How to Take Killer Long Exposure Photos

by Valerie Johnston | April 15, 2013

So much photography has to do with light, how you use the light, and how you set the exposure on your camera. Of course, in many situations, you will find yourself using a short exposure. That is because you need to freeze action without the subject becoming blurred. However, there are many times when long exposure photography is interesting, breathtaking, and dramatic. Many find themselves looking in awe at long exposure images and thinking that something so amazing is out of their capabilities. If you are one of those people, it is time to stop thinking you can't, and learn to think that you can because it is not as hard as it looks. With the right information, anyone can take a great long exposure photo, and with digital cameras your results are instant...imagine the days of film where a photographer didn't know what they had until the film was developed. Here is what you need to know so that you can start capturing those amazing images as well.

carnival photos, carousel photos, carousel long exposure Anything with lights on it that move can make for interesting long exposure photos. Photo by Trey Ratcliff - http://www.stuckincustoms.com

When Should You Use Long Exposures?

Sometimes, you want to capture motion with a clear image of the subject. For example, if you are taking a picture of your child at a tee ball game, you certainly want to be able to see your child’s face. However, there are times when you want to capture the very essence of movement. You may have seen ultra-long exposure images that captured the movement of stars through the night with dramatic trails of light, and that is a good example, but that is not the only time when long exposure digital photography can be used. Here are a few others:

  • Waterfalls, Streams, and any Moving Water
  • Fireworks
  • Traffic on a Freeway
  • Sparklers
  • Lighthouses and other Moving Sources of Light
  • Amusement Park Rides

The important thing to remember is to use your imagination. There are so many times, day and night, when long exposures can produce stunning images. To get ideas, take a look at the images captured by the Digital Photography School.

Equipment You Need

The key to long exposure digital photography is equipment. This is simply not the kind of photography that you can take by holding the camera in hand. Because the camera shutter will be open for a long time, you cannot hold the camera steady enough. Your images will be blurry. Just what equipment will you need? There are two categories you should consider: the must haves and the options.

water fall long exposure, photographing waterfalls, long exposure Water takes on a wispy and foggy look to it when photographed with long exposures.

Must Haves

  • If you plan on taking a long exposure photograph, then you absolutely must have a quality tripod. This is really the only way to keep the camera still enough for long exposures images. The best tripod will include long enough legs so that you can stand behind it to line up the images, although, some photography can make do with a tabletop model tripod. If you intend to take these pictures often, then it would be a good idea to invest in a quality tripod that will offer the steadiest images possible.
  • A DSLR camera or a camera that you can manually select your shutter speed to lengths of over 1 second. Having a "bulb" or "B" setting is ideal.

Options

A few items that are optional, but can be quite useful, include the following:

  • Wireless or wired remote. This will allow you to completely avoid camera shake since you will not even need to touch the shutter button.
  • Filters. There are options like polarizers and neutral filters that will help filter light for a clearer image.

Great Long exposure of cars and traffic often from a unique perspective. Photo by Matthew Fang via Flickr- http://www.flickr.com/photos/matthewfch/1688409628/

Tips and Hints

Long exposure photography takes a good deal of trial and error. Do not be frustrated when your first few images do not look how you wanted them to. It really does take time to learn how to capture those amazing images. A few tips to keep in mind include:

  • You will be dealing mostly with shutter speed. With the shutter open for long periods of time water begins to look like fog and car lights will streak across your camera screen.
  • Look on your camera shutter speed for the "bulb" or "b" setting. This will allow you to directly control the shutter speed from when you depress the shutter button once until you press the button again. This gives you much more control over the exposure.
  • Keep the ISO low. The higher you go with ISO (which your camera will want to do in the dark), the more noise will get in the way of the image.
  • Shoot in RAW instead of JPEG. This will help reduce noise as well.
  • Keep the aperture small.
  • Be patient. Take it one photo at a time.

The main thing to remember about getting a killer long exposure is that almost anyone with the right equipment can do it, but just like anything else...it takes practice.

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Tips-n-Tricks #294

If you store your memory cards in a pouch, a good way to tell if you have already used one is to simply face it in the opposite direction. This is a good system, especially if you are doing a shoot that will require you to use several memory cards.


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