Understanding Long Exposure Photography

6 September 2021

Taking photos in low light conditions or at night can be troublesome at best. Without a flash or additional source of light, you’re looking at underexposed, blurry photos with not much detail. That’s where long exposure photography steps in. Selecting a lower shutter speed setting will expose your image for longer, allowing you to capture more light, even in pitch black. With a basic understanding of the exposure triangle, which we’ve covered extensively in our camera settings guide, you can capture well-exposed pictures easily, allowing you to get creative with your photography. 

While higher shutter speeds can freeze a moment in time - especially important for sports photography - using a slower shutter speed shows how things move and change as time passes. To better understand how long exposure times can affect your images, keep reading our guide on shooting long exposure photography.

Why do photographers use long exposure photography?

Shutter speed is measured in fractions of seconds - 1/1000 or 1/50 - with the higher denominator determining a higher shutter speed. While the average shutter speed sits at 1/60, long exposure photography involves exposing your image for seconds at a time. Sometimes even hours. Unfortunately, this opens the door to a camera shake, resulting in a blurry and distorted image. While one of the main goals in photography is to reduce blur, it can also be produced intentionally, which is crucial for photographers interested in capturing motion.

Examples of photography that use motion blur and long exposures to their creative advantage include waterfall photography and star trail photography.

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How to take long exposure shots

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Capturing an excellent long exposure photograph is not as simple as setting your camera to a slow shutter speed and firing. Any adjustment to shutter speed will require you to make further adjustments to other exposure settings to avoid overexposing your image, something that can still occur even in complete darkness. Taking long exposure photos requires patience, alongside simple trial and error.

Firstly, set your ISO as low as possible to reduce the sensor’s sensitivity to light. Next, select a small aperture to limit the amount of light captured by your camera’s lens while increasing your field depth. This can often be tricky to balance shooting long exposures during the day without using additional equipment like a tripod.

Which shutter speed is best for long exposure photography?

Blurring Water: A good starting point for blurring water and similar subjects is between 1/10th of a second and 1 second. Go slower if you want more blur.

Star Trails: You first need to understand that the movement of stars appears much slower on land. To compensate for this, you will need to experiment with much longer shutter speeds to be successful.

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What’s the best long exposure photography equipment?

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While the best long exposure photographs emphasise movement through the blur, it is generally best to avoid going handheld to prevent camera shake. Mounting your camera to a tripod is the most straightforward photographic technique to achieve this.

If you have adjusted your aperture and ISO and still can’t use an adequately slow shutter speed to put your new long exposure skills to work, ND filters are your new best friend. These easy to use filters, available in varying strengths, limit the amount of light that enters your lens. ND Filters enable photographers to shoot with slower shutter speeds and larger apertures for a shallow depth of field without overexposing their images.

BULB mode & remote photography

Bulb Mode is an exposure setting found on most modern DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras that allow more than 30 seconds shutter speeds. The best way to use BULB Mode for long exposure photography is to fire your camera remotely. Some new cameras can perform this function using a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection and your smartphone. For other cameras, we recommend investing in a remote control.

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Discover more brilliant tips on camera settings and photography. Be sure to check out our blog. Keep an eye on our new releases section for all the latest and greatest photography equipment from Ted’s Cameras.

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