Learn to shoot long exposition

Follow our in-depth guide and capture movement in the land, sea, sky and people by slowing your shutter speed…

The exposure of a scene is determined by three different elements — the aperture (the size of the lens opening through which light passes), the shutter speed (the time that the image sensor is exposed to this light) and the ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor). You need to balance all three together in order to capture a ‘good’ exposure, in which the important parts of an image are neither too dark (underexposed) or too bright (overexposed).

Most of the time, we use ‘fast’ shutter speeds, where the sensor is exposed to light for just a fraction of a second — for example, 1/100 sec. This is great for photographing action and to keep your subject sharp. However, in this feature we’re going to look at the other end of the scale, where by slowing the shutter speed you can capture some interesting and creative results, if you’re photographing the right subject — the movement of the ocean, people passing by, traffic light trails, and stars moving across the night sky, there are many possibilities.

Over the next ten pages we’re going to tell you everything you need to know to master long-exposure photography. So get out your tripod and get ready to slow down time!

Seascapes & water

Capture the movement of water by slowing the shutter speed

1. Tide times

If you want to capture smooth and silky seas, check the tide times so you know exactly when the low and high tides are. “For this shot of Durdle Door in Dorset I fired the shutter each time a wave crashed into the beach, creating a ghost-like effect with the water in the foreground,” says Guy Edwardes. “Whether you press the shutter as the wave comes in or as it goes out depends very much upon the sea conditions at the time. Sometimes it’s worth trying both, as the effects can be very different.”

Exposure 0.8 sec at f/22; ISO50

Lens Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II

2. Aperture & long exposures

“It’s generally best to avoid using the narrowest lens aperture,” warns Guy Edwardes, “so don’t be tempted to stop right down to f/22 in order to achieve a longer exposure time (unless you need a very narrow aperture for depth of field). Instead use a good-quality ND filter to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor. Some Canon cameras allow you to reduce ISO to 50 to gain an extra stop slower to emphasise the blur at f/16. For this shot of Seljalandsfoss in southern Iceland, I experimented with different exposure times to see what gave the best effect. I chose to use a fairly long 2 secs exposure to help smooth out the falling water. Shorter exposure times made the falling water look a little messy.”

Exposure 2 sees at f/16; ISOIOO

Lens Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM

3. Stability

The first bit of kit you’re going to ‘ need is a tripod. This is essential for slow shutter speeds as your camera needs to be fully supported to keep it as still as possible to avoid capturing signs of camera shake. When setting your tripod in place it’s vital that it is stable. You can weigh the centre column down with a bag for extra support. It is also advisable to use a shutter release for minimal contact with the camera during the exposure. Pro Guy Edwardes says: “I used a remote release to fire the shutter at the precise time that the water began to flow back into the ocean, creating attractive lines and a smoother, more predictable effect in the foreground.”

Exposure 1 sec at f/22; ISOIOO

Lens Canon EF 24105mm f/4L IS USM

4. Smooth out ripples

Where reflections are ‘ crucial, a long exposure can have a far greater aesthetic than the textured frenzy of running water,” advises David Clapp. “A neutral density filter is a very powerful landscape photography tool; here, a 6-stop ND filter has smoothed waters to a glassy effect and this concentrates eye to two distinctly different zones.”

City movement

Capture the hustle and bustle of the city center

1. People in motion

A great way to emphasise the notion of time and the pace of life in city centres is to capture the movement of passers by. This only requires an exposure of a few seconds, enough to capture a blurred effect, but not too long that the crowds disappear all together. James Maher explains how he got this shot of the crowd in Grand Central Station: “I wanted to create a strong contrast between a stationary person and a beautiful flowing crowd, so I chose a 6 secs shutter speed to fill the majority of the frame with motion. The key to this shot was the sharp woman, and for that I had to wait for the right person to stand still for long enough. I couldn’t have envisioned a more perfect person entering the scene. She stayed for a minute or two while I shot 6 sec exposures continuously.”

Exposure 6 sees at f/8; ISOIOO

Lens Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

2. Angle of view

You can have fun experimenting capturing movement in your shots by playing with angles and perspective to create more abstract shots. The black-and-white conversion of James Maher’s shot adds to the effect. “This photograph was taken of two subway trains leaving a station at the same time. With fast-moving trains you do not need a very long exposure to capture the motion, and after a few tests I chose to use 0.4 sec. The wide 27mm equivalent angle enhanced the feeling that the trains are converging together, and I chose a wide aperture so that the sharpness of the pole would stand out as the focal centre of the scene. It creates an almost dizzying effect.”

Exposure 0.4 sec at f/4; ISOIOO

Lens Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM

3. Filter the light

In order to blur the movement of people in the scene you’ll need a relatively slow shutter speed. Unless you’re shooting in low-light conditions, a slow shutter speed will result in overexposed shots, so you’ll need to use an ND (neutral density) filter to stop down the light. An ND filter is neutral grey in colour to reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor in order to facilitate longer exposures. A variable ND is very versatile variation as it lets you adjust the density, stopping down the light between around two and eight stops.

4. Remote shootin

When shooting with slow shutter speeds try to avoid touching the camera during the exposure, including using the camera’s shutter release button, as this can cause mini vibrations that may reduce the quality of your shot. The best solution is to use a remote shutter release; the cheaper option is to use your camera’s self-timer instead. Simply set the Drive mode to the clock icon; recent EOS models have a choice of 2-sec or 10-sec self-timer modes.

Lights at night

Get set up for capturing light trails

1. Location and time

A long-exposure night shot can give an iconic and much-photographed location a fresh feel, as in David Clapp’s Manhattan night shot. “Trying to capture traffic trails with creative effect is not easy. Although there are certain locations where this works well, they are actually few and far between. Big hitters like the Brooklyn Bridge in New York are all about timing. No filters were needed for this image, its all about working with the available light and timing the shots so that road is filled with oncoming cars in each lane; a car crossing lanes ruins the effect entirely. Multiple images were taken, with just one chosen for its ambient light and smooth trails.”

Exposure 8 secs at f/11; ISO200

Lens Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II

2. Traffic trails

In cities at night-time long exposures will blur passing cars, buses and trucks so much that the vehicles themselves are practically invisible. The only thing you see is the streaks created by their lights. The best traffic trail shots have streaks of light that cross the whole frame. Make sure you time your exposure carefully, ideally just after the traffic lights have turned green, otherwise cars stopped at traffic lights will start to become visible. Your shutter speed will depend on the speed of the traffic, and the length of the road in the frame. The volume of traffic is also crucial; fewer cars require longer shutter speeds. In city centres, the best results are often achieved with large vehicles, such as buses and lorries, as these provide an additional higher streak of light, above those created by the cars. Try to frame your shot so that you capture vehicles passing in both directions — then you’ll see both red and white lines.

3. Choose the right shutter speed

You need a shutter speed that is long enough to turn moving lights into long streaks; this will depend on how tightly the shot is cropped and how fast the lights are moving. For our shot of the Ferris wheel, 8 secs gives the most pleasing effect. Experimentation is key!

Star trails

Capture scenes and stars at night

1. Weather conditions

Inclement weather doesn’t mean stopping your shoot, as David Clapp explains: “Many photographers abandon the camera after the light levels drop, but it’s best to stay as long as possible, just in case something amazing happens. Fanad Lighthouse, in Donegal, Ireland, was caught in fine rain, which extended the beams further than I have ever seen. A 30 sec exposure brought out the dark blues to give this image a wonderful night-time feel, smoothing the rough seas into a painterly calm.”

Exposure 30 sees at f/8; ISO800

Lens Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM

2. Push the ISO

To capture successful starry skies you need clear and calm conditions, and to avoid locations with potential light pollution. You’ll be shooting long exposures, so it’s best if there’s little wind to ensure your tripod remains still. Pro David Noton says “This location, in Bryce Canyon in Utah in the middle of the night, is great for shooting starry skies as it doesn’t suffer from too much light pollution from nearby cities — except on the horizon. I upped the ISO to 6400; my 1D X didn’t seem to mind as it can control noise well. The increase in sensitivity enabled the sensor to capture more detail in the sky. Shooting at f/4 on the excellent EF 14mm lens also captured enough depth of field for this shot. Pushing technology is all part of the learning process and I’m certainly hooked on stargazing!”

Exposure 20 sees at f/4; ISO6400

Lens Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM

3. Combining exposures

Drew Buckley explains how he captured this amazing image: “This final shot consists of a sequence of 88 30-second exposures that were stacked in a program called StarStax and then saved out as a single image. I then shot a separate image, using a hand torch to light the burial chamber and bring out the shadows in the foreground; the full moon did the rest of the lighting. I then opened both images into Photoshop to combine them. The star trail image was the base layer with the other image on the layer above. I selected the Lighten blending mode to combine the shots, which just transferred the lit shadows onto the star trail image.”

Exposure 88 x 30 sees at f/4; ISO1000

Lens Canon EF 17-40 f/4L USM

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