Long Exposure Photography

Welcome to my post on long exposure photography. The idea of long exposure photography is not new. It has been around since the invention of film. I still have some personal photos from the early nineties of long exposures done on film. Due to the considerable high cost of film in those days, long exposure photography was a risky maneuver if you were a beginner. Because with film you only got one shot. It was a hit or a miss. Digital SLR cameras opened a whole new window to photography. Cost being one of the main factors. With Digital cameras you can try it over and over until you get your shot the way you want it. Of course, you don’t want to spend an entire day getting one photo right. So in this post I will discuss what is long exposure photography, and how to achieve desirable results. Reading alone won’t do the trick. You will still have to experiment and see how certain elements of photography link together.

The Basics

The idea of a long exposure photos is to express passing of time in a still photograph. It is achieved through the trail that a moving object leaves on an image. It could be the steaks of lights from a vehicle, smooth looking waterfalls, or the stars leaving trails as the earth rotates. Conventional photos convey images as frozen in time. You take a photo and magically the time stops, and anyone and anything in your photo pauses forever.

The long exposure, also known as slow shutter speed and time exposure, is essentially a technique. Images show movement of time yet still remain paused. The creativity is endless with this type of photography. It has been more popular with the advent of Digital SLR cameras. Since there’s no need to worry about ruining an expensive roll of film and the cost of developing photos.

The Technique

To achive the desired results its important to have some knowledge of shutter speed , ISO , and aperture. The idea behind long exposure is to use slow the shutter speed. Slow shutter speed will create a motion blur. It’s also recommended to use low ISO, this will keep your camera image sensor at a low sensitivity settings and prevent the image from overexposing. A small aperture should also be selected for this will not allow large quantity of light to enter the camera.

This technique could be applied at any time of the day or night. But I would suggest start experimenting at night before you start day time long exposures. The darkness at night will act in your favor. Having your ISO set to 100, you can easily capture bright lights and not have to worry about low lit objects causing interference in your scene.

Once you become acquainted working at night, you can start experimenting in the day light. It may be a bit challenging in the beginning and you may find your images look like white boards. But as you figure out the right combination of setting, you will start to see good results. For daylight long exposure photography, you may find ND or Neutral Density filter very useful. The job of the ND filter is to block some light entering the camera to avoid over-exposing the image.

(ND Filter)

Night Photography

The image to the right, taken just after sunset is an example of long exposure. A tripod is a must for long exposure photography. The camera must not have any movement at all. It is also recommended using a remote control to release the shutter, so the force from you finger does not cause camera shake.

To achieve results similar this image , I will list some common setting.

    • Compose a scene
    • Place your camera on a tripod
    • Do not use flash
    • Set ISO to 100
    • Set Apertures to 8
    • Set Shutter Speed to 5 seconds (Use a remote or gently press the shutter release button)

The Camera Shutter will remain open for 5 seconds. Any bright moving objects will be captured as a trail of light. This will also give you image richness and detail. You can include people in you scene, but they must stay still for 5 seconds or for the duration of your selected shutter speed.

Shutter Speed Settings

The main variable in long exposure photography is the shutter speed. Getting shutter speed nailed is the key to good photographs. If your shutter speed is too slow, you run into the risk of overexposure. If it is too fast, you may underexpose or may have images that look like ghosts – unless that is your intended purpose. Try experimenting around shutter speeds of 5 to 10 seconds.

On most DSLR cameras, the shutter speed can be set to as low as 30 seconds. If you plan to expose your image beyond 30 seconds, you will need to set you camera shutter to B or Bulb mode. The B mode allows you to set any amount of exposure time from 30 seconds to several hours if you’re photographing the night skies.

Neutral Density Filters

As mentioned earlier in this post, ND filters are designed to block excess light and help prevent overexposure. It’s like putting sun glasses on you camera. ND filters come in different densities relating to how much light will be blocked. They are labeled as ND2, ND4, ND6 and so on. The light filtration strength increases with the number. As a beginner, a ND10 is a good place to start. There will be a separate post describing ND filters in more detail and how they work.



I hope this article has given you a starting point on long exposure photography. As a beginner, it requires planning and patient. The results creative are rewarding. Don’t let the weather discourage you from getting out. I have not include too many example images.  I want your imagination and creativity to do the work.

Christmas time is one of my favorite times of the year to shoot. The colorful bright lights make the photos rich and vibrant. So bring out your DSLR  and take some photos, and capture those precious memories.  Please leave a question or comment below

unsplash-logoErik Mclean
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  1. Oh, what a nice article about long exposure photography. Very clear and easy to understand. I think the best is then to do some experiments. I trained and worked as a photographer in the US from 2002 until 2004 and just LOVED experimenting with long exposures… it was mesmerising to me to see the results… almost magical… thank you for writing this post and making it easy for beginners to understand the technique behind it. Well done!

    1. Author

      Thanks for the positive comments

  2. Long exposure photography used to be the hobby of sons of rich dads during our childhood as both the camera and the films were very costly those days. Also after you take a photograph you are not able to see the results unless and until you exhaust the full reel or you go to a developer and get your reel cut and develop the phot. Developing the photo also used to be a costly affair those days. But now thanks to DSLRs one can easily take such photos and see the results instantaneously. 

    Thanks Pardeap for explaining us how to take such photographs in a simple and lucid manner.

  3. As an amateur trying to turn semi pro photographer I have to say that the night photography picture in your post is breath taking. Typically I just do head shots and family photos, but I am trying to get more into some artistic photos.

    I really like the results from this long exposure photography. I don’t have any formal training, and I am just trying to learn from what I find on the internet. It is actaully pretty easy to learn, thanks to websites like this one. I will be sure to come back.

  4. Thanks for this really useful article! I’m actually a photography student at the moment; I take photography as an A Level. Long exposures are definitely one of the things I love to work on, especially in combination with light painting. I have heard of ND filters but I didn’t actually understand how they worked or where to buy them; thanks for helping me out there! Have you ever done any light painting using long exposures? Thanks again!

    1. Author

      I’ve done some light painting with my kid niece playing with fireworks – the sparklers.  That’s about it. I would like to do more.

  5. So ND filters and the shutter speed are the secret! now I know. Also let me give you the compliment on the night shoot. I always have the problem doing it. Thanks for the step by step instruction on how to do the settings as well. Now I gotta go back and see my camera for all the settings, which before I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, shame on me lol

    Thanks for your tips, I am definitely getting some pictures done for this Christmas! 


    1. Author

      Please let me know if you have any further questions

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