5 Tips For Better Long Exposure Photography

Long exposure photography is one of my favorite types of photography to explore.  It requires some planning, forethought, and gear beyond a simple camera and lens, but with it, you can create stunning pictures that you simply cannot take with shorter shutter speeds. 

What is Long Exposure Photography?

There is no one set definition to long exposure photography, but I like to think of it as taking a picture where the shutter speed is longer than 1/10 of a second.  Admittedly, that’s a bit of an arbitrary cutoff on my part, but that’s the shutter speed where it starts to become difficult to shoot handheld regardless of the type of lens that you have.

What Can I Do With Long Exposure Photography?

There are many ways that you can use long exposure photography, but the main thing you can do with it is capture motion. Here are some examples:

1. Capture Motion In Water

42mm, f/16, 0.6 seconds, ISO 100

One of the most common applications of long exposure photography is to shoot waterfalls.  By lengthening the amount of time that the shutter is open, you can capture the motion of the water.  Because I had the shutter open for 6/10 of a second, the movement of the water during those 6/10 of a second can be seen.  

2. Smooth Water

42mm, f/16, 13 seconds, ISO 100, 10-stop ND filter

Not only can long exposures be used to capture motion in water, they can also be used to nullify the movement as well.  The ocean was somewhat choppy the morning I took this shot, but by leaving the shutter open for 13 seconds, I was able to have the water motion completely smoothed out.

3. Capture Light Trails

45mm, f/14, 8 seconds, ISO 100

Long exposures are perfect for capturing light trails from cars.  By using a long exposure, you allow the light from the headlights and taillights to streak through the scene while the shutter is open.

4. Capture Motion and Action

24mm, f/18, 6 seconds, ISO 100

Of course, car lights aren’t the only moving lights you can capture.  Anything that moves can be captured with long exposure photography. For example, this shot of Rockefeller Plaza in New York City was taken at night with a six second exposure.  By keeping the shutter open that long, I was able to show the movement of the flags as they blew in the wind.

5. Remove People From A Scene

24mm, f/8, 11 minutes, 10 stop ND filter

This photo was taken in Grand Central Terminal at about 6:00 pm on a normal weeknight.  Normally this terminal is bustling with people, and on the night I took this photo, it was no different.  But if you look at the photo, you’d think the place was completely empty.  

The reason it looks like this is because I kept my shutter open for eleven minutes.  As a result, anything that was not still for those eleven minutes either barely shows up in the photo or doesn’t appear at all.  Since most people in the station did not stand still for eleven minutes (except, it seems, for that one guy in the middle), they don’t show up in the photograph.

What Gear Do I Need?

There is some equipment that you will need in order to capture long exposures.  Most of it is optional but there is one piece of gear that is absolutely essential.

1. Tripod (Mandatory!)

When dealing with long-term exposures, there is one rule that, above all else, must be observed: you must keep the camera as absolutely steady and motionless as possible.  Any movement in the camera while you have the shutter open will cause your pictures to come out blurry. If you want your long exposure pictures to come out sharp, then you must take them on a tripod.  No matter how steady you think your hands are, you will not be able to take a sharp long exposure handheld.

The tripod I’m currently using is the MeFoto Globetrotter Classic (pictured at right — and yes, I have the green one).

MeFoto Globetrotter Classic

2. A trigger for your camera (Recommended)

Remember how I mentioned that you need to keep your camera as still as possible when shooting your long exposures?  Well any time you touch the camera, you are introducing motion—including when you press the shutter release.

There are two solutions for this:  

One is to use your camera’s countdown timer.  Set the timer for two seconds (or, even better, ten seconds) and by the time the countdown is done, your camera should have stopped shaking.

The other option is to get a device that, when attached to your camera, will allow you to release the shutter without actually touching it.  The fancy term for such a device is an intervalometer.  

3. Neutral Density Filters (Recommended)

Neutral density filters are devices that you attach to your lens.  They block some or most of the light that enters your camera.

You might be wondering,”Why would I want to block the light coming into my camera?  Don’t I need the light to take a photograph?”

Take a look at the beach photo I took above.  To get the ocean to look smooth, I had to leave the shutter open for 13 seconds.  If you try to take a photo that is 13 seconds long in daylight, you will most likely end up with a completely overexposed scene.  No matter how narrow you make your aperture, there is still only so long you can keep the shutter open before it becomes overexposed. 

A neutral density filter which blocks light from your lens. They usually come in two varieties: round, which screw on to your lens or square/rectangular, which you attach with a mounting kit.

However, by attaching an ND filter, you can keep the shutter open longer.  How much longer? Well it depends on the strength of the filter. 

ND filters are measured in stops.  Each stop halves the amount of light entering the camera.  So, a 3 ND filter cuts the light down to 1/8th the amount (since 1/2 x 1/2 x 1/2 = 1/8).  Since only 1/8 the amount of light is getting in, you can keep the shutter open for 8 times as long.  If you previously could only keep it open for 1 second, with a 3 ND filter, you can keep it open for 8 seconds. 

If you have a 6 ND filter, you can keep your shutter open 64 times as long, and with a 10 ND filter, your shutter can stay open 1024 times as long as it could without it.  

How much is 1024 times?  Well, if a normal exposure required the shutter to be open for 1/30 of a second, with my 10 ND filter, I can keep it open for a full 30 seconds!

Two important things to remember when using an ND filter are to set the focus before putting the filter on and to turn off the auto-focus on your lens.  The reason is because once you put the filter on, not enough light will reach the lens for its auto-focus function to work. So remember to set your focus first, then turn off auto-focus, and then attach the filter.

Conclusion

Long exposure photography can be a lot of fun.  With it, you can do things that are simply impossible with standard point-and-shoot cameras.

Do you have any tips?  If so, I’d love to hear them.  Feel free to put them in the comments.

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