What's A Long Exposure?
Generally used in low light situations, long exposures keep your camera's shutter open for longer so more light can reach its sensor. If you're working when there's too much light around you can slow your shutter speeds down by fitting an ND filter to the front of your lens.
You will need a tripod when using longer exposure times as working hand-held will more than likely result in shake spoiling your shots.
Before you open your shutter, make sure your battery has plenty of charge as you don't want to get half way through an exposure to find your camera's no longer alive.
When And Where To Use Long Exposures
There are various practical as well as artistic reasons for using longer exposures but for this article our focus will be on using them to create more aesthetically pleasing, memorable shot.
We know it's something that's overdone but it's popularity means it's something we can't ignore when talking about long exposures.
The slower the shutter speed, the more blur / softer the water's movement will be. The speed you need will change depending on how much blur you want, how much water there is and the distance between the camera and your subject.
Remember to meter carefully as large areas of light tones can fool the camera into underexposing your shot and slow shutter speeds will blur anything that moves not just water. To combat this, try taking two shots: one with the slower shutter speed then the other with a speed that will freeze movement. You can then combine these in editing software such as Photoshop. You may also need to cover your eyepiece up to stop light flowing through it spoiling your shot.
Take a look at this tutorial for tips on using long exposures at the coast: Coastal Photography
Spooky, Atmospheric Shots
If the sea's choppy or you're out on a misty morning you can use long exposures to capture the movement of the waves and mist. Both will turn into a white, smooth blanket that circles any still objects it's close to. It can help create an eerie atmosphere that works just as well by the sea as it does in a graveyard or in the woods.
Not many of us get the chance to capture the Northern Lights however, if the opportunity does arise, long exposures or even a camera with a Bulb setting so you can keep the shutter open for as long as you see fit would be handy. By using longer exposure times you'll be able to capture some foreground detail in your shots which will add scale to your shot and really emphasis how big the aurora display really is.
Give A City Shot More Interest
The short days we have at the moment make it the perfect time to shoot some night shots in the city. Buildings dotted with lights and neon shop signs decorating the streets look good on their own but to add even more interest, use long shutter speeds to blur any moving subjects with lights in to streaks of colour. It can work well with those giant wheels many cities now have as the white lights will be blurred into a circle of white light while its surroundings will remain static. Near round-a-bouts or in busy, built up areas set up near or above a road to turn traffic invisible, leaving their lights as streaks of colour that circle the buildings near by.
If you're in an area with lots of people you can use long exposures to 'hide' distracting crowds of passing people as their movement will mean they're not captured in your frame (unless they stop walking of course). 10-30 second exposure will capture the light trails but if you want longer shutter speeds, use the B setting. Use a remote trigger, cable release or self-timer to fire the shutter to minimise shake and use a small aperture to give you front to back sharpness.
We know that stars, the moon and clouds move but have you ever thought about recording their movement? Long exposures mean you can capture star trails as the move across the night sky and turn white, dots of clouds into long fluffy lines sat against a blue sky. You can also do the same with storm clouds as they darken and approach from the horizon.
For tips on capturing star trails, have a look at these tutorials:
Paint A Scene With Light
Torches, LEDS, sparklers and even the light from your phone can be used as a 'brush' to paint lines of colour into a scene. You can use the light streaks on their own, writing or drawing images against dark backgrounds or you can use them to add an extra level of interest to a night time scene. You can paint colour onto static objects, drawing the eye to them as a result or you can add light-painted objects and shapes, such as stick men, to your scene.
For more tips on light-painting, have a look at these tutorials:
Updated Jan 2014