How To Take Stunning Long Exposure Photography That Looks Amazing

If you’ve ever seen pictures with silky water or streaky cloudscapes most likely they were taken using a long exposure. Long exposure photography is not difficult and doesn’t even necessarily require lots of expensive equipment.

Long exposure photography can be a lot of fun and yield images that you can not experience with the naked eye.

Long exposure shot of a waterfall.
The milky effect of this waterfall is made possible by using a long exposure.

What is long exposure photography?

Long exposure photo is a photo where the camera’s sensor is exposed to light longer than a second or two. Exposing for longer times allows the photographer to capture more light and blur motion.

With a bit of practice and a few additional pieces of equipment, you can easily master the art of long exposure photography. Let’s dig into some practical tips…

a long exposure photo of a waterfall.
Exposing for longer times allows the photographer to capture more light and blur motion

1. Know Your Exposure Triangle

Photography is all about capturing light.

How much light you capture is governed by a well-known secret. Exposure Triangle.

To increase your exposure time for long exposure, while still properly exposing your shots, you can use your knowledge of exposure triangle.

This involves reducing the amount of light reaching your sensor by:

Diagram showing the exposure triangle
Exposure triangle explains how ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture are interconnected. Use this knowledge to achieve a long exposure even during bright daylight!

2. Use a Sturdy Tripod For Long Exposures

If you’re planning to shoot exposures running into several seconds you’ll need a means of supporting your camera.

The obvious choice is a tripod, preferably the sturdier the better. 

Pro Tip: If your tripod is a little flimsy you can always add extra weight. Add a bag of stones on the base or even just hang your camera bag underneath it.

A photographer shooting the sunset with a tripod.

A tripod or some other stabilization is a must for long exposure photography. This helps to avoid camera shake while the shutter is open for an extended period of time.

What if you don’t own a tripod?

All is not lost! 

I sometimes use a beanbag as a camera support. If you can find a solid surface, overlooking your subject, you can successfully bed your camera down onto on a beanbag.

3. Extend Exposure Time with a Neutral Density (ND) Filter

ND filters basically act as sunglasses for your camera, they reduce the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor. Which allows your shutter to stay open longer.

ND filters come in many different strengths.  The weakest ones will simply double your exposure time – this means a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second will become 1/60 instead. However, as the filters get darker their light-reducing abilities increase dramatically. 

For example, a ten-stop ND filter (sometimes known as ND3 or 1000x), literally increases the length of your exposure by ten stops. This means that 1/125 shutter speed will become an exposure of eight seconds.

You can buy more extreme filters too, such as the Lee super stopper. This little baby will add fifteen stops to your shutter speed, turning a two-second exposure into over seventeen hours!

A long exposure photo of a beautiful pier in Orlowo, Poland. Taken with a long exposure of 2 minutes.
At nearly two minutes, the long exposure has completely blurred the water in this beautiful seascape. Photo by Ram Ya

4. Use an Exposure Calculator When Using ND Filters

If your exposure time with an ND filter is longer than 30 seconds, you need to manually expose using the Bulb Mode of your camera.

But how do you know what is the right exposure time?

  1. You should first find the normal exposure time without the ND filter.
  2. Then use this value to calculate the exposure time needed after adding the ND filter.
  3. Simply double the normal exposure time for each stop of your filter. That means doubling it ten times for a ten stop filter.

However, unless you’re very good at math, that will take up lots of valuable photography time!  

Instead, I would suggest you download an ND calculator app for your smartphone. If you don’t have a smartphone there are charts available online.

a river photographed using long exposure
A raging river in Cumbria. Using a six-stop ND filter gave me an exposure time of two seconds, which slowed the racing water and softened the surface of the river. Photo by Helen Hooker

Pro Tip: Focusing with an ND filter.

If you hold a ten stop filter up to the light, you will see almost nothing through it and this creates a problem for your camera if you wish to use autofocus.

One solution is to compose and focus your picture, then switch your lens to manual focus mode before carefully applying the filter.

5. Pay Attention to Your Composition

While long exposures can be exciting to create, you’ll appreciate the effort even more if your pictures are well composed too. 

It’s always a good idea to take a few test shots without any filters first, to check you’re happy with your composition.

Pro Tip: If you’re shooting exposures that stretch into several minutes, you’ll save a lot of time by properly composing them first!

The curvaceous light trails on this road lead the eye to the City of London in the distance Photo by Helen Hooker

6. Use the Camera’s Bulb Mode

On most cameras, the longest shutter speed you can specify is 30 seconds. 

If you’re shooting a long exposure then 30 seconds, you will need to set your camera to BULB mode. 

BULB mode allows you to keep the shutter open as long as you like – or until the battery runs out if you’re being really extreme!

Most DSLR cameras have a Bulb or B mode on the exposure dial but you may have to hunt for it in a menu or manual mode on smaller mirrorless cameras.

camera mode dial
Camera mode dials will vary depending on the model and manufacturer. Look for B or a bulb icon on your camera’s mode dial.

7. Avoid Camera Shake with a Remote Release

When taking long exposure photography, a remote release is a must.

Without a remote, you will need to keep your finger pressed on the shutter button the whole time and that’s a recipe for camera shake!

You can keep track of the length of exposure using a watch or the timer on your mobile phone.

Pro Tip: If you’re going really long, the precise timing becomes slightly less critical than at shorter exposures. If your exposure is several minutes, the odd second over or under won’t really matter.

8. Shoot in RAW Format

Shooting in the RAW format gives you the maximum flexibility in post-production.

This is especially important when you are correcting any color cast introduced by your ND filters.

A long exposure photo of a sunset next to a building.
Shooting in RAW format preserve data and allow more flexibility in post-processing

9. Disable Long Exposure Noise Reduction

It is a good idea to turn off your camera’s long exposure noise reduction (NR). 

This is because with NR enabled, your camera will automatically shoot an additional frame after you’ve taken your picture.

With an exposure of a few seconds, this is mildly irritating. If you’re shooting an exposure of several minutes it can be deeply tedious waiting for the second exposure to finish!

Canon long exposure noise reduction feature.
Check your camera’s menu to see if you have long exposure noise reduction feature

10. Remember to Cover Your Viewfinder When Taking Long Exposure Photos

When your exposure time is extensive, even light creeping through your viewfinder can affect your final shot.

Make sure you cover your viewfinder to avoid this.

A cheap trick is to use black tape to cover your viewfinder and prevent light leaks. Alternatively, you can also buy a cheap viewfinder cover.

A camera viewfinder being blocked by a cover.
Covering your viewfinder prevents light from leaking inside the camera during long exposure shots.

11. Try long exposure Photography any time of the day

If you have an ND filter, you can get long exposure shots anytime you like!

But what if I don’t have an ND filter?

You might still be able to get long exposures in daylight by:

  1. Reduce the size of your aperture (use a higher f-stop number)
  2. Lower the ISO setting as low as possible. 

This combination can often bring you into exposures that are several seconds long.

Pro Tip: Avoid using really small apertures (f22 for instance) as you will then start to see a reduction in sharpness in your images due to diffraction. 

Subjects for long exposure photography

Long exposures have uses in many different genres of photography. Here are just a few scenarios where you might want to experiment with them…

1. Landscapes

Use a long exposure to blur the movement of clouds across the sky or the movement of plants and trees within the landscape. If you like the idea of blurring the clouds lookout for days with broken cloud and a fair amount of wind.

Using a ten stop ND filter has lengthened the exposure time enough for the foliage of this tree to blur in the wind. Photo by Helen Hooker

2. Seascapes, Rivers, and Waterfalls

We’re used to seeing water as crashing waves or falling droplets but long exposures can create beautiful silky effects. By slowing things down, fast-moving water turns into something much more peaceful.  

Seascapes can turn into minimalist scenes of tranquility while raging waterfalls can appear as wisps of cotton candy.

Exposure of a second or two will soften a fast-moving river enough to create a different texture. A much longer exposure will completely soften water to create that unique silky look.

 Long exposure of a seascape at sunrise
Long exposure of a seascape at sunrise

3. Cityscapes

You can blur the movement of clouds and blur the movement of people, sometimes removing them entirely.

This can be really handy in busy tourist spots.

Sometimes you’ll be left with some translucent ‘ghosts’ in the scene as people walk around. This can add a wonderful sense of movement to your images without being intrusive.

Long exposure ghosting + camera shake
Long exposure ghosting + camera shake yield this amazing effect

4. Light Trails

What appears to our eyes as a single light source becomes a light trail when you leave the shutter open for longer. 

If you can find a suitable vantage point, it’s fun to photograph the trails created by passing traffic. Try to find a spot where you can create some shape from these trails. For example, a bend in the road or a nearby landmark. These can add a lot to your composition.

Light trails photography over a bridge
Light trails photography over a bridge

5. Star trails

Of course, nature provides its own light sources – the myriad of stars above our heads.  

Although the stars appear as pinpoints of light to our eyes, they turn into lines when you shoot at slower shutter speeds, as the earth rotates in the sky.  

To capture star trails,

  1. Pick a clear night
  2. Aim your camera towards the north star
  3. Leave the shutter open for a period of several minutes.

You will find the stars form circular trails around the north star.  You can leave your shutter open for an hour to capture a complete circuit of the stars, or even for as long as the battery power lasts.

Pro Tip: The only downside of this method is the risk of increased noise in your images as your camera sensor heats up.  One trick to avoid this is to shoot a series of shorter exposures and composite them into one image later.

This image is created by stacking together a few forty-second exposures to create star trails in the sky. If you’re not confident with Photoshop, fear not, as there’s a free app available from to stack your images. It’s very easy to use.

6. Light painting

Light painting is an excellent way to practice your long exposure photography.

All you need is a light source – perhaps a torch or some colored glowsticks – and some creativity.  

Set your camera up on a tripod in a dark space, open the shutter for a minute and go to town, literally drawing with the light.  As long as you keep moving, your body won’t register on the camera’s sensor but every movement of your light source will. 

If you want some inspiration, do take a look at Andrew Whyte’s website.  Andrew specializes in this sort of photography and his level of creativity is amazing!

One of my attempts at light painting – using a combination of flash and a light wand.
Photo by Helen Hooker

About the author

Helen Hooker

Helen Hooker is a musician and photographer based in the UK. Helen has been photoblogging every single day since November 2008 and has a particular passion for architectural and wildlife photography.

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