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How to shoot long exposure photographs

A beginners tutorial to the technique and kit

Long exposure photography is simply a process of ensuring that the camera shutter stays open for a long period of time ensuring that moving objects are ‘blurred’ on the final image. This is done by restricting the amount of light passed through the lens, thus increasing the amount of time the shutter needs to be open.

There is nothing overly complex about doing this photographic technique. However, there can be a certain amount of trial and error in terms of the length of time required. This is mainly due to changing light conditions particularly outside in situations such as landscape photography.

Photograph taken without filters on camera
Photograph taken with filters on camera

Here’s a quick beginner’s guide, this is how I set up for long exposure photography and therefore these are purely my opinions and personal techniques, there’s a wealth of additional expert reading to be had on this subject! For my particular style, I tend to stack two or even three filters together to give a very long exposure of over 5 minutes. So I may have a 10 Stop filter and 3 Stop filter stacked together, sometimes with an additional ND Graduated filter which all reduce the light going through the lens.

If you are a beginner, this quick guide should give you enough information to get started without worrying too much about metering, white balance and other more advanced techniques, it’s all about having fun with your camera, and picking up the more advanced techniques as you progress, if you worry too much about those things at the start, it will either put you off or you’ll never get out there and experiment in the first place! Remember, everybody has to start somewhere and find their own way.


Step 1 - Make sure you’ve got the appropriate kit

Obviously long exposure photography isn’t a hand held technique, unless you’ve got nerves of steel! You need a sturdy tripod, possibly one with a hook to weigh it down in windy conditions.

Lee Slide in Filters
Lee filter holder

Essential items include a remote shutter cable release system. You will need a ‘filter’ system, which vary greatly in cost. I prefer using the Lee Filter System which consists primarily of an adapter ring which screws onto the camera lens and a filter ‘holder’ system. I have mine set up to hold three filters. These are a Lee Big Stopper Neutral Density Filter, which reduces the amount of light reaching the lens by 10 Stops, I also use a Lee 0.9 Neutral Density Standard Filter, which reduces light by 3 Stops and a Lee 0.6 Neutral Density Graduated Hard Edge Filter which helps balance the light out on landscapes between a bright sky and the land beneath the horizon line. There are plenty of other great kits out there such as Cokin Filters, and there are of course, cheaper ‘screw on’ filters available. If you are just starting out down this road, I would recommend starting off with the cheaper systems to ensure you (a) like the technique and (b) get used to working with filters and analysing the results. As you get better, you can move up to the more expensive systems. Just be aware that most filters do give some form of colour cast to your images, these can of course be corrected in post production or can be left as shot to show off your artistic licence! You will also need a conversion guide to work out the exposure times, most filter systems come with one, or there are numerous smartphone apps to help you with this. And finally, you’ll need a fair chunk of patience!


Step 2 - Find a scene that will benefit the long exposure technique

You need to find a scene that will benefit in some way from the long exposure technique. Examples of this that work well are moving water on lakes and the sea, cloudy skies, waterfalls or the obvious one, car light trails!

Scene set up without filters on camera
Scene set up with filters on camera

This technique can give rise to some really effective images, transforming a skyline or seascape into a pleasing photograph that draws in the viewer’s attention. If you can, try to imagine what the scene would look like before and after you take a long exposure photograph. It might help you decide if you’re in the right spot. Look at examples on the internet, or in the photograph gallery here before you set out. Then begin to work your scene, don’t worry about setting up on a tripod at this stage, move around a bit, take a few test shots to get the best composition, you can always delete them before you take your preferred photograph! Once you have a prime location that you’re happy with, you’re ready to set up and shoot.


Step 3 - Set up the camera for a pre shot

OK so you’ve found the perfect composition, you’ve checked the foreground and there’s no litter or spurious objects on the floor like your camera bag that will detract from the finished image and you’re happy nobody is going to walk directly in front of you and send their dog clattering into your tripod! And believe me, it happens.

Crummock Water rocks
Thirlmere Lake waterfall

Set up the tripod at the right height and fix your camera on it. Plug in your remote shutter release system. If you’re using a filter system, get the adapter ring on and the holder in place. If you’re just starting out and using a screw on filter ensure you’ve got it all to hand as time is a factor here! Set your camera to shoot RAW, this in my opinion, gives you more flexibility in post production. Set your camera to Aperture Priority (Av) Mode. Set your ‘Scene Select’ to Landscape if that’s what you’re shooting! Leave the camera Auto Focus set to ‘On’, you can leave the Image Stabilizer set to ‘On’ for now, although if it’s on a tripod it’s not necessary, you need to switch these both to off in the next step. Set your Aperture to suit the scene, maybe f11 to f16 for landscape, but you’ll have to be the judge of that based on what you’re shooting and what you want in focus. Again this is a huge topic so don’t get overly worried if you’re experimenting at the start! Try to get your ISO setting to 100, the less noise the better, although again this is somewhat flexible with the quality of digital cameras today. Take a shot and record the shutter speed. Check your histogram to ensure you’ve got the best possible exposure and alter your exposure shift accordingly to adjust if it’s too dark or too light. Again, because of the changing light conditions outside this can be affected during long exposures particularly when they are very long. If you’re happy with everything, you’re ready to take your long exposure photograph.


Step 4 - Set up the camera for the shot

Check your exposure conversion table, or smartphone app to calculate the new shutter speed, or the time you want to hold the remote shutter release system open.

Camera filter shutter speed conversion chart - Lee Big Stopper
Camera filter shutter speed conversion chart

Set the camera to Bulb / Manual mode. Switch the Auto Focus to ‘Off’, Switch the Image Stabilizer to ‘Off’. If your camera has ‘Mirror Lock Up’, turn that ‘On’, although again, if you’re just starting out its not absolutely necessary. And during all this – be careful not to move the camera, lens or tripod! Ensure you’ve got the same Aperture as before and exposure compensation settings. Then drop in your filters into the holder or screw them on depending on which type you’re using. Press the remote shutter release, keep your fingers crossed and hold your breath, unless of course it’s a 5 minute exposure!


Step 5 - Check your results

So the shot is done, the camera is processing the image, and you hope it’s turned out well. You check the histogram, the shot looks ‘blown out’ or it’s way too dark. Something’s gone wrong, don’t panic!

Camera histogram graph - showing under exposed shot
Camera histogram graph - showing over exposed shot
Camera histogram graph - showing well exposed shot
Grasmere lake logs

Light conditions can change dramatically outside during a long exposure shot. You’ve got two options. Remove the filters and begin the set up again, or make a judgement based on the lighting and timing – if it’s too dark, leave the camera as it is and increase the exposure time on your next shot, if it’s blown out, reduce the exposure time. Then simply take the shot again. It’s all about experience and experimenting with your own kit. You’ll gradually get a feel for what you need to do, the conversion tables give you a ‘perfect world’ calculation – but that’s very rarely the case outside with long exposure. Stick at it, and I guarantee within 1 to 3 shots you’ll have an image that will be absolutely stunning!


Step 6 - Post processing before final output

There are plenty of post production software programs available; your camera should have come with its own CD with the manufacturer’s version on it. My preference is Adobe Lightroom. There are also Adobe Elements and the flagship Adobe Photoshop, which I have been using for over 25 Years.

Adobe Lightroom - Catalogue
Adobe Lightroom - Post Processing

I find Adobe Lightroom better for post production in photography as it obviously catalogue’s your files, which Photoshop doesn’t unless you use Adobe Bridge, and it just seems more geared to adjustments rather than retouching, compositing and the more creative side of image manipulation as Photoshop does expertly. I sometimes use Photoshop to ‘clean up’ although Lightroom also has this function to some degree. But these are my preferences, all come at a certain level of cost and there are a multitude of other software packages out there that are equally as good, it’s about finding the right one, at the right budget for you. So, in post processing, you need to find the shot you liked the best and came out the most promising in terms of tonal range, if you’ve shot in RAW you can make any necessary adjustments, within reason, to enhance the image. Exposure, colour, or black and white conversions are all available along with many other fine tuning and colour alteration functions. You can also be quite creative in post processing if you don’t want a ‘true to life’ representation, it’s all about what’s pleasing to your eye and finding a style you are happy with, unless of course it’s commercial photography, in which case it’s about pleasing your client and their customers! Once you’re happy with your image, crop it to size, print it off, frame it up, and get it on your wall for all to see!


"Stunning work you have done here Marcus, love how you play with the contrast in your processing to bring out every detail. Nicely done."
Eduardo L
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