The secrets to great long exposure photography

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I remember the first time I saw an image captured using the long exposure photography technique. It blew me away. The skies were stretched across the sky and the water as soft as silk. How was it even possible?

Little did I know that this technique would become a game changer for me. Not only did learning this technique help me understand the fundamental camera settings, it helped develop my creative vision.

A decade later I’m still fascinated with long exposure photography. My approach has changed during the years but it’s still part of who I am.

It’s fair to say that there’s been many ups and downs during these years. From learning the very basics to tackling more complex and creative approaches. Many lessons are learned the hard way and that’s part of what I want to help you avoid.

So, read on and I’ll tell you the secrets of great long exposure photography.

The story comes first

It’s easy to get carried away when first getting started with long exposure photography. The only thing that matters is creating some amazing-looking effects by blurring the water or stretching the skies.

This might be a good way to learn but if you really want to improve your craft, you need to remember that the story comes first.

That means you need to focus on creating a solid composition. Use the elements around you to guide the viewer through the frame and towards the hero subject. Even if the main subject is the stretched sky or silky water.

An image with just a long exposure effect and a colorful sky might get you a few likes online but taking the extra step of incorporating those elements into a good composition will make the image stand out even more.

Small adjustments make big differences

When it comes to long exposure photography, even small adjustments to the shutter speed make a significant difference. In fact, it can completely change the visual impact of an image.

Let’s look at an example:

These two images have the exact same image and are taken only minutes apart. Yet, there’s a significant difference between them. They tell two different stories.

I’m not saying one is more correct than the other but it’s important that you understand how much of a difference the shutter speed makes. In this case, the first image is taken using a 1/5th of a second shutter speed while the second at 10 seconds.

Images with faster moving elements will see an even bigger difference.

The beauty of long exposure photography is that there’s no correct choice of shutter speed. Be it 1 second, 10 seconds, 100 seconds, or more. They can all lead to amazing images.

Your job as the photographer is to figure out which does the best job of conveying your vision.

Neutral Density filters play an important role

I’ve never been one to focus my teaching too much on the camera equipment but it’s hard to avoid Neutral Density filters when talking about long exposure photography. They’re essential.

Yes, there are a few hacks to create similar effects without them but most of them require a fair bit more effort.

The first filter I purchased was a basic filter from the nearest electronic shop. It was cheap and I thought it would make my images great but it didn’t. Turns out there’s a whole range of filters that all have a different impact on the camera settings.

It wasn’t until learning about this and doing some proper research on filters that I actually started benefiting from them. The filters you want aren’t as affordable as the basic electronic shop options but they are required in order to achieve the long exposure looks.

Not every image benefits a long exposure

This is hard to remember in the beginning. It’s such a fun technique to play with so, of course, you want to use it all the time. We’ve all been there.

But the harsh truth is that not every image benefit from a slow shutter speed. Some images won’t even see the difference.

Take the image below as an example. This was shot using a 1/13th second shutter speed. It would’ve made little difference if it was shot at 1/200th or 5 seconds instead.

There were no clouds, no wind, and no moving elements in the frame. In other words, nothing that would be affected by a slow shutter speed. The only difference would’ve been the time it took me to capture the image.

So, ask yourself this before mounting the filters and lengthening the exposure time: what will be affected by the technique?

Long exposure photography is in many ways a slow-pace genre. There’s a lot of waiting, especially when dealing with shutter speeds of several minutes.

However, you need to be prepared when the conditions are improving. A lot happens in a span of a few minutes during a sunrise or sunset. The last thing you want is to miss the good light because you were unprepared.

So, how can you best prepare yourself?

Start by leaving the filters in your camera bag. This should be in good time before the best conditions are expected to be. Now, set up your composition, take test shots, and adjust. Repeat this until you’re satisfied.

Now you’re ready to start thinking about your long exposure. Do the exposure calculations, switch to manual focus, mount the filters and take a test shot. Make adjustments if needed, or wait until the conditions are better.

Keep in mind that you need to make adjustments to the camera settings when it’s getting brighter or darker. That’s why you should always keep an eye on the image preview.

Long exposure photography is rewarding in so many ways. It’s a fun technique to work with, it forces you to learn the camera settings, it helps your creative growth, and it results in amazing images.

Enjoy the process and take the time to go out playing around with the technique. The more time you spend in the field, the easier it becomes. But remember to enjoy the process!

About the Author

Christian Hoiberg is a full-time landscape photographer who helps aspiring photographers develop the skills needed to capture beautiful and impactful images. You can see more of his work on his websiteInstagram, and Facebook page. You can download his free guide 30 Tips to Improve Your Landscape Photography here. Make sure to also check out his eBook ‘The Ultimate Guide to Long Exposure Photography” which will teach you all the essentials of capturing beautiful images with a slow shutter speed.

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