Ever scrolled through your Instagram feed and noticed some photos that absolutely blew you away? The shot of a waterfall that looked silky smooth in comparison to a typical rushing waterfall. The shot of a city skyline at night that looked like a scene out of a comic book. I can almost guarantee that the shots were long exposure photographs. Allow me to explain what long exposure photography is and better yet, show you how to create some of your own.
What is long exposure?
When you click the shutter button on your camera, a curtain opens and closes over the camera's image sensor. The speed at which the shutter opens and closes over the sensor is one of the camera setting variables that affects how bright (or overexposed) your photo ends up. The slower the shutter speed, the more light hits your image sensor making the final photo super bright and overexposed. With long exposure, the photographer is purposely setting the shutter speed to be slower than usual to capture this excess light.
"But Ant, you just said that too much light will make your final photo appear overexposed and way too bright." Yeah I know, I know. Photographers will use these slower shutter speeds when they're in a low-light scene or have a neutral density filter applied to the lens. This, along with aperture management, will minimize overexposed photos.
How to shoot long exposure
Capturing long exposure images is as easy as flipping a switch. The challenge comes with determining your composition, setting up your camera, and being patient. In addition to the camera, you'll need a tripod and a way to trigger your shutter without touching it. A wired shutter trigger or a wireless one such as this one from Alpine Labs will allow you to remotely click your camera shutter. Pressing your shutter button can cause small vibrations that will ruin the focus and sharpness of your long exposure image. Using a remote shutter eliminates this concern. Once your camera is securely mounted, follow these steps to capture your long exposure photo:
- Put your camera into manual mode and set your shutter speed to a slower setting. I personally start with one-second shutter or as slow as 20-second shutter when I'm shooting a night scene.
- Using your camera's viewfinder, set your camera's focus and lock it manually.
- Make sure your tripod head is locked into place and safe from tiny vibrations or movements.
- Click the remote shutter.
One of the most important steps is the last one. Wait. If your shutter speed is set to a something slower than one second, it's easy to get impatient during the exposure process. Don't touch your camera until you hear your shutter close! ANY movement of the camera while the shutter is open will affect the image with unwanted blurriness.
Note: Yes there are some artistic ways to use camera movement during long exposure photography, but I'll share those tips later.
As you're shooting, know that camera's sensor is soaking up as much light as possible and creating a beautiful photo that captures not only the highlights of the scene, but shadows and fill light, making your final image glow with color and life.
Here's a shutter slowed to ½ second. It's still rather dark and not able to capture details.
Here's a three-second shutter speed. More detail and clarity for sure.
If you'd like to capture light streaks, use a slow shutter speed near moving objects such as automobile tail lights. SAFELY set your camera and tripod, line up your shot, and click the shutter for a 10-second exposure. In this photo, I was safely on the sidewalk of downtown Charlotte, NC. This allowed me to capture the cars going down the street, leaving nothing but a red streak of light in my camera's field of view.
Here's another example. Grab a neutral density lens filter and take photos of a local stream during broad daylight to get a silky smooth stream of water.
All these images did have post processing in my favorite photo editing apps to some degree. Your experience may vary as the photo depends on the shutter speed, the scene, ISO, and your editing preference.
Share your work
Give long exposure photography a try. Be sure to discuss the results with fellow TechRepublic members here in the comments. And feel free to tag me on Twitter or Instagram with some of your favorite long exposure photos. I look forward to seeing them.
Ant Pruitt is an IT Support Professional with a passion for showing the non-geek how great technology can be. He writes for a variety of tech publications and hosts his own podcast. Ant is also an avid photographer and weight lifter.