You’ll see amazing long exposure images like the one above all over the internet. You may be wondering how you could possibly create something as beautiful, but it’s actually easier than you think. In this article we’re going to look at the techniques and tips to help you create your first long exposure masterpiece.

Although you can do long exposure shots in the studio, it’s the perfect partner for landscape shots, especially seascapes, cloudscapes and rivers. Don’t just grab your camera and head out, though. There are a few things you need to do to help you get the best images you can.

Weather

Landscape photographers often find themselves at the mercy of the weather, so a bit of planning before you go out to shoot will save you disappointment.

Check the local weather for the location you wish to go and shoot at for the day you plan to go. If you want to capture the cloud movement, the ideal conditions are lots of clouds and a wind to move them with. If you shoot clouds at sunset/sunrise, the low sun will add contrast to the clouds, creating a streaked effect in your final image.

You will find it difficult to take long exposure shots in windy conditions, as the gusts will shake your tripod. Some photographers add weight to their tripods in windy conditions, such as heavy sandbags, but you have to take into account carrying that extra weight from the car to your location. You can also balance a beanbag filled with rice or something similar on top of your camera to help add more stability.

Location Scouting

Long exposure shooting locations should be planned in advance. You’ll likely want to go and visit the scene, and start planning compositions in your head. Try and imagine what the scene will look like as a long exposure. Also see how busy the area is at the time of day you plan to go. It would be frustrating to set up the perfect shot, just to find a crowd of hikers walking into the middle of it.

Use a Tripod

This is essential, as you will be using a slow shutter speed, and attempting to hand-hold the camera for that length of time will result in a blurry shot. Your tripod needs to be sturdy and on even ground, as you will often use exposures of up to a couple of minutes. Any tiny shake will ruin your shot.

When you reach your chosen scene, set your tripod up with the camera on, and anything else you may be using, such as a shutter release cable. Shutter release cables are another essential If you have drop-in filters rather than screw-on ones, set up your filter holder, but don’t add a filter at this stage.

Compose Your Image

Take your time to get your framing and composition exactly how you want. Take a few test shots to see if you like what you’re shooting. Focus on your subject, and lock your focus. If you are using manual focus already, you don’t need to lock it. If you’re using autofocus, focus by pressing your shutter button down halfway until your camera beeps to tell you it has focused, (if you’re using Canon) then with the button still held halfway, change the switch on your lens to manual. Your camera will now maintain the focus, or you could try ‘back button focusing’ as an alternative.

Setting the Exposure

You can set your camera to fully manual mode if you’re happy with this, or to Aperture Priority mode. Set your aperture to an appropriate one for the scene, probably from f/8 upwards, depending on what you prefer.

Take another test shot. This will show your exposure, and how far off you are by looking at the histogram. You can also set up the highlight and shadow warning on your camera, which will tell you when your highlights are blown out, or your shadows are too dark. It does this by coloring the danger areas on the image you’ve just taken, and they flash on and off. Overexposed highlights flash bright red, and underexposed shadows flash bright blue. To put this function on your camera, you’ll need to explore the menu and enable it.

Adjust your settings and take as many test shots as you need to get the exposure you want. Once you find the right settings, write them down.

Adding a Filter

Do you really need one? Yes, if you want to get serious about shooting landscapes. I wrote an article earlier in the series about the different types of filter you can get and why you need them. The filter is an important part in getting that silky smooth water, as it allows your shutter to be open for far longer without overexposing your image.

Now is the time to add your filter to the holder, such as a neutral density (ND) filter. If the filter is very strong, you may not be able to see anything through the viewfinder or in live view. This is why you need to set up your composition and focus before adding the filter.

Change Your Camera Settings to Bulb

You’ll find the bulb mode (B) with the other mode settings on your camera, sometimes the symbol is a lightbulb instead. You’ll need to do this in order for your camera to keep the shutter open for over thirty seconds. Don’t change any of the other settings that you used to get your final test shot.

Calculate the Shutter Speed

But you’ve already done that in the test shot, I hear you say. You did, but you’ve since added a darkening filter to the lens, so your original shutter speed will no longer be any good. This is why you wrote it down, so you can do a quick calculation to find the correct amount of time you’ll need the shutter open for.

This is easier than it sounds. You need to compensate by the number of stops that your filter is. If your filter is 10 stops, and your original shutter speed was 1/15th second, you will add ten stops to get the correct exposure with your filter on. This means increasing the shutter speed to around 60 seconds.

If you’re not mathematically gifted, no need to panic. Google for conversion tables to take the pain out of this part of the setup. You can even get apps for your smartphone that will do the converting for you.

Once you’ve done this, adjust your settings and take the shot. 

Check Exposure Again

Now check your histogram again, and see if it’s around the same as the one of the final test shot. If it has shifted too far to the right (overexposed) or too far to the left, (underexposed) adjust your shutter speed accordingly and try again.

Noise Problems

Even at the lowest ISO, very long exposures can suffer from noise like ‘hot pixels’. When you view the image on your computer screen at 100%, you may find quite a few bright blue/red/green pixels in your image.

A way to fix this is to take an exposure of identical length at the same ISO, but with your lens cap on. By doing this, you will create a totally black image with exactly the same hot pixels, which you will then use to subtract from your final chosen image in post-processing.

Color Casts

Some brands of filter can leave an obvious color cast on the image, which is a good reason to shoot in RAW format so you can adjust it in post-processing. Sometimes it just isn’t possible to correct the color cast, and often the only way to deal with that is to make a black and white conversion, as long exposures can look good and even more dramatic in black and white.

Final Thoughts

Long exposure photography needs a lot of planning and preparation work, but if you’re prepared to do this you can create stunning images.

Have you tried long exposure photography yet, or are planning to? Let us know about your experiences or tips.

In the next article, we’re going to look at taking images of waterfalls, another area where you can put your long exposure technique to the test.