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Long Exposure Photography: 8 Questions Answered

You've seen the smooth sea shots and cascading waterfalls turned into blurry, almost smoke-like water and quite fancy a go but aren't sure how to go about it? Don't worry; we've got you sorted.

|  Landscape and Travel
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Seascape with slow shutter speed



Using long exposure can create some cracking shots when used correctly but the smooth, almost dry-ice look using longer shutter speeds gives to water isn't everyone's cup of tea or idea of fun when they're heading off for a day of photography outdoors. So, if you've never tried this technique before and are wondering if it's for you, have a think about the following questions to help you decide.


1. Are you a fan of the outdoors?

This technique is all about leaving the shutter open long enough to turn movement into creative streaks and blur to give you a landscape with an almost graphical twist. For this reason, many types of these shots are taken where there's a wide expanse of water (the coast mainly) but you can also capture inland landscapes when you have a sky dotted with clouds or scenes with waterfalls that can add a feeling of movement and direction to the shot when taken with longer shutter speeds. The coast does give you many other still objects you can use to guide the eye and add interest to your shots though. Think tall piers sat in a mist of water, rocks adding foreground interest and several groynes or even a jetty leading the eye.

If you prefer city shooting, you can use the same technique to create streaks of colour from traffic.


2. Do you have a tripod?

If the answer to this is 'no' and you don't intend purchasing one anytime soon then long exposure photography isn't for you. Why? Well, with exposures in access of 30 seconds, these types of images aren't something you can really successfully take hand-held as shake will just ruin your shots.


3. Do you have a remote / cable release?

This isn't as important as owning a tripod but owning and using one will mean you don't have to actually touch the camera's shutter button, reducing the chances of shake spoiling the shot. However, if you want to use your camera's Bulb mode, you really need to have a remote / cable release in your kit collection. If you have a camera you've purchased more recently then it may have the option for the shutter to be controlled via an app from your Smartphone, eliminating the need for a remote to be purchased.


4. Do you have an ND filter?

To get the really long exposures, particularly when working out of the hours of dawn and dusk, you'll need an ND filter. These come in various strengths and will extend your shutter speeds to the length needed for capturing silk-like water and clouds streaked across the sky.

If you don't own an ND filter but do have a polariser you can still try this technique but you'll have to do it at the start or end of the day when light levels are lower. You'll also need to use a low ISO and keep your apertures small.

Polarising filter can work if just starting out or shoot at dusk with a low ISO and narrow aperture.


Selwick Bay


5. Do you have patience?

This technique isn't for someone who likes to take a quick snap and move onto the next thing as you will end up standing around for a while waiting for your camera to capture and process the image. With exposure times that can often extend well beyond a minute, you can find yourself twiddling your thumbs quite a lot of the time. However, if you enjoy quiet moments of contemplation or just like to watch the world go by, then maybe playing around with longer shutter speeds is for you.


6. Do you have an eye for composition?

When working with longer shutter speeds, landscape scenes can often take on a more graphical feel/composition and you have to ensure there are elements in the frame which will show movement as well as items to guide the eye and add balance. Without clouds moving across the sky or some form of water element, there won't be any movement which when combined with a slower shutter speed is what gives you the nice streaks and soft, blurry water effect.


7. Do you mind working out calculations?

Although this statement isn't relevant to everyone any more, if you don't own a smartphone or forget to take it out with you, you'll find yourself scribbling down shutter speed calculations when working with Bulb mode. So, if you're not a fan of maths, you'll need to invest in one of the many apps that will work out calculations for you.


8. Do you have Live View?

Cameras that have a Live View function make the set-up for this technique much simpler as it often still works even with a strong ND filter attached to your lens. If you look through a viewfinder with an ND filter attached you won't be able to see anything which means to set-up, you have to remove the filter to compose and focus (manually) before carefully fitting the filter back in-place which is obviously doable but not as straightforward as using Live View.  


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14 Aug 2015 7:51PM
mduggan 15 2 United Kingdom
16 Aug 2017 8:46PM

Taken with an infra-red filter , 30 sec exposure, and converted in lightroom
mduggan 15 2 United Kingdom
16 Aug 2017 9:05PM

Lee Abbey, North Devon, Infra-red, 30 sec exp. converted in lightroom
altitude50 18 23.0k United Kingdom
14 Aug 2020 11:28AM
If using a ND filter, it is good advice to set up the shot then cover the viewfinder before operating the shutter to prevent light leaking in & ruining the shot.
altitude50 18 23.0k United Kingdom
14 Aug 2020 3:52PM
Another thought. An enemy of long exposure landscapes is the wind. The long exposures that I took at Durdle Door with 10x filters were taken in very windy conditions with a very heavy tripod. The results can, I think be seen in all of the long exposure images as a lack of clarity..
If possible use the tripod in it's shortest extension, and remove the camera strap or hold it loose to prevent it flapping against the legs of the tripod. This was taken at 63 seconds.............

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