Learning the basics of long exposure photography

Photo by Kinson Leung, Unsplash

What do beautiful starry nights, fast-moving cars on the road, sparklers on a summer night, and misty waterfalls have in common? Well, if you are already on this article the answer is pretty obvious. These things are just a few great subjects for long exposure photography. Today, we’re briefly going over what you need to know about long exposure photography, what you need to have to try it out, and some suggestions on how to get started! 

What is long exposure photography? 

Long exposure or ‘slow-shutter photography’ is the practice of capturing an image using a long shutter speed from several seconds even up to several minutes. If that doesn’t make a lot of sense, be sure to start here and learn all about how to shoot in manual

Using a long exposure of several seconds will cause the shutter to stay open, exposing the sensor to more light. This makes it possible to capture beautiful images in low lighting situations and can create some very creative shots since moving objects will be captured in a blur while static objects remain clear.  

Typically, many DSLRs can be set to up to 30 seconds, but for those wanting to go beyond those limits, the Bulb mode on a camera will allow you to keep the shutter open for as long as you like. 

What do you need? 

DSLR Camera - Smartphones and apps can come up with some beautiful images but today we’re looking at how to create a long exposure image using a DSLR, which will allow you to choose the settings you want rather than a digitally manipulating a photo once it's been taken. 

A tripod you can trust - Using a long-duration shutter speed by definition is going to introduce motion blur to your images so a tripod is necessary to minimize camera shake. If you are going to open your camera up for 5, 10, 30, or 60 seconds, you are going to need a sturdy tripod that will minimize any shaking. 

A remote shutter release (optional but highly recommended) - These remotes are crucial when it comes to reducing camera shake as they can trigger the shutter without having to actually touch the camera. Most cameras have a setting that you can manually set the shutter, but if you really want to see results, I would recommend investing in one of these babies (you can find inexpensive ones online or at your local camera shop). Additionally, if you are planning on trying your hand at time-lapses, a remote is essential in order to sit back and relax while your camera does the work over a one or two hour period. 

A Neutral Density Filter (for daytime shots) - If you search long-exposure photos, you’ll notice the majority of photos are shot at night with a handful of daytime landscape images. This is because the act of leaving the lens open for so long allows so much light into the camera that daytime shots are always left blown out. For this reason, to capture photos during the day, you’re going to need a neutral density filter (as pictured below) that will act as really dark sunglasses for your camera and allow you to shoot in the daytime!

A plan - The last thing I suggest (and this is a suggestion, you’re more than welcome to go out and wing it) is to plan ahead. Taking five minutes to plan out a general idea of what you’d like to capture will help you to be more prepared with props and materials, realistic about your outcomes, strategic about your timing, and ready for the weather. 

The last thing you want is to go out to shoot photos of the stars without looking at the weather forecast and finding out AFTER you’ve set up camp in a far off native-camping site that it’s an overcast night. 

How to try it out

Here are a few styles to try out once you’re ready to get going. 

Nighttime star photography

This is one of the most satisfying things to try out with long exposure photography, but it will require a bright sky and minimal clouds (and depending on your location and time of year, probably some warm clothes). We’ve written an entire guide on shooting the night sky, check it out here. The photo below by Supri Yanto was shot at ƒ/4 with a shutter speed of  25 seconds with an ISO of 1600.

Star photography

Photo by Supri Yanto, Unsplash

Light trails

Using a long exposure at night will allow you to capture the lights attached to moving items. Car taillights, Ferris wheel deco, and sparklers are popular subjects. 

Light trails on a freeway

Photo by Drew Graham, Unsplash

Writing with light

Similar to trailing lights, you can leverage a slow shutter speed to write or design images using a flashlight or sparkler. In order to achieve this, you’ll need a friend or two or three willing to be the writers, and these friends will need to be patient, as it’s going to take some practice getting it just right. For example, the photo below was shot with a 6-second shutter. 

love written with a sparkler

Photo by Zoritsa Valova, Unsplash

Still the motion of the ocean 

One way of using a long exposure is to smooth out the motion of water like in the photo below by John Finn. He used a second shutter speed of only 3.2 seconds and the result is this smooth, buttery coastline.  You can use this effect on waterfalls, small rivers, and creeks, anything that moves! 

long exposure sunset

Photo by John Finn, Unsplash


Long exposure photography

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