Dive into using long exposure times to blur motion and create unique water photographs.
Let’s take a look at the popular technique of using long exposure times to create shots with blurred motion. In this particular case, we’re focusing on water. When you shoot water with long exposures, it takes on a smoother, ‘flowing’ and sometimes ethereal appearance.
Achieving this imagery is generally straightforward, but you’ll need at least the following to achieve good results:
- Camera with a delayed interval mode or support for a remote shutter device.
- Sturdy tripod or other form of stabilisation (e.g. mini tripod, solid surface).
- Neutral density filter, fixed or variable strength. They reduce available light entering the lens, enabling lower shutter speeds.
Watch the video above to see live footage examples of how to set up your shot for a successful result.
Here are some key tips and things to look out for when you’re trying this technique, plus some additional imagery:
- A tripod or form of stabilisation is highly recommended. In most situations you’ll be fine with a cheap or lightweight (e.g. carbon fibre) tripod, but beware if you’re shooting in strong winds—even slight movement of the camera or tripod can ruin the exposure and create a shaky, blurry image. If you’re not keen on lugging a tripod around, consider a small ‘mini tripod’ like the Manfrotto Pixi series. You can sling one in your camera bag and find a good surface to balance it on.
- If you’re keen on the technique and end up using it frequently, consider investing in a mid-to-decent standard ND filter, whether it’s fixed or variable. Although you can correct the shortcomings of cheap filters (e.g. colour casts, loss of contrast) in post to a degree, it’s ultimately more satisfying and more productive to get the best result possible at the shooting stage.
- As pointed out in the video, using a strong fixed ND filter will likely black out your viewfinder or live view, making it very difficult to gauge composition and focus. If you’re using strong filters, don’t forget to set up your shot and make sure focus is sharp before you put the filter on.
- White balancing when using ND filters is a difficult beast, typically more so if they’re lending the image a colour cast. It’s a terrible sin, but I tend to leave it on Auto when doing long exposures, as I find the result is generally quite accurate. You may wish to experiment, however: try using a warmer white balance if the filter is producing a cool colour cast, e.g. if you would normally be using the Daylight preset, use Shade or Cloudy instead.
- Try and keep your ISO values low where possible. Long exposures heat up the camera’s sensor considerably more so than regular exposures, and as a result you run the risk of an increased noise level and hot pixels. Hot pixels are easily removed in post (either by inpainting or via dark frame subtraction), but a general increased noise level is harder to tackle and compromises image quality. Higher ISO values will of course exacerbate this.
- Shooting RAW is always a good idea with this type of photography, even if you don’t usually do so. Long exposure photography will typically bring up more difficult technicalities: hot pixels, noisier images, under/overexposure due to the brightness of water versus its surroundings, etc. Sometimes the in-camera JPEGs are fine, but I would advise shooting RAW+JPEG where possible: if your shot has any of these issues, you won’t regret having a RAW version to hand.
- Don’t forget to take a step back and ask yourself, ‘does this really need a long exposure look’? You can get carried away with shooting all your water subjects using long exposures, and sometimes miss the beauty of using faster shutter speeds to freeze motion and capture some stunning water, especially fast-moving streams. Blurring water is great for producing a ‘calmer’ scene but don’t forget your other options!
- Finally, if you find yourself without a tripod or ND filter and really want to create that long exposure look, consider shooting a series of images and stacking them in post: see my video tutorial below for more information!