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Long Exposure Photography: Materials and Setup

Updated on August 27, 2013

Capturing the movement and energy of a place can be tricky. Long exposure photography gives you the ability to smooth out motion and capture moments longer than split seconds, bringing a greater depth to your photographs and adding a certain oomph to landscapes.

What is Long Exposure Photography

Long exposure photography (sometimes called Time-exposure photography) is changing the shutter speed of your camera take a photograph over a long period of time. This can range from a second, to three seconds, all the way up to thirty seconds. You can even combine shots taken and merge them together to create an even longer exposure.

Some very common examples of long exposure shots are waterfalls, creeks, oceans and clouds. No doubt you've seen a landscape photograph before where the movement of water or the sky was blurred.

Classic Long Exposure Example

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A shot of the river, using a fast shutter speed.A shot of the river, using a slow shutter speed (long exposure).An example of a slow shutter speed handheld.
A shot of the river, using a fast shutter speed.
A shot of the river, using a fast shutter speed. | Source
A shot of the river, using a slow shutter speed (long exposure).
A shot of the river, using a slow shutter speed (long exposure). | Source
An example of a slow shutter speed handheld.
An example of a slow shutter speed handheld. | Source

Essential Gear for Long Exposure Photography

In order to start long exposure photography, you'll need a couple items. I've linked a couple of the items that I've been using for my shots off to the side.

My Long Exposure Gear

  • Canon T3i with Rokinon 35mm, Cine-lens (Declicked)
  • Old metal tripod (vintage, found at a garage sale)
  • Cokin-P filter system with various ND filters
  • Canon remote (cheap one from China)

Setting up a Long Exposure Shot

The basic set up for a long exposure isn't hard at all. All you really have to do is find a good composition for your shot and make sure that you're tripod is secure and stable. Then you'll need to adjust your settings and move your f-stop down to find the correct adjustment for your exposure.

Since you'll be using a slow shutter speed, there will be more light that is sent to your camera so you need to stop down your camera (or lower the aperture) to prevent your photo from being overblown. The best way to figure this out and wrap your head around it is just to go out and do it. Try to see how lowering the aperture and ISO affect the amount of light and exposure of your photograph.

  1. Camera w/adjustable shutter speed and manual controls.
  2. Neutral Density filters - The exception is if you're doing star trails or other long exposures at night. For more information on how to use ND filters, you can read my Neutral Density Filters and Why They're Important hub.
  3. Tripod - A sturdy tripod will help keep the movement out of your photo. You don't want your tripod to move during the exposure. If you have a lighter, cheaper tripod, a sandbag can help anchor down and add weight to your tripod.
  4. Remote or an Off Camera Shutter Release (optional) - While this isn't a complete nessecity, it is helpful so you don't have to keep your finger on the button while you're taking your long exposure A simple remote is all that you need. The movement of your finger pushing the shutter button can lead to movement in your exposure, so do eliminate this
  5. Low Aperture Lens (highly recommended, but optional) - Having a low light lens is helpful because it reduces the amount of filter you have to use in order to get a good exposure. If you have higher quality filters, this isn't as much of a problem. Lower quality ND filters may lead to less sharp images, especially if you end up having to stack a couple of them in order to get a good exposure. If you can, manual lenses make life a little easier because you can adjust the aperture without having to navigate through menus.

Long exposure can be subtle, as well as dramatic.
Long exposure can be subtle, as well as dramatic. | Source
Adjusting the aperture and settings for the perfect exposure.
Adjusting the aperture and settings for the perfect exposure. | Source

Basic Steps for Long Exposure

  1. Pick a location and composition that you like. Make sure your camera and tripod are securing from moving.
  2. Frame your shot and adjust your focus.
  3. Step down your aperture settings to see how many ND filters you'll have to use, if any. A rough guess is fine.
  4. Take a test shot and readjust your settings and add filters are necessary.

Long exposure is a lot of experimentation to get the right settings. The more you do it, the less time it will take to set up your shot correctly. Here's a quick example of my process of adjusting my settings for the right exposure.

Things to Be Aware of with Long Exposure Photography

After fiddling around with long exposure, there are a couple things that I always try to be aware of with my shots. I'm still in the experimentation phase myself, but these tips should help steer someone else in the right direction for getting some good shots.

  • Be aware of the movement in the scene. If you have a strong foreground element, like a blade of grass or something that wind could move throughout your exposure, try to choose a location that is protected from the wind. This will prevent unwanted blurring in the foreground, unless it's your intention of course.
  • Using cheap ND filters is not a crime. It allows you to get a handle on your equipment before shelling out for higher quality equipment. If you don't see a problem with the gear you're using, just enjoy what you have.
  • Experiment and try compositions and scenes that you don't think would work. You'll learn from the different settings and become a better photographer.
  • Pick a subject that has a sharp focal point, and make sure that it doesn't move. A good example is a strong tree branch or a rock. This will make sure that there is something that will help you focus on your composition and allow the blurring of movement to contrast against.
  • Always take multiple shots of the same location with different exposures, especially if you have a hard time seeing your shot on your LCD screen. You never know when you may have overexposed or underexposed and you don't want to potentially lose a great photograph. I always shoot for underexposing if I'm unsure. That way I can fix it in post production, whereas overexposing will result in a loss of detail in your shots. Taking multiple shots also gives you variations with how the motion looks.

Different Subjects for Long Exposure Photography

A great site to see some different long exposure photography is on the Colossal Art Blog. Here you can see long exposures of planes taking off, night traffic, fireflies, waterfalls and all other sorts of subjects. The blog in general is an amazing source of inspiration.

A short list of Long Exposure Subjects and Uses

  • smoothing out clouds in landscapes

Long Exposure Photography Demonstration

A look at long exposure photography as it's shot. It's a fun, interesting way to see some different uses for long exposure other than blurring clouds and smoothing water movement.

  • blending water in rivers, creeks and oceans (also very helpful for creating a mist or atmosphere of a subject.)
  • capturing the movement of stars at night and taking photographs of stars
  • documenting the movement and path of people walking in different places
  • car tail lights and headlights, the motion and pathways of vehicles
  • blurring the the motion of fire
  • dances and capturing the movement of the human body
  • fireworks and smoke trails
  • Rain, snow, hail and thunderstorms

Go Out and Try Long Exposure!

If any of this seems exciting or new and you want to give long exposure a shot, go for it! Use whatever equipment you have. You don't need to worry about going out and buying the most expensive gear in order to have fun and get good shots.

You'll probably need a little practice in the beginning with knowing what setting to adjust, but the more you take long exposure shots, the better and easier it will become for you.

Inspirational Long Exposure Photography

Click thumbnail to view full-size

© 2013 Noelle


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    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 

      4 years ago from Essex, UK

      Useful as an article to encourage people to be more creative in their photography. I like the suggestions to experiment with different scenes and different exposures, and I like the varied examples of long exposures in the photos at the end of the article. Certainly long exposures can create some interesting and beautiful images. Alun

    • kerlund74 profile image


      5 years ago from Sweden

      Great hub, i think this is interesting for every photographer, gives more interesting nature photos!

    • noellenichols profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Denver

      Hi Sallybea - Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. Good luck with long exposure photography!

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 

      5 years ago from Norfolk

      Noelle Nichols - Bookmarked this one. I will definitely be coming back to this one. Long exposure is something I have not tried yet but have been longing for an opportunity to do so. Nice one! Thank you for sharing.

      Voted up.


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