Long exposure photography is becoming an increasingly popular medium with image makers. If you are just starting out with the subject and would like to learn more about the technique, this guide will explain the basics of long exposure photography and provide an overview of how to get started.

1.) What is long exposure photography and how does it work?

Firstly, it is worth knowing what long exposure photography is. It refers to a technique used to create images that portray some kind of motion of specific elements within the frame. This could be trees swaying in the wind, movement of clouds across the sky or rolling waves. 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 subject to be captured whilst any static elements remain fixed.

'Sunrise at Kirkjufell, Iceland' by Christian Rutter - f16 | 6s exposure

2.) 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 in order 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 or held in place using a filter holder.

In terms of filters, neutral density (ND) filters are the best option to capture long exposures. 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.

One great example of an ND filter is the 10 stop Lee Filter.

Example of a 'mounted' ND filter set up placed in front of the lens. Image from Pakkawit Anantaya.
Example of screw-on filter ND filter that is placed directly on your lens. Image from Mile Atanasov.

3.) Key tips

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 and finally taking a shot. 

- Exposure settings

When starting out, in order to achieve a long exposure I would recommend using a shutter speed of anything between 1-30 seconds to capture more motion in your 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 using a strong ND grad compared with later in the day when you can shoot longer exposures as the light fades.

Incorporating movement in the sky or foliage provides additional atmosphere to the scene. Image by Jeremy Flint - f11 | 1 minute 30 second exposure.

Photographed during the evening where the low light has naturally provided the conditions for long exposures. Image by Jeremy Flint - f11 | 6s exposure.

4.) Dos and don’ts

- Keep your camera stable and on a tripod

Be careful not to move your camera whilst 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 using a strong ND filter, always keep it mounted on a tripod.

- Use the cameras 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.

- 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.

5.) The different subjects long exposure can capture

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' from Ed Corrigan - f16 | 8 minutes 11 seconds exposure
'Battersea at Sunrise' from rodwey2004 - f16 | 6s exposure
'Winnat's Pass an Hour Before Sunrise' from Wesley Christopher
'Hong Kong Street Scene' by Gheorghi Pentchev - f8 | 0.6s exposure
'Falling Stars' from Leonard Loh. Learn more about how to master the technique of astrophotography with our dedicated guide.

Author tip:

Long exposure photography is also wonderful for water-based subjects - by giving an ethereal quality to waterfalls, rivers, lakes and seascapes. These subjects lend themselves really well to long exposure photography techniques ,as water is rendered soft and blurry. And the sense of motion can add a dramatic flair to your images.

A long exposure will bring an ethereal blur to waterfalls
'Ladder to the Abyss' by Tom Lowe - f16 | 30s exposure
'The Dramatic Seas at Madeira' by Jeremy Flint - 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!

Cover image by Ed Corrigan