What is long exposure photography and how can you start doing it?
- What is long exposure photography?
- What is shutter speed?
- Long exposure shutter speed
- Long exposure photography camera
- Long exposure photography lens
- How to take a long exposure photo
What is long exposure photography?
Long exposure photography is a style of photography that uses slower shutter speeds. By doing this, the photographer can capture motion blur of moving elements in the photo. For example, you may have seen a landscape photograph of a motorway at night with the vibrant red stream of a car’s taillights stretched across the road – this is taken using long exposures. Other long exposure photography examples are the images you’ve seen of the aurora borealis where the fluid green lights ripple across the sky or other landscape photographs where the clouds seem to go on forever.
Long exposure is an excellent style of photography for visually showing the passage of time. It produces creative images as the long exposure creates an ethereal atmosphere. Furthermore, this style of photography is not only limited to landscape photographers – astronomy photographers, street photographers, culture photographers, and architecture photographers all love to use this technique too. Photographers can use long exposures to show moving Ferris wheels, blurry sea waters, light paintings, and star trails in the night sky.
What is shutter speed?
Because long exposure photography requires a slow shutter speed, you must be well acquainted with your camera’s settings before attempting this technique.
The shutter speed is the duration of time that the camera’s shutter is open. Photographers tend to use fast shutter speeds for sharp handheld images. Long exposure, of course, requires a longer shutter speed to capture motion on camera. Slower shutter speeds allow more light in the camera to reach its sensors.
Large denominators such as 1/1000 indicate very fast shutter speeds. A smaller fraction such as 1/10 indicates a slower shutter speed.
Long exposure shutter speed
Long exposure uses a slow shutter speed to blur moving elements. It is difficult to define an exact shutter speed as this will vary depending on your camera and focal length. Experts agree that a long exposure is any shutter speed that is too slow to create a sharp handheld photograph.
So what exactly is a slow shutter speed? We recommend anywhere between five and sixty seconds as your shutter speed as this will result in significant motion blur. Most DSLRs on the market today have shutter speeds of up to 30 seconds, which is perfect for long exposure photography.
The recommended shutter speed varies depending on what kind of image you want to capture:
- Light trails: 5-30 seconds
- Sea waters: 5-30 seconds
- Clouds: 5-30 seconds
- Ferris wheel: 5-30 seconds
- Star trails: 15 minutes or longer
Long exposure photography camera
For beginner photographers, you can use any camera as long as it has manual settings and allows for slow shutter speeds. You don’t need to splurge on a DSLR to start with for long exposure photography, but be aware of your camera’s limitations.
There are many excellent DSLRs on the market for amateur and hobbyist photographers, that offer slow shutter speeds and wide ISO ranges. A good ISO range is important as overexposure is a disadvantage of long exposure photography. Here are some of our recommendations for budget cameras:
- Nikon D5500
- Pentax K-S2
- Sony a6400
Regarding long exposure photography for professionals, you will want to look into a pro-grade camera. Pro-grade cameras usually have full-frame sensors and many extra features which will allow you to capture the best shots. Our top picks of pro-level cameras for long exposure photography are:
- Nikon D810
- Canon EOS Rebel T6i
- Sony A7RIII
Bear in mind, if you want shutter speeds of longer than 60 seconds you will want a bulb mode camera, which are cameras designed for extremely long exposures.
Long exposure photography lens
Using the right lens will ensure a great long exposure shot. Most long exposures shoot with a wide-angle lens or an ultra-wide-angle lens to create a greater sense of depth and to potentially capture more motion within the frame.
The best long exposure photography lens is a matter of preference as photographers’ tastes vary. To start off, we would recommend a 24mm wide-angle lens as it is a good middle ground between wide and ultra-wide. It offers a wide focal length without the distortion of an ultra-wide lens. You should also invest in a weather-sealed lens to protect your lens against the elements.
How to take a long exposure photo
Now that you know the fundamentals of long exposure photography, we can go into the specifics of capturing your long exposure shot.
Plan your photograph
Think about your location and visualise how it will look and what elements you want to be blurred within the film. Preparation is key as it will help you adjust your camera settings and know which lens to use.
Use the right lighting
Lighting is important in all forms of photography, but in long exposure photography due to the shutter being open for a prolonged period, you need the right lighting conditions to avoid overexposed images. You will need to shoot in very dim lighting such as the golden hour, dusk, or late at night.
You can use modifiers to prevent too much light from coming into the lens or a neutral density filter, reducing the amount of light coming into the camera by 10 stops or more. By using a neutral density filter you can shoot during high light situations.
Using the right gear is a recipe for success. In addition to the cameras and lenses we have discussed, a tripod is essential for stability. It should be a sturdy design to absorb vibrations well – this is essential if you want to take long exposure photos of light trails from cars. Depending on what kind of terrain you will be shooting on, you may need a tripod with rubber feet for added grip. If you’re shooting by the sea, you will need a carbon tripod as the incoming tide erodes aluminium tripods over time.
A remote shutter release is very helpful for ensuring that you get crisp, clean shots.
Another alternative to a neutral density filter is a CPL or a circular polarising filter. CPLs lower the light entering the lens and saturate colour and reduce the glare on reflective surfaces.
Use the right settings
Because of the long exposure, you will need to adjust your aperture and ISO settings accordingly to ensure a sharp, well-exposed image. You should stop your aperture as low as it will go before it loses clarity, as well as reducing the ISO to the lowest setting. Lenses are usually sharper in the middle aperture ranges, which works out well for long exposure photography. For example, an aperture of f/8 creates a good depth of field whilst taking a sharp photo.
You should also shoot in RAW to maintain the image data. It is preferable to shoot in RAW for long exposure as using AWB may compromise the image quality. Instead, shoot in RAW and tweak the image in post-processing.
We hope you found our introduction to long exposure photography informative!
If you require a long exposure photographer, book with Splento. Splento will provide you with a reliable, on-demand photographer at an affordable, fixed rate. Contact a member of the Splento team who will be able to answer any questions you may have.