Essence of Photography: Long Exposure

Ever wonder how to take long exposure photos to capture light trails or flowing water? Read on to find out how and get some ideas of what makes a good long exposure image.

May 20, 2021

Did you ever see a photo with streaks of car lights streaming through a city? Or maybe flows of water and clouds blurring dreamily in the frame. The secret to creating photos like this is called long exposure photography.

The idea is simple enough. When you take a picture, the shutter in your camera stays open for a period of time which "exposes" the film or digital sensor to the light. For most photos, this only stays open long enough that you capture the image similar to how you see it with your eyes.

If you leave the shutter open longer, it will begin to capture motion in the photo like a passing car or moving clouds and water. The longer the shutter stays open, the more motion you can capture.

Hold it Steady

By keeping your camera steady, you can ensure that the fixed items in the photo are sharp, while the moving elements stream through the image.

The best way to steady your camera would be to use a tripod, but if you don't have one you can still create long exposure photos using a few other tricks.

One is to simply put your camera on a rock or object and don't touch it. Remember that when you press the shutter button, you might make the camera shake which could blur the still subjects in the image. If your camera has a timer setting, you can set the timer for 2 or 10 seconds and press the button which starts the timer and then it clicks the photo without shaking.

If your camera has image stabilization on the body or lens, make sure you turn that on when using your camera without a tripod. This will let you take photos with slower shutter speeds with less shake and blur.

It is also possible to take multiple photos and them blend them together in an app / photo editor, though this is a more advanced technique.

Camera Settings

Since shutter speed is the main setting for long exposure photography, you need to either manually control this, or use a night or long exposure mode on your camera.

If you are unsure what the shutter speed is or how to set it, the main thing to know is that this setting controls how long the shutter will stay open and is measured in seconds.

This can be a fraction of a second for a fast speed like 1/500", or a slower speed like 1/10" of a second or 2" (2 seconds). To get a long exposure you will usually set the shutter for 1/50" or slower. For really effective long exposures you might leave the shutter open for several seconds, minutes or even hours.

Keep in mind that the more light you let in with the shutter, the brighter the image will be. If you are shooting in daylight or around bright lights at night, you will need to be careful not to over-expose the image by compensating with the f/stop (aperture) and ISO settings.

Remember that a larger f/stop number like f/16 or f/22 lets in less light and works better for long exposure scenes. If your camera has a "Shutter Priority" mode, you can use that to set the shutter speed and it will try to select the f/stop for you. Different camera brands have a different setting like "S" on a Sony/Nikon or "Tv" on a Canon.

If you are using your phone, there are some apps that have Long Exposure modes such as Slow Shutter Cam, Pro Camera by Moment, or Camera+ 2.

Below the camera is set in "Tv" mode with a shutter speed of 10" (10 seconds) with the aperture set to f/16.

What Can You Photograph In Long Exposure?

Part of the fun of long exposure photography is the image can look very different than what you see with your eyes. This is a great way to experiment with your camera and create strange and interesting photos using a variety of subjects.

Water is a good subject which starts to look foamy and dreamy in a long exposure. Try to find a place where the water is flowing over rocks or even a waterfall.

Long exposure can transform a ferris wheel or carnival ride into an explosion of light and color.

Lights from cars and vehicles makes colorful streaks through the frame. Try to find a vantage point overlooking a busy city road.

Astrophotography is a whole sub-genre of long exposure photography where you leave the shutter open for hours at a time to create star trails in the sky.

"Painting with Light" is another creative method of long exposure photography where you use an LED light or other objects to make your own patterns in the frame.

There are many other ideas waiting to be discovered. Get out and experiment and see what you can create!

Essence of Photography is a series of tips, tutorials, and visual inspiration on a variety of photography skills and techniques.

You can practice these skills and more by purchasing a deck of Photo Cards from Zoom In Reach Out, a non-profit with a mission of teaching to see the world from a different perspective.

All photos in this article were posted to the Aminus3 Photography Community and are copyrighted by their respective photographers.

Click on any photo to see a larger version or to leave a comment for the photographer.

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TOPICS: essence of photography

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