Long Exposure Photography Tutorial

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How to get creative with Long Exposure Photography


Let’s get creative with a technique in the photography world that has helped create thousands of incredibly stunning and dramatic images with this simple Long Exposure Photography Tutorial.
Simple when you know how and this post will be keeping it simple giving you the basics to master this addictive photographic technique and help give you some top class results.

papuma rock seascape long exposure photography
Papuma Rock seascape long exposure photography

There are so many uses for this creative long exposure photography technique also known as slow shutter speed photography from creating silky smooth waterfall effects, sweeping dramatic cloudscapes, panning photography, light trails, star trails, dragging the shutter with flash photography and much much more.

surreal volcanic ash cloud at gunung bromo
Surreal volcanic ash cloud at Gunung Bromo eruption
So who wouldn’t want to create long exposure photography images like the pros? Notice I said create not take because that’s what we are going to learn how to do in this long exposure photography tutorial. How to get creative and use the manual settings on your camera. Maybe out of the comfort zone for some people but I am going to make this as painless as possible and show just how easy it really is with a bit of time and patience and a willingness to learn.
coastal rocks sunset seascape long exposure photo
Motion blur cloudscape at sunset

What is Long Exposure Photography?

Well it is an extremely creative form of photography and as mentioned at the start of this post can be used to create all manner of special effects “in camera” using a slow shutter speed. Only imagination restricts the resulting images.
What long exposure photography does is stretches time, if you will, in an image, capturing whatever moves for as long as the camera shutter remains open which gives us endless possibilities to be creative with long exposure photography.
tegenungan waterfall long exposure photo in black and white
Dramatic Tegenungan Waterfall in Bali
Standard images are taken using a fast shutter speed which tends to freeze the action because the shutter open and closes real quick. For example a moving car wouldn’t look as if it is moving in a photo taken using a fast shutter speed because the action of it moving has been frozen. One way to give a sense of motion to such an image would be to use a slow shutter speed or long exposure photography technique and pan while focusing on the moving car which will retain detail with a sharp image of the car and a blurred background which helps create the sense of motion in the image.
manual rickshaw and sense of motion panning photo
Sense of motion captured with Panning Photography

Long Exposure Photography Equipment

So what do we need?
    • Camera which allows manual control
    • Neutral Density Filters (necessity for shooting during the day)
    • Interval Timer for long exposures over 30 secs in duration
    • Tripod essential for stability
    • Wide Angle Lens in most cases (but not always)
And we are ready to start our long exposure photography journey once you have decided on some interesting subject matter and found yourself a beautiful unimpeded spot to allow your creative flair to run riot.
long exposure photography of wind turbines in motion
Wind turbines in motion in the Philippines

3 Essential functions for Long Exposure Photography


There are 3 important functions that come into play with long exposure photography and one thing they all have in common is being able to control the amount of light which helps create a long exposure image.

    • Aperture
    • Shutter Speed
    • ISO


Controls the depth of field and the amount of light that hits the sensor so if you have your lens wide open which is the lowest f number eg. f/2.8 this will allow lots of light in.
On the opposite end of the scale we have what is known as a narrow aperture when the hole in your lens will only open fractionally letting a minimal amount of light in. This is important to know with long exposure photography as the slow shutter speed needed to create long exposure photography effects naturally results in more light entering the lens and hitting the sensor so more often than not a narrow aperture is very useful (but not always, in pitch black conditions at night doing Astro Photography or Star Trails the lens aperture being wide open is recommended.

Shutter Speed

Controls how long the digital sensor will be exposed to light and the amount of motion blur in the resulting image


Controls again how bright the image will be by measuring the sensitivity of the image sensor therefore the lower the ISO the less sensitive the camera is to light resulting in a finer grain. Higher ISO usually results in more blotchy digital noise in an image and long exposure photography can add to this due to the process heating up the sensor and creating much of the same.

tegenungan waterfall long exposure photo in black and white
Dramatic cloudscape long exposure photography
Keeping the above functions in mind and how they work let’s get to the set up.
Manual control of the camera is essential and will allow us in manual mode to set the duration of the long exposure by adjusting the Shutter Speed. Say we want a sweeping cloudscape in a landscape image, depending on how fast the clouds are moving will dictate shutter speed, probably needing at least 30 seconds to begin to get the result we want. This is fine because we can control the shutter speed but the maximum is only 30 seconds, Oh dear what are we going to do! Anything over 30 seconds we have to switch to the Bulb Mode on the camera and this is where we need to use the remote Interval Timer where we can dial in any figure from 30 seconds to a few hours! Fortunately the shutter being open a few minutes is generally enough to obtain the effect we are looking for. Naturally though if the shutter is open for a long period of time light will flood in to the camera and over expose the image causing unrecoverable blown highlights hence we need to prevent this happening and this is where the Neutral Density Filters (ND Filters) come into play to control the amount of light.
cloudscape sea stacks long exposure photography
Sweeping cloudscape long exposure photography
Neutral Density Filters reduce the amount of light entering the camera and are Black Glass as some people like to refer to them and they come in different strengths. For seriously dramatic effects created by lengthy shutter speeds it is another necessity to use anything preferably from a 3 stop ND Filter to a 10 stop ND Filter (I would suggest further reading on the power of ND Filters). I often use a 10 stop ND Filter coupled with an ND Grad Filter (Graduated Neutral Density Filter) which is half black allowing more control over skies which are easily overexposed in long exposure photography. Bare in mind a 10 stop filter is completely black and if using auto focus we have to focus first when setting up the shot then when the filter covers the lens switch to manual focus otherwise when attempting to start the long exposure the lens will start hunting for a focal point but will be unable to find one due to the black glass and we have to go through the focal process again.
young lovers ghosted in long exposure waterfall photo
Young lovers ghosted in long exposure photography waterfall image
A Tripod is also essential unless you have an impossibly steady hand! Trying to keep the camera steady even below a 1/20 second exposure can be difficult never mind seconds or minutes so again the Tripod is a necessity to prevent camera shake. If you don’t have a Tripod handy all is not lost as long exposure can be created using anything as long as the camera is still while the long exposure is in production. You could use a bean bag as a back up as the bag will mould itself around the camera and keep it rock steady or rest it on a wall but by far the best is a tripod as you can angle the camera as you wish and rotate 360 degrees. If you are using a Tripod in a windy place and feeling the ill effects of camera shake try attaching your camera bag or some other form of heavy weight to keep it stable. One other thing regarding the tripod, if you are using lenses with image stabilisation don’t forget to flick the off switch otherwise you will inadvertently see the effects of camera shake in the image. Image stabilisation doesn’t like rock steady.
silky smooth waterfalls long exposure photography
Sipiso-piso silky smooth waterfall effect in Sumatra
Finally which Camera Lens? You can use anything really depending on your style and what you are trying to create. Wide angle lenses are extremely popular as they produce dramatic effects in landscapes but don’t think that is the be all and end all. I have used a Telephoto lens on a number of occasions and have had some stunning results as can be seen above in the close-up long exposure photography image of the erupting Gunung Bromo Volcano and below getting a close-up of the plunge pool at Sipiso-piso waterfall in Sumatra, Indonesia. You can create some really surreal or ethereal images using long exposure photography techniques and above all else it is great fun to see the results when learning this creative photography technique.
sipiso-piso long exposure waterfalls sumatra
Close-up long exposure image using a telephoto lens

Long Exposure Photography in Summary

  • Set the camera up on a tripod
  • Frame your subject matter
  • Focus on your subject (If using Auto Focus and using strong black filters such as 10 stop ND Filter don’t forget to switch to manual focus when your ND Filters are in place.
  • If you are going for a maximum of 30 seconds exposure use manual mode and dial in shutter speed for how many seconds required.
  • Use Low ISO whenever you can. High ISO increases digital noise and so does long exposure photography because long exposures heat up the sensor.
  • Use a narrow aperture on your camera lens which also helps to restrict light entering the camera and allows both the foreground and background to be more equally focused. Try to aim for an f stop of f/6.3 and up to f/22 even f/32 on some lenses if your ND Filters aren’t strong enough during daylight shooting as this is another great way to limit the light entering the camera.
  • And one last tip. Try to cover the viewfinder during the duration of the exposure in daylight even if it’s just shading with your hand as there can be light leak as bright light will find it’s way to the digital sensor through the viewfinder believe it or not!
  • The same principles apply to doing long exposure photography at night minus the use of ND Filters for such things as light trails. For this you may need to use a wider aperture and a higher ISO.
comparison images with and without long exposure photography
Comparison Images with and without long exposure photography
You can even create Long Exposure Timelapse Videos with this Waterfall Timelapse Video Tutorial
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