What Is Long Exposure Photography?

What Is Long Exposure Photography?

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There’s no precise definition of long exposure photography, but a good working definition is that long exposure photography uses shutter speeds of longer than 30 seconds to create photos where the moving elements are blurred.

The reason for this is that you need to use your camera’s Bulb mode to obtain a shutter speed longer than 30 seconds. This gets you out of your camera’s other exposure modes and into the mindset of a long exposure photographer.

Here’s one of my favorite long exposure photos, made with a shutter speed of 125 seconds.

Long exposure seascape

Photos made with shutter speeds of a minute or longer also have a completely different look or feel than those taken with slower shutter speeds.

I made this photo with a shutter speed of 2.5 seconds. The waves are blurred, but the sea isn’t smooth and the motion of the waves has created lots of texture. This isn’t what many photographers would call a long exposure photo. It’s simply an example of using a slow shutter speed to create blur.

Landscape made with slow shutter speed

This photo of the same scene is definitely a long exposure photo. I used a shutter speed of 125 seconds and as a result the sea and clouds are much more blurred.

Long exposure landscape photo

But don’t waste too much time thinking about definitions. A better question is which shutter speed is most appropriate for the photo? Sometimes a shutter speed of one second gives the amount of blur and motion that you need. Another time you may need a shutter speed of two minutes.

If you are taking photos in the evening you can use both techniques. You can start with a shutter speed of around one second, then let the shutter speeds get longer as the sun goes down and the light fades. That’s exactly what I did with the example above. You can pick your favorites afterwards.

What subjects can you take long exposure photos of?

Most long exposure photos are landscapes or architecture, and the blurred elements are water or clouds. Occasionally photographers include people in the photo, either out of lack of choice because they are shooting in a busy location, or to deliberately introduce a human element into the image.

Long exposure landscape photos usually include both water and cloud, as it’s the way these elements blur during long exposure that gives them their unique look.

Long exposure photo with sea and cloud

Do you need a digital camera for long exposure photography?

It helps a great deal. Using film gives you two problems. The first is reciprocity failure. This simply means that film doesn’t respond to low light in the way that you think it should.

Your calculations may show that you need an exposure of say, two minutes. With a digital camera that would be fine. But with film you would in reality need a shutter speed of closer to four minutes or eight minutes. Without an LCD screen or a histogram, you only know for sure whether the exposure was good when you develop the film.

Digital cameras also have more tools to help you calculate the correct exposure settings (such as the histogram, and the ability to set a high ISO to take test shots).

For these reasons, long exposure photography is a relatively new genre that has only become popular in the age of digital photography.

What equipment do you need for long exposure photography?

A digital camera, a wide-angle lens, a good quality tripod and a cable release are all you need to get started. You may also like to buy neutral density filters to help you obtain longer exposures. But if you shoot in the evening when the light is low filters aren’t necessary.

For example, I didn’t use any filters with this photo, made with a shutter speed of 85 seconds after the sun had set.

Long exposure seascape at dusk

What filters do you need for long exposure photography?

In landscape photography it’s conventional to use a low ISO (for the best image quality) and an aperture of f8 or f11 (for the best combination of sharpness and depth of field). That means the shutter speed is dependent on the level of ambient light. The brighter the conditions, the faster the shutter speed required for a good exposure.

You can take control of your shutter speed with neutral density filters. Buying a set of neutral density filters with different strengths gives you a choice of filters to use. I use a set of three neutral density filters with strengths of three, six and ten stops.

Neutral density filters allow you take long exposure photos in brighter conditions than would otherwise be possible. I needed a neutral density filter to make this photo, using a shutter speed of 180 seconds.

Long exposure photo made with neutral density filter

You can also buy graduated neutral density filters that let you darken the sky to even up the exposure. Again, it’s best to buy sets (normally one, two and three stops) to give you the flexibility to deal with different lighting situations.

Exposure blending techniques (where you take one photo for the foreground and another for the sky and blend them together) are not so practical in long exposure photography due to the long shutter speeds used.

Polarizing filters also come in useful for removing glare.

What apps help you with long exposure photography?

If you were to buy just one app it would be PhotoPills (iOS and Android). It has all the tools you need, including an exposure calculator and hyperfocal distance tables. It’s a powerful app that also tells you where and when the sun will rise and set, and (for astrophotographers) the location and timing of the Milky Way.

PhotoPills app screenshots

What is the difference between long exposure photography and astrophotography?

In a practical sense there isn’t much difference because they both use fairly long shutter speeds (most astrophotographers use shutter speeds of around 15 to 20 seconds to record the stars). But they’re really different genres, each with their own conventions, techniques and well-known photographers.

Why are most long exposure photos black and white?

Long exposure photography lends itself to a minimalist style of composition, and this is often best expressed in black and white. But there’s no rule that says you can’t work in color – it’s a matter of personal preference more than anything.

This is another of my favorite long exposure photos, and one that definitely has a minimalist composition.

Long exposure photo with minimalist composition

Further reading

You can learn more about long exposure photography with these articles.

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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