Long exposure photography is a fascinating technique used by photographers to capture everything that’s happening while your camera shutter is open. You can take amazing daytime long exposure photos to bring a scene to life. Long exposure photographs of the night sky are amazing and spectacularly capture the cosmos. Anything you do with long exposure is going to be fantastic.
The only issue is that long exposure photography can be difficult to master. You need to have the right equipment, experiment and learn how the process works, and understand a bit more about the science behind long exposure photography.
In today’s guide, you will learn how to do long exposure photography, how to set up for long exposure photographs, and how to properly manage your focus and shutter settings.
What Is Meant By Long Exposure In Photography?
By definition, long exposure photography is a type of technique in which the photographer keeps the camera shutter open for a specific length of time. Usually, for much longer than when taking an ordinary photograph.
For example, taking photographs normally involves a shutter speed of between 1/5000 and 1/40 of a second. This is how you get a sharp photograph in a split second. But when you use a slower shutter speed, usually starting at around half a second, the shutter stays open for longer and you capture far more details.
Think of long exposure photography as leaving your camera’s eye open for longer to capture more detail. This is usually done with a tripod for the best results. Long exposure photographs require the camera to be completely still.
By leaving the camera shutter open for over half a second, the result is that you capture motion in a still photograph, including things like water, clouds, and animals. You can capture more information in a long exposure photograph than what your eyes can perceive.
The result of a long exposure photograph is so magical that people sometimes think they’ve been photoshopped. The human eye can’t quite comprehend all that’s going on inside one of these photos, making them surreal.
How Do You Do Long Exposure Photography?
There is no specific way to do long exposure photography. Mastering this type of photography is going to take time and patience as you develop your own style and flow.
But if you’ve never done it before and you need somewhere to start, follow this simple guide to begin your journey to becoming a photographic master.
Step 1: Be prepared.
This might sound cliche, but it’s true. Have a spot in mind and a time of day picked out in which you would like to take your long exposure photographs. Then arrive early to prepare.
Pick your spot, make sure you have the time and lighting perfect, analyze the nature around you (things like the direction of the clouds and the level of the ride), and get your equipment ready.
Step 2: Make sure your tripod is sturdy and in a safe place.
Have your tripod positioned in such a way that you can keep it there for the duration of your photoshoot without being bothered.
Step 3: Get your settings right.
You want to turn your camera either to manual mode or bulb mode and get all your settings sorted out before you start taking snapshots. It’s also critical you turn off the image stabilization. We’ll talk more about the proper settings soon.
Step 4: Get in focus.
You need to have the perfect focus so that your photographs come out neat and sharp.
Step 5: Adjust your shutter speed, your aperture, and your ISO.
Your exposure value should be equal to 0, and you can do this by using the light meter that comes equipped with your camera. Be sure that you have your shutter speed already picked out.
Step 6: Take your first shot.
This is going to be your test photo. Take a photograph of your subject, double-check to make sure that your exposure and focus are perfect, and adjust your shutter speed if you need to.
Step 7: Adjust your ND filters.
Adjust the shutter speed yet again depending on the filter you’re using. Mount the filter carefully without disturbing the focus ring on your camera. It’s also important to cover your viewfinder so that no light leaks into your sensor.
Step 8: Take another shot with your filters equipped.
Check the photo, tweak settings as necessary, play with the shutter speed, and start the process over again. Check your histogram and your focus. Take more pictures. Now you’re really doing it!
As a side note, be sure that you use either the shutter delay or shutter release, that way you avoid vibrating your camera.
What Are The Settings For Long Exposure Photos?
Unfortunately, there is no single cheat sheet for the best settings. The settings for your long exposure photos will change depending on conditions and subjects. However, there are a few suggested settings that beginners should memorize.
The most important part is shooting in manual mode or bulb mode. You also want to shoot in RAW to get image files that are of the highest quality. Turn off the image stabilization. When shooting long exposure, the image stabilization will add blurring to your photographs.
You also want to activate the metering mode, known as Matrix Mode on some cameras and Evaluative Mode on Canon cameras. This will help your camera place emphasis on where the focus is.
The most important thing when it comes to focusing is to do so before placing any filter on your camera. ND filters block light and cause most cameras to struggle when focusing. This is why you always want to focus without a filter, take a test shot, and double-check that the focus is perfect before adding your filter.
Always use the zoom-in Live View to locate the sharpest point in your scene. One of the easiest ways to get the right focus in almost every situation is by focusing on the hyperfocal distance or the first third of your photograph. If you’re focusing in auto mode be sure to switch to manual focus before taking any photographs.
The shutter speed is the heart of long exposure photography. Changing the shutter speed can dramatically alter your photographs. When choosing the best shutter speed, you’re probably going to be experimenting quite a bit. The best advice is to find a shutter speed that makes sense for your current lighting and what you’re trying to do.
Longer shutter speeds create more ethereal and dreamy atmospheres because all the motion inside the photo becomes soft. For ultra-long exposures with the most dramatic backgrounds, we’re talking about exposure times of over 5 minutes. When doing this, it’s critical that you be in bulb mode.
Shorter exposure times of around one minute will still show details of things that are moving, though without being overly dramatic. A shutter speed of around one minute will create a dynamic impression and a gripping, powerful image.
Of course, many things can dictate your shutter speed. It will depend on whether you’re taking photographs at night or in sunlight, if you’re trying to remove people who are walking by your shot or dealing with slow or fast clouds, and even if there are city lights in the background.
A lot of these settings need to be learned through practice.
When Should I Take Long Exposure Photos?
You can take long exposure photos whenever you want. But depending on whether you’re taking photos in the night or day, you’re going to wind up with dramatically different photographs.
Long Exposure Photography At Night
Long exposure photography at night is literally going to be long exposure. Because there isn’t enough light out, you need to keep the shutter open for longer, giving your sensor sufficient light. Taking photographs of things like the Milky Way, the Northern Lights, or even meteors will require serious patience.
That said, nighttime long exposure photographs have a dreamy, almost hallucinatory quality that can prove amazing when done right.
Long Exposure Photography In The Day
The trickiest part of taking long exposure photographs during the day is that all the light can result in images that are overexposed. The shutter simply takes on too much light and can ruin photographs. This is why ND filters or Neutral Density filters are needed for most daylight photography.
Still, long exposure photography during the daytime results in beautiful, dramatic photos of landscapes and cityscapes. The water looks like it’s moving, the plants appear sharper, the sun looks brighter. It’s remarkable to say the least.
Just keep in mind that daytime photos require a shutter speed of only around half a second. If you keep your shutter open longer than 1 second, moving water can be become blurred and your whole photo will fall flat.
There is a lot to learn about long exposure photography. You need to master what proper filters to use, how long to keep the shutter open, how to properly focus your camera, and even which cameras are best.
Fortunately, it’s easy to start taking long exposure photographs. Just remember to experiment, to try different shutter speeds, and to play around both at night and during the day.