Sam Kacey

Sam's expertise is in Landscape, Portrait, and Travel photography. He and his team also review the best Cameras and Lenses on the market in 2022 for B&H Photo.

Long exposure photography gives your snapshots a special effect that’s unlike any other. In fact, the spectacular imagery you can create with this method can take your landscape photography skills to the next level.

It is particularly effective to deploy a long exposure when shooting scenes with moving water – whether it’s ocean waves slamming a rocky shoreline, or a scenic, smooth flowing waterfall over a steep edge. Long exposure photography helps to capture this movement of water in a way that looks magical, mystical, and somewhat mysterious. It’s as though you’ve made time standstill.

3 Keys To Shooting Natural Landscapes

When it comes to landscape photography in general, there are three fundamental keys to achieving superior results from your efforts. These include timing, photographic techniques, and preparation.

Sure, there are those random moments where you just happen to be in the right place at the right time. When that happens, you’re able to capture a stunning visual display with your camera – like having the sun burst through a bunch of tall trees to illuminate a mountain stream below. When that happens it’s a beautiful thing. But any experienced photographer will tell you that those moments are rare. It’s much more prudent to plan your outing, so your chances of being happy with your overall results increase dramatically.

Look For Motion

Wherever there is motion there is an opportunity to use long exposure photography techniques and produce something extra special. Flowing water is a personal favorite of mine. But you can also use this technique to capture the trail of car lights at night zooming down the highway, or actions shots during a game or other sporting events. You could even use long exposure photography during a live theater production, ballet, or gymnastics performance.

When you’re able to blur the motion, you can create amazing photographic images. It makes the objects of these images appear to be blurred, almost as though they were moving in slow motion. And the secret to creating this effect is to use a slower shutter speed on your camera. It’s not difficult to achieve when you know-how and you have the right equipment.

Practice Leads To Improvement

To get good results with long exposure photography takes some experience. In other words, practice it until you begin getting the results you want. You will have to tweak your camera settings and get comfortable with the process. And it certainly helps if you have the right equipment like a tripod and remote. But you and your friends will be amazed at the creative and original shots you come up with.

As you become more skilled at this process, you’ll love to deploy long exposure photography more frequently. You’ve got to get comfortable with technology built into your camera, regardless of the model you own. And you’ve got to be willing to experiment and push the envelope. That’s how stunning photos are generated.

Exposure Is The Key

How dark or bright the objects in your photograph appear is determined by the exposure. An image that is underexposed is too dark, while an overexposed image is too bright. Ideally, you want the perfect amount of light at the moment of truth to create an excellent photograph. Combining the light and shutter speed at just the right levels is what produces that magical special effect of long exposure photography.

The fundamentals of long exposure photography are pretty straightforward. It involves adjusting your camera settings, using some additional equipment, and choosing the right subject matter to shoot.

Mirrorless cameras are one of the easiest cameras for taking long exposure photos. We recommend these five mirrorless cameras for long-exposure photography and they are all around $500.

3 Things That Impact Exposure

The three primary elements that control the exposure of your camera are the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. It’s all about light hitting the sensor (the aperture)… how long the shutter remains open (shutter speed) and the degree of sensitivity of the sensor (the ISO) camera setting. All three are interrelated. When you change one setting, invariably it requires adjusting the other settings to accommodate.

It sounds complicated and it can be, particularly for anyone new to the hobby. But experimentation and patience are required. Practice it and try to enjoy the process because it’s helping make you a better photographer. The more you do it – the better you’ll get at adjusting those settings and this will be reflected in the quality of your work.

It’s Worth Learning To Do It Correctly

It’s worth the effort because long exposure photography can breathe emotion into your images. The result seems radically different from most still images. Long Exposure shots are magical and mystical. This process creates a fairytale like effect that can add whimsical charm to any photograph that involves a moving subject. In fact, you just can’t get this kind of special effect any other way.

Normally, it can be helpful to allow the camera to determine the shutter speed – particularly for beginner photographers. In this case, you can set your camera Aperture Priority Mode (A or AV on most cameras). But you also have the option to choose to operate in manual mode – which gives you much more control over the outcome. For landscape photography images, it’s recommended to set the aperture value between F/8 and F/13 for best results. The exposure is established by the value you select. This allows you to override the exposure default settings of your camera.

Slow Shutter Speed

To create a magical long exposure photograph requires a slower shutter speed – approximately half of the second for fast-moving subjects is optimal. But you can experiment to get the results that work best for your intended results. To create that misty appearance on water, you need a long exposure. And the longer it is – the more dramatic the effect.

ISO is the camera setting that brightens or darkens the elements in your image. You may want to keep your ISO setting at 100 to minimize any graininess in the photograph.

Equipment That Makes Your Life a Whole Lot Easier

Setting up your camera on a tripod will ensure that there’s no movement. You might think you’ve got the steadiest hands in the world. But you might be surprised by the improved clarity of your photos shot from a tripod mounted camera.

It’s also a good idea to use a remote to control the shutter release. It just makes your life a whole lot easier. You can focus more on your composition and taking better shots, without having to have your eye next to the viewfinder and your fidgeting fingers creating unwanted vibration.

I’d even go as far as to suggest that a tripod and remote or cable release are both essential pieces of equipment for any serious photographer. They’re relatively easy to pack up and take with you wherever you go. And these tools provide that essential stability and portability when you’re out and about trying to capture some beautiful snapshots.

This Will Help Too

Consider picking up a Neutral Density (ND) Filter. This is another key piece of equipment you want to acquire if you don’t already have one. And if you have one – consider getting another that is either lighter or darker tint. A neutral density filter is a darkened glass filter that connects to the lens, reducing the amount of light that reaches the shutter.

If you’re shooting at night, you don’t require a neutral density filter. When you shoot during the day, if you’re using a filter, remember to switch your camera to manual mode. This prevents the camera from trying to autofocus (AF) and it gives you total control, which can take some getting used to.

Early Mornings Work Best

The best time to create your long exposure photography is early in the morning. Sunrise provides some of the best opportunities for fresh shots that are crystal clear. Contrasts are less harsh and dramatic and shadows seem to be longer too.

Plan your outing and if possible scout the area in advance. It’s important to be there at the optimal times – to get the best possible shots. Pay attention to the position of the sun and the direction of its natural light. It’s also important to monitor the local weather conditions if you want to produce the best shots. Keeping an eye on the weather forecast is easy to do with various apps that are readily available these days. My personal favorite is AccuWeather – an app that gives you up-to-the-minute reports on a very precise geographic location.

Protect Your Equipment

Oh yes and always be sure to protect your camera and other equipment from the elements. No camera is waterproof. And the more equipment you acquire – the more invested you are in the hobby. Take care of your equipment the way a dedicated mechanic takes care of his tools.

Never try to change your camera lens in the rain. That’s a surefire way to create damage and frustration. Take the time to thoroughly clean your lens well in advance of a planned photoshoot.

You don’t have to be an expert photographer to create long exposure images that are absolutely breathtaking. But it does require some practice and familiarity with the process. Get comfortable with your camera equipment and be willing to acquire any necessary additional tools and accessories for best results.

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