The Comprehensive Guide To Long Exposures: Tips & Techniques

I'm sure you've seen them, those dreamy photos with perfectly silky smooth water. City shots, with vivid neon lights streaking down the highway.

They're magical. For me, it's because of the way they capture the essence of a scene that's not visible to the human eye.

The pursuit of shooting a long exposure myself is what drew me into photography in the first place. Growing up on the coast, I was surrounded my moving water interacting with solid rocks, and have been chasing the perfect ethereal long exposure ever since.

While I continue to refine my own approach to long exposures, I thought to share what I've learnt along the way.

Basic Set Up

The thing linking all long exposures are extended shutter speeds. And to ensure that the rest of the scene remains crisp while the motion is blurred, the camera will need to remain dead still. I'd recommend a quality, sturdy tripod, one that doesn't budge in the face of strong winds or when partially submerged in running water. 

For camera settings, I used to always bump my aperture up to f/22 which allowed me to achieve the longest exposure possible. But the issue with f/22 (on almost all lenses) is that these smaller apertures tend to degrade the image quality, where the photo is often fuzzy around the edges. 

However now my rule of thumb settings are ISO 100, f/16 and the maximum shutter speed that the scene allows for without blowing out the brighter areas. I've found that the shutter doesn't have to remain open for entire minutes or seconds - sometimes half a second or less is enough. I shoot in RAW and leave white balance set to auto as I usually adjust this back on the computer.

Another important consideration is to delay your shutter, so that pressing it doesn't shake the camera in the act of taking the photo. To overcome this, I set my shutter to a 2 second delay, however you can also connect the camera to a remote shutter. Even most modern cameras now have a smartphone app companion which allows you to initiate the shutter that way.

Lastly, I need to mention light-blocking filters, or ND (Neutral Density) filters. These are pieces of glass placed in front of the lens to block the amount of light entering the camera, allowing you take even longer exposures or to take them in the middle of the day through intense sunlight. While they can produce very impressive results, my personal experience with them is one of inconvenience and reduced image sharpness. To get around this, I often head out in the early morning or late evening when the amount of ambient light is reduced. 

The Scene

The other thing that links almost all long exposures is motion being present in the scene. It's worth scanning your environment to consider any types of motion lending itself to be captured. It could take the form of:

  • An incoming wave crashing against a rock
  • Cars speeding down the highway
  • Fast moving clouds overhead
  • Water spilling over a waterfall
  • Pedestrians hurrying across the street 

Once you've identified what you intend on capturing, take a moment to consider composition and how best to frame the scene. It may be placing the flowing river running into the image from the bottom corner, or waiting to observe where the waves crash against the rock and aligning the action focal point on a line of thirds.

Different environments offer different opportunities for a range of long exposure scenes. Busy cities are great to capture the hustle and bustle of travelling vehicles and scurrying pedestrians. While serene rainforests are perfect for calm, smooth captures of streams and waterfalls. It pays to get out there and explore a diverse range of environments to hone in your own approach to long exposures. 

Coast

For over two decades I grew up on New South Wales's South Coast. The ocean has always been a major part of my life.

Seeing long exposure images of waves powerfully crashing up against coastal rock formations drew me away from the limits of my phone based photography and into the world of DSLRs. Naturally, I went out with my camera and tripod and tried to replicate the style for myself.

I set myself up, framed the scene, reviewed the camera settings and waited while my camera took extended exposures of 20 or even 30 seconds. Yet I was never truely happy with the final outcome. Yes the water was blurred, but it lacked that wow factor of capturing the essence of the scene.

And then after studying the work of my peers and how they went about it, I realised my error.

My long exposures were too ... long.

By allowing the shutter to remain open for that long, any feeling of motion or power was gone. The fleeting moment of a wave crash was lost and averaged out against all the seconds where it wasn't crashing. 

To two keys to capturing the feeling of motion that I was after where: anticipation and a short long exposure.

I would examine the scene, paying careful attention to the timing pattern in oncoming waves and then press the shutter two seconds ahead of maximum intensity. The shutter would only remain open for half a second or so, but just enough to freeze the water streaking against the rock or splashing in the sunlight.

With an ever-changing, variable environment like the coast, it pays to experiment here, varying your shutter speed up and down until you achieve the effect you are after.

City

Cities are abuzz with motion, and at night they light up and become a playground for long exposures.

If you haven't yet tried much night or city photography, then I insist that you start experimenting. It stands apart from other forms of photography, with vivid light trails and twinkling lights contrasting against the strong blacks of night.

You'll need to pay attention to the forms of motion presenting themselves to be captured. Luckily, you shouldn't need to look too far to find a swarm of cars rushing down the highway. While the bane of commuters, city traffic makes for the perfect long exposure subject. Also consider other forms of motion around you, such as: boats travelling down a river, the subway line or pedestrians rushing to get home.

It's worth stoping to think how best to capture the motion. Could the city lights look more vivid after a recent downpour? Will the subway line be more interesting as a lively scene with a large amount of people rushing or rather as an eerie platform devoid of humans? And if you don't know the answer, then all you can do is to experiment.

Capture city scenes in a multitude of  ways. From up high, from down low. In peak hour traffic, in the dead of night. 

The important thing is to then critically review your images, taking note of what worked and what didn't.

Waterfalls

Waterfalls may just be my favourite type of long exposure, but often they are difficult to capture too. A result of their location, and the surrounding weather conditions.

For every iconic fall that is easily accessible (having practically drive up access), there are 10 more waiting to be explored off the beaten track. They could be wedged in between alpine peaks or hidden away in the heart of a rainforest.  

It's worth doing some research around your local area to see what's out there. Make sure that you heed any hiking advice: where to access the trailhead, how long to complete the walk, and what equipment is recommended.

After you've settled on a location, consider the optimal conditions where the waterfall will be at it's most photogenic. A lot of the falls in my area are small flowing, however after a downpour of rain, they come to life. The photo to the left, for example, is of an old abandoned railway tunnel in Helensburgh, NSW. The falls run briefly after a sudden downpour, and quickly flow into the tunnel, flooding it for days on end. 

Similarly, if the falls in your area rely on snowmelt, then they're going to be at their peak throughout spring/summer after the snow has melted to feed the flow.

While it depends on the waterfall's flow, I've often found that an exposure of 1 second is enough to smooth the water, creating that silky, dream-like effect. Which means that if conditions are right, I can escape the need for ND filters.

I'll often head out after (or during) rain, while the sky is still overcast, and within 1 hour after/before sunrise/sunset. This ensures that ambient light levels will be low enough for the long exposure, while also allowing the clouds to disperse the sun rays to evenly light the scene. 

 

I hope you found this guide useful and if you have any questions at all, feel free to leave a comment below! :)