attempting to refocus when you go to take the shot.
  4. Set the shutter speed needed to correctly expose the image. This is relatively straight forward with live view but you can always take a test shot to check your exposure.
  5. Make a note of shutter speed that you set.
  6. Attach your ND filter.
  7. Increase your shutter speed by the required number of stops to correctly exposure the image. Lee Filters provides a handy app for your phone that will do this for you.
  8. On some cameras the maximum shutter speed that you can set is 30 seconds. If you you need a longer shutter speed you will have to switch to bulb mode and time the exposure manually.
  9. If you are using a DSLR camera remember to cover the eye piece while doing long exposures to avoid light leaking into the pentaprism and spoiling your images. I usually just use the cloth that I use to clean my filters.
  10. Use the remote shutter release to take the shot. If you are in bulb mode you would typically fire it once to open the shutter and again to close it.
A 3 minute exposure taken at Coniston Water in the Lake District
Follow my step by step guide and with a little practice you’ll be able to capture images like this one of Coniston Water in the Lake District.

So, there you have it. It does take a little while to get the hang of long exposure photography but with a bit of practice it will soon become second nature.

14 thoughts on “Long Exposure Photography”

  1. I wrote this article in response to a question from Riley Bates. I hope this helps Riley but if you have a questions either leave a comment below or ping me a DM on Instagram.

  2. Really thorough description and guide Chris. I remember the first image I ever took with a Big Stopper. I managed to calculate a proper exposure and was quite chuffed with the result. It’s quite a magical feeling really, or at least it was back then. I tend to take it for granted these days but this is a nice reminder of the early trials.

    1. I take it for granted too mate. It’s become almost second nature to me now so it’s not until you try an explain to someone how to do it that you realise just how complicated it is.

      1. Possibly! πŸ™‚

        There’s one problem with your approach that I noticed, and that is how you adjust your settings after putting the ND in – by changing the shutter speed. While this may work to flatten out ripples on the surface of a body of water, this technique will fail for water in motion, like, actual motion (think waterfalls). The reason for that is simple: You pick a shutter speed for a reason to produce a particular effect – by changing the speed you remove that effect. So that’s a bit trickier…

        1. There you go see. Like I said, you’re the expert. So would you pick the shutter speed you want and then use an ND fader to get the correct exposure?

          1. Nope, I have a Lee 6 stop and a 10 stop. I rarely need the big stopper.

            I don’t automatically reach for an ND filter when I’m going to take a LE, I first try to get exposure down by

            a) stopping down further (never beyond f/16), that’s 1-2 stops
            b) putting the polarizer on (~1.5 stops)

            if a) and b) are not enough, I get the 6-stop out, knowing that I have an underexposure of max 3 stops. I now have to decide if I

            c) pick a higher ISO and lose some resolution
            d) stick with ISO 64 and shoot at a wider aperture

            Worst case scenario for c) is ISO 64 * 2^3 = 64 * 8 = 512, so ISO 400 will probably do the trick.

            In the case of d) I may have to focus stack, but if I can get all of the water in focus in one single shot I shoot that first, then remove the ND and shoot the rest of the scene as I would have without using long exposure. Of course, I’d still have to blend the frames.

            If, however, I want to use the polarizer anyway I usually go straight for focus stacking.

  3. Doing landscapes at night requires a shutter speed of anywhere from 5 seconds to minutes – that’s how I got into long exposures. I’m so used to 30 seconds from Milky Way photography that I’m amused when someone refers to 1/2 second as a “long exposure.” At this point, I’d say that at least 40% of all the images I take are long exposures.

    Good guide!

    1. I reckon I am somewhere in the region of about 40% as well Theresa. I have always be drawn to lakes and unless the reflections are perfect I find myself reaching for the Big Stopper.

  4. You actually mention the 6 stop and 10 stop ND but I’ve found that using my 3-stop ND along with my polarizer that I get the result I am after. I like to see some water detail amongst the blur in the water and a three stop often provides that for me. I occasionally blend a long exposure and short long exposure in Photoshop to get the look I want. Adam Gibbs has an excellent video on that technique. I like your website. I really need to work on mine. I have neglected doing so in a long time. Maybe as winter closes in, I’ll find days when the weather is bad and make it a priority. The fall has been so wonderful, I was out almost every day and let the web site suffer.

    1. Some great tips here Philip. I don’t have a 3 stop ND filter and quite often it would be handy to have one. At those times I just grab my 3 stop hard edge grad, spin it around, and stick it in upside down. I have really enjoyed putting my website together and it’s wonderful to know that people are starting to visit and read my blog. I enjoy writing almost as much as I enjoy putting the videos together. I find writing gives you much more time to craft your message than the videos do.

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