A beginner's guide to long exposure photography

First published:
September 9, 2020
February 6, 2024

A beginner's guide to long exposure photography

First published:
September 9, 2020
February 6, 2024

Cover image by Ed Corrigan

Long exposure is one of the most popular techniques in outdoor photography. By following these simple steps you too will be able to create those stunning, dreamlike shots

What is long exposure photography?

It refers to a technique used to create images that portray motion within the frame. Therefore a long exposure is “an exposure of a timed duration that is achieved when the shutter is open for several seconds at time”.

The way long exposure photography works is by having your camera shutter open for an extended period of time. So that it allows the movement of a moving subject to be captured while the static elements in the rest of the scene remain fixed.

The subjects popular with long exposure photography are numerous, but favourites include the movement of clouds across the sky, running water, and transport.

Kirkjufell mountain, Iceland, with a waterfall in the foreground at sunrise
'Sunrise at Kirkjufell, Iceland' by Christian Rutter - f16 | 6s exposure

Basic kit

If you want to try your hand at taking photos with long exposures, you will need to invest in some basic kit. Essentially you will need a tripod and a filter.

A tripod is required to keep the camera mounted and still during the exposure, and a filter is required to reduce the amount of light entering the camera. A filter can either be attached to the front of the camera lens directly (screw-in) or held in place using a filter holder (mounted).

In terms of filters, neutral density (ND) filters are the best option to capture long exposures, as they restrict the amount of light entering the camera. Therefore allowing the conditions for long exposure photography even in bright conditions. These can vary in strength from 3-stop to 10-stop (the strongest) where the latter reduces the amount of light entering the camera by 10 stops of light.

When it comes to what setup is best, this is down to photographer preference. Generally, mounted filters tend to be the preferred choice for landscape photographers, as they are more adaptable to various lighting scenarios found in outdoor photography, however they can quickly become expensive. Screw-in filters, on the other hand, tend to be cheaper, and are also less cumbersome to carry around when out in the field.

Where to buy filters?

There are numerous brands out there that offer a range of different camera filters. When it comes to recommendations, Nisi offer both types of filters (screw-in and mounted) and are of excellent quality and another popular ND filter in particular is the 10 stop Lee Filter.

A photographer takes pictures at sunset with an ND filter
Example of a mounted filter setup, where a rectangular-shaped filter (such as an ND filter) is placed in front of the lens and held in place by a holder and adapter. Image by Nazario
Example of a screw-on ND filter that is placed directly on the lens
Example of a screw-on ND filter that is placed directly on the lens. Image from Mile Atanasov.

Key tips for long exposures

There are several things worth considering when undertaking long exposure photography.

- Basic set up

When starting out with the technique, you will require a basic set up. Firstly, attach your camera firmly to the tripod, then compose your image. Next, focus the camera manually, ensuring the manual focus (MF) button on the side of the camera is selected before positioning the filter at the front of the lens before finally taking a shot. 

- Exposure settings

In order to achieve an optimum long exposure, it's recommended to use a shutter speed of anything between 1-30 seconds - as this will capture more motion in your images, compared to a fast shutter speed of say 1/250s. For a visual reference, see the examples in this article and the corresponding shutter speeds used to capture the images.

- Time of day

Generally, if you are looking to shoot during the day in bright conditions bear in mind you are likely to extend your shutter speed to a few seconds and will need to use a strong ND grad, compared with later in the day when you can shoot longer exposures as the light fades, without the need of an ND filter.

Daytime long exposure of fields and trees
Incorporating movement in the sky or foliage provides additional atmosphere to the scene - f11 | 1 minute 30 second exposure. Long exposure captured with an ND filter due to the bright conditions of the scene
Light trails in Oxford, technique created by long exposure
Photographed during the evening where the low light has naturally provided the conditions for a long exposure, and an ND filter wasn't required - f11 | 6s exposure

Some dos and don’ts

- Keep your camera stable and on a tripod

Be careful not to move your camera while it is recording the exposure. It can be tempting to touch the camera when the shutter is open but any camera movement will make your shot blurry. Also, don’t try to hand hold your camera when taking long exposure shots, or using a strong ND filter, always keep it mounted on a tripod.

- Use your camera's self-timer

If your camera has a self-timer, use this to initiate the shutter button when taking your images to help minimise contact with your camera - it's very easy to make a shot blurry simply by pressing down too heavily on the shutter!

- Use manual focus

Focus your shots using manual focus instead of automatic mode. If you focus automatically the subject is less likely to be detected by the camera because of the restriction of light from the ND filter, or low light conditions at night.

Popular subjects for long exposure photography

Long exposure photography is a brilliant way to capture a diverse range of subjects. Have you ever seen those beautiful pictures of blurry waterfalls, lush landscapes with clouds streaking through the skies or lapping waves? These dreamlike images are all examples of long exposure photography, and there's so much more you can do too...

Here are some stunning examples:

Long exposure at The Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland
'Long Exposure at The Dark Hedges' from Ed Corrigan - f16 | 8 minutes 11 seconds exposure
Monochrome long exposure at The Shard and River Thames, London
Long exposure at The Shard, London - f8 | 5 minute exposure
People and taxi cabs crossing a very busy crossroads in the central district, Hong Kong
'Hong Kong Street Scene' by Gheorghi Pentchev - f8 | 0.6s exposure - the shorter shutter speed of less than a second for this shot means you can also see some detail in the moving subjects

Long exposure photography is particularly wonderful for water-based subjects and will give an ethereal quality to waterfalls, rivers, lakes and seascapes.

These subjects lend themselves really well to long exposure photography techniques as water is easily rendered soft and blurry with long shutter speeds.

A sense of motion can add a dramatic element to your images with a long exposure of around a second, whereas longer shutter speeds, such as 30s to several minutes, can render the water silky-smooth.

Here are some examples to show how long exposure can render water:

A long exposure (25 seconds) of a Waterfall located in France to get the silky effect
A long exposure will bring an ethereal look to waterfall scenes - f18 | 25 second exposure. Image by Fabien Desmonts
A fine art long exposure abstract of a metal ladder at Seaton Sluice harbour on the Northumberland coast.
'Ladder to the Abyss' by Tom Lowe - f16 | 30s exposure
Long exposure of the incoming tide at Brighton West Pier, Sussex, England
Incoming tide at Brighton West Pier - f16 | 0.7s exposure. Image by Will Gudgeon
The Dramatic Seas at Madeira
'The Dramatic Seas at Madeira' - f22 | 0.7s exposure

Whichever subjects you choose to shoot, be creative with your images when applying these methods. We hope you've found these tips are useful. Now it's time for you to go and try it for yourselves!

All images by Jeremy Flint unless otherwise stated.

OFFER: Save 50% on Picfair Plus with code UPGRADE-50
Click to Redeem