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10 tips for long exposure photography

Long exposure photography can take ordinary images and make them feel otherworldly. Here are our top 10 tips to help you achieve the best results.

We’ve all seen images where long exposures make clouds tumble across the sky, headlights streak across darkened landscapes, and the Milky Way seems to waltz overhead. But creative photographers are also taking the technique to new levels, using long exposure techniques in the studio and outdoors to enhance landscape and portrait photography.

Though it requires some skill to achieve the best results, long exposure photography is an exciting technique to add variety to your portfolio. Make sure you’re prepared with these top tips.

1. Invest in a tripod

When taking long exposures, you want to make sure you avoid all camera shake or vibrations. Many people find that handshake can register in any exposure longer than 1/60th, and some long exposures can last for several minutes. So, either invest in a sturdy tripod or find a solid flat surface to place your camera on. If you’re working in windy conditions, you might find that adding a bag of sand or uncooked rice on top of the camera can help with stability.

Pressing the shutter can also create vibrations, so either use a cable release or a remote to trigger your camera. If your camera is Wi-Fi enabled, then you can connect it to your smartphone via a live view app. These apps can also act as a remote, removing the need to invest in a remote or shutter release cable.

2. Set your camera on manual or bulb mode

Many DSLRs have multiple pre-programmed modes that can set your shutter speed and aperture for you. But these modes will also be automatically metering for you, which is unlikely to get you the results you’re looking for. So instead opt for Manual mode, or Bulb mode if you will be doing an exposure of over 30 seconds. When using Bulb mode the shutter will stay open from when you press the shutter release button, to when you let go.

3. Visualise your composition

Before you change any other settings on your camera, it’s important to visualise the scene you want to capture. This is a good time to take some test shots with regular exposure to make sure that the composition of your image is spot on. There is nothing more frustrating than waiting for a long exposure, only to find that it’s a boring shot.

Photographs that use long exposures play with the juxtaposition of motion against stationary objects. When setting up your test shots imagine the movement you want to capture ahead of time, whether it’s water, light, objects or people. Then consider what stationary subjects help to highlight that motion.

Taking test shots is a good opportunity to lock your focus. Because you’ll either be shooting in a darkened environment like a studio or a night-time landscape or reducing light with Neutral Density filters. Autofocus mode can cause the lens to hunt for focus, so switch to manual focus and set the focus of your composition before putting on any filters.

4. Keep track of the weather

If you’re working outdoors, know how the weather will affect your composition and the gear you need to pack. You can check the weather several days in advance using apps like AccuWeather, which can give an hourly forecast of your chosen location.

If you want to capture an image of the movement of the sky, avoid cloudless days which won’t give you an exciting composition. Shooting around sunrise or sunset, when the sun is low in the sky, can add additional contrast to your image.

5. Calculate your exposure

Depending on the tones in your scene, many cameras can calculate a good long exposure up to 30 seconds. But if you’re doing an exposure that’s longer than 30 seconds, or you’re adding any ND filters, you must calculate the settings for your exposure.

If doing calculations in your head makes your eyes cross, bringing a reciprocal exposure chart like this one from Wikipedia in your camera bag can help. There are also apps like Exposure Calculator for iOS and Android that can make calculating equivalent exposure a snap.

6. Consider using ND filters

ND filters, or Neutral Density filters, are thin pieces of glass that screw onto the front of your lens. They stop light from reaching the camera sensor which allows for longer exposure times. They are helpful for long exposures during daylight hours, as the sun can be a strong light source to contend with. By reducing the light, ND filters also allow you to open up your aperture more during long exposures. Low-quality filters can have a negative effect on your final image, like distortion and colour cast, so do some research before you purchase.

7. Think about a polarising filter

A polarising filter, like an ND filter, is also a piece of glass that screws onto the front of your lens. It is an essential piece of gear for a landscape photographer because it helps to cut down on glare on wet surfaces in a scene, can help the sky pop, and minimises haze. They also help you slow shutter speeds down because of their tint. They won’t act in lieu of an ND filter if you need to remove a lot of light from your scene, but they might help you get a few extra stops from your shutter in some scenes.

To learn more about using polarisers check out James’ Shooting Series article where he explores the effects they create, as well as caveats for their use.

8. Shoot at the lowest ISO possible

Although newer cameras can shoot with relatively little noise at higher ISOs, long exposures can create noise. So shoot with the lowest ISO possible on your camera. Many cameras come with long exposure noise reduction features, but at higher ISOs using this feature can make the noise worse. For example, the Canon 6D manual warns that shooting at an ISO of 1600 or higher and using long exposure noise reduction makes images look grainy. Although post-production can remove some of the noise of long exposure, shooting at the lowest ISO possible for your shot can prevent the noise in the first place.

9. Cover your viewfinder to prevent light leaks

Although light leaks rarely occur with regular exposures, with longer exposures the images are subject to light leaks through the viewfinder. Even a small leak can create big issues like hazes on an image with a long exposure. Don’t cover the viewfinder with your thumb, as this can create camera movement. Instead, try covering it with gaffers’ tape or a custom viewfinder cap and compose your image in your camera’s live view.

10. Shoot in RAW

Shooting long exposures can be tough, especially the first few times. Shooting in RAW will give you more latitude to recover a slightly overexposed image and will give you greater control in your post-production. If you’re shooting in JPEG, your final image will have less data and be more difficult to recover if it has technical issues like overexposure.

In conclusion

Shooting long exposures can take extra time and planning, but once you get the basics down the results can be breath-taking. With the right equipment, you will soon be able to adapt these tips to your own working style. From there the subjects and possibilities are endless.

About the contributor

Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.