In the past few years, long exposure photography has become one of the most popular genres of photography. With a bit of technique, you can use long exposure to produce absolutely stunning images.
In this article, we will show you:
- what is long exposure photography;
- how to get started with it;
- the necessary equipment for this genre of photography;
- more tips that will help you take amazing long exposure photographs.
Table of contents
What is long exposure photography?
Photography is a type of art that never ceases to impress us. From beautiful shots of wildlife to capturing the most impressive landscapes, it’s something that we all enjoy and admire. It’s a well-known fact that there are countless niches for this business, and some people are really good at what they’re doing.
I’ve been a fan of photography since forever – I used to stare at pictures of people and try to understand how someone can capture emotion in something that’s lifeless. Well, there are a few secrets to it, and we’re going to explore some of them in this article.
If you’re just at the beginning of your photography career, you may or may not have heard of this genre. Our main purpose is to understand exactly what long exposure photography is and how to take long exposure shots, for those who are interested in giving this a try.
This type of photography is known under multiple names – long exposure, time-exposure, or slow-shutter photography. No matter what you choose to call it, each of them involves the same technique: using long-duration shutter speed to sharply shoot the lifeless objects while the moving elements become blurred, smeared, or obscured.
And it does so by using an important aspect of what makes it so special — an extended period of time. Simply put, it means that your camera can capture the movement of bright objects on a static background over a period of time of your choice.
Have you ever seen photographs of the sky by night, with stars that appear to make circular moves and form circles of light? Well, that’s long exposure photography. And it’s actually not that complicated to get started with it – you just need the right equipment and a fair amount of motivation and patience.
Long exposure photography equipment
As I said, it takes patience and motivation to be good at this, but the equipment you choose is vital as well. If you’re in for the pro game, you need to invest a bit in gear before getting started with this.
Let’s see what are the essential pieces of equipment you need to purchase in order to start this path:
Camera with manual and Bulb mode function
First of all, you need a camera that’s at least of a decent quality. If you want to go big from the start, then you can choose a fancy camera that has it all. But I recommend starting small and giving a cheaper camera a try before finding out if you like this technique and it’s worth going further.
So, what I’m trying to say is that you need a long exposure digital camera that allows you to manually adjust the values of certain functionalities. This means that you need a tool that gives you the opportunity to choose a value for your ISO, to match your aperture, and to select the needed shutter speed. A DSLR or mirrorless camera should do the trick.
Another thing that is good to have, but not mandatory, is the Bulb mode. It allows you to take exposures that are longer than 30 seconds and give your images something that makes them stand out.
Long exposure photography is mostly used by landscape photographers, so a tripod is kind of a necessity. You need to hold the camera as still as possible while it’s shooting, so investing in this is mandatory.
You don’t need to go overboard and buy a super expensive tripod, but I highly advise you to buy a sturdy one. You’ll see the difference when it’s windy outside, and you don’t have to hold it still. It’s important to consider all these aspects before getting started in this field because you’ll regret investing in something that lasted shorter. After all, it was cheaper.
Neutral density filters
These are darkened filters that you place in front of your camera lens. They require a slow shutter speed in order for the same amount of light to reach the sensor.
They come in different strengths which describe how much you need to lengthen the exposure so you can capture a great shot.
Sometimes the vibration caused by you pressing the button on your camera can ruin a shot. This is why it’s advised to purchase a remote, especially if you’re doing exposures over 30 seconds.
There’s also the fact that there are times when you need to capture a wave that looks amazing, so you can’t afford to lose those two seconds that the self-timer takes to start shooting.
How to take long-exposure photographs
Now that we’re good on the gear side, we need to dig into what are the steps that get you closer to shooting stunning pictures. Even if you’re a beginner, you probably know the basics around composition, framing, perspective, and so on.
It’s important to have all the knowledge before getting started because it will be so much easier to apply everything you already know and better understand it.
Long exposure is another technique used in photography to capture impressive snapshots of moving things that leave a trace – lights are a good example of this. Every genre and technique follows a set of rules.
There’s a chance that you take a few great pictures by getting lucky here and there, but you have to play by the rules if you’re on your way to becoming a professional.
Finding the spot
This doesn’t seem like a huge step, but trust me, it is. Do a little research on the place you want to use. And this doesn’t mean that you should look it up online and read about it, but rather go there and feel it.
It’s crucial to find the right spot in that specific place you want to go to, take some test photos, see what the weather will look like on the big day. These are aspects that are as important as the gear you work with, so make sure you give this aspect enough attention, or you’ll not be able to take the picture of your dreams.
Setting up your camera
This goes hand in hand with what I said before. Study the camera’s long exposure settings before getting started, and try different variations of these values. Maybe you’ll hit the jackpot with one of them.
Make sure you practice enough until you find that perfect combination. It seems like a lot of work now, but this is what the road to success looks like – practice, practice, and more practice.
Another thing you need to consider is whether you’re shooting at night or during the daytime. This changes your camera’s settings a lot. There’s the weather factor that I mentioned before, which can be a major game-changer.
My advice is to try this technique in as many variations as possible – at sunrise, sunset, midday, when it’s cloudy, and so on. This is how you’ll find the perfect setup for your shooting.
Ask for help
Even though I advised you to try a lot of things (most of them on your own), it’s nice to have a helping hand and a fresh perspective. If that person is a photographer as well, it’s even better.
Try to ‘’steal’’ from as many people as you can. This is how you build your style – by seeing what’s already on the market and adding that special something that can help you get one step closer to your best professional version.
Long exposure photography ideas
There are plenty of ideas when it comes to long exposure photography – some of them are very famous. Not the picture itself, but the idea behind it, shot by different people and capturing different emotions. Below you’re going to find a few of the most famous ideas. Remember that it’s important to be original altogether. But there are times when reshaping an old idea can be extremely appreciated.
No matter if you’re photographing a river, a sea, or an ocean, as long as there’s movement, you’ll get what you want. Water is one of the most famous ‘’subjects’’ in long exposure photography because it’s calming, beautiful, and very predictable.
If you look at pictures of this kind, you’ll see that the long exposure gives them a smooth, silky texture that can be very peaceful to look at. It can look a bit like fog but in such a way that draws you to it and its mysteries.
We all know those stunning photographs of the starry sky – those that look like the stars are dancing in circles. Well, that’s another popular scenery for this type of photography.
It’s mesmerizing because we all want our photos to look like a Van Gogh painting, right? While this is something that’s only possible at night and somewhere with clear skies, it’s definitely achievable with a trip to the woods and the right company.
It’s a cloudy evening, there’s no water nearby except the one that comes from the tap. So you’re left with no ideas for your long exposure photography project. Well, don’t worry, because if you have a flashlight or a sparkler, you’re good to go.
Have you ever seen those pictures where people look like they’re writing ‘’Love’’, but they’re not using a piece of paper, but the air and they don’t have a pen, but a small flame in their hand? That’s what I’m talking about!
Some of us really like that big city feeling, with a lot of cars driving around all evening. You can use that in order to improve your photography skills. Just like when you’re photographing stars, doing the same with cars can be very interesting.
They leave trails of red lights that are simply stunning to look at. Of course, there’s the problem of finding a location that’s worth it. But let’s be serious, with a little bit of imagination everything can turn into a fairyland.
Those cotton candy clouds that look fascinating are photographed the same way I talked about before. This is a tricky choice because they are very unpredictable, but it’s worth the shot – get it? It’s nice to at least try it out.
Give your best, and remember that there’s always room for improvement.
Long exposure photography tips
- Make sure you’re avoiding vibrations of any kind. I’m not talking about earthquakes. But this is why one of the important pieces of your equipment is the shutter release.
- Check the weather. This is something I already told you about. But I’m adding it to the checklist because it’s not something you cannot take into account.
- Visualize your composition. When you’re choosing the place for your photoshoot, make sure you try to define how your shot and incorporate your surroundings in it.
- Test, test, test. This is, again, something that I talked about before. But there are times when people don’t think a test shot can do something for them. Well, take time before your actual photoshoot. Test your camera settings and explore the place you want to go to.
- Try to define your own perspective. Many people say that being original is very difficult nowadays. But that’s not quite so. Even if you do things that have been done before, adding that extra something that makes people know that those photos were taken by you can grant you success.
- Take any learning opportunity. Talk to people, get involved in things, go to workshops and trainings, listen to podcasts. Do anything that can help you grow.
Well, if you already have a plan, that’s great. But there’s always room for new ideas. So let’s see what are a few of the things that can bring you some income when you’re just starting off as a photographer.
- Start learning how to edit your photos. There are a lot of editing programs for beginners. Some of them are free and even online. So even if you don’t have an amazing computer that can support Photoshop or Illustrator, you can still do a good job.
- Build your own website. To make a name for yourself, you need to get out there and show people what you got. And by out there I mean online because that’s where most of the magic happens. Build a website where you can display the best pieces of your work and people will find and contact you.
- Make a portfolio. Now that you have a website (I assumed you followed my advice, no questions asked) you can create a portfolio that will make you stand out from other photographers. Show people your best skills.
- Become a freelancer. In order to be able to offer your services (unless you work for an agency), you can become a freelance photographer and start your own business. Read about what freelancing is and start working in that direction. Everything that I told you about before, like building your website and creating a portfolio, is tightly connected to becoming a successful freelance photographer.
- Sell your photos online. This is not something that requires a portfolio, as you can sell your photos on different stock photo websites, but it can be a ‘’side-job’’, next to your photography business. Try different directions and see which one fits you best.
Bonus: the longest photographic exposure photo ever taken
Because all of us need inspiration in order to feel determined to do a great job, what better way than showing you the creation of someone so dedicated to this trend, that they exceeded everyone’s expectations regarding long exposure photography.
This is the story of a German photographer called Michael Wesley. He was invited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to capture the destruction and reconstruction of the building.
He did so by setting up four cameras in different corners and leaving the shutter open for 34 months! This is actually a very impressive job to be done. So remember that you can create amazing things if you work hard enough.
Art is something that’s constantly changing and embracing new trends that people follow and go along with.
If you’re interested in developing a career as a photographer, you need to consider a strong commitment to always being up-to-date and understanding your public’s needs. It’s not easy, but the reward is bigger than the effort you put into this.
We really hope our article was helpful and inspiring. Even though it was not a long exposure tutorial per se, but rather a guide that can help you make up your mind and try new things out. Remember to always give your best and the rest will follow.