How to take long exposures

So you have been on insatgram checking out your favourite photographers and you’ve come across some sweet silky shots. You know the ones I am talking about: waterfalls that look dreamy, oceans that are as smooth as glass or clouds streaking across the sky. You ask yourself how do they get these images?... Look no further as I am about to tell you.


The basics

Remember in my last post I spoke about the basics of landscape photography and the equipment you require? If not you can find the link here

Camera settings

When looking to capture these exquisite shots the first thing you are going to want to do is change your camera over to manual mode. Manual mode helps you to balance your exposure, because you have full control over the settings, which helps ensure you get the desired effect.

The next thing you want to do is adjust your ISO setting to as low as it can possibly go. On most cameras this is 100-200, but some cameras can go as low as 50 or 32. Next you will need to set your aperture. For landscape shots I like to shoot between f/8-f/14. There are two reasons for this:

  • (a) This is often where your lens is at its sharpest (I’ll talk more about this in my next blog); and

  • (b) This will allow your exposure time to increase meaning your shutter remains open for longer.


The next step is to turn your camera’s focus mode to Manual. If you have the ability to focus in live view, do so. Choose the point you want to focus on and dial in your focus as sharp as possible. You may need to zoom in to see if the shot is perfectly in focus using live view mode.

Shoot in low light

You are going to want to shoot in low light, like the blue hour or golden hours (the time just as the sun is rising or setting). Shooting in low light allows you to extend the time your shutter is open for, which is what gives you that silky smooth feel in water and clouds. You will however be limited to a 30 second exposure with most makes of cameras, unless your switch to “BULB” mode and use a remote trigger. Be sure to keep an eye on your highlights to make sure they don’t blow out. You can monitor this through your histogram or turn on highlight clipping in the settings, which marks any blown out areas in red or flashes so you can monitor it after each image.

ND Filters

Another way you can stop or limit your highlights from blowing out is to use Graduated Neutral Density(GND) filters. These filters are the kind that you slot into a dedicated holder that is screwed onto the front of your lens. I use NiSi Filters as I find they work extremely well and have none to little colour cast (when the filter changes the colour of the shot). What the GND allows to you to do is stop down the light areas in your image that are blowing out, like the sky during sunrise and sunset. I find that a 0.9 GND or 1.2 GND works extremely well for most circumstances.

There are also full Neutral Density filters that can either be screwed onto the front of your lens or slot into the same 100mm or 150mm filter systems as those above. I will touch on this on another post on extreme long exposures.

Choose the right conditions

Weather is also going to play a big part as to whether you shoot a long exposure or not. If you are just looking to capture some movement in the water and clouds with an exposure of around ⅓ second then you won’t have to worry too much about the weather. However, if you are wanting to photograph a subject for 2 seconds or more you’ll to want to be sheltered out of the wind. The last thing you want is the wind adding a bit of shake to your image and you get home only to find it’s ever so slightly blurry on the computer screen. I find that on days where there is little colour in the sky or no movement in the waves work well for long exposures.


Don’t forget your composition

Long exposure doesn’t make up for poor composition. You want to ensure that you are still using the basics; leading lines, rule of thirds etc.

Things that don’t move like jetties, old bridges, buildings and rugged mountains can all work extremely well. Look for items that can create good contrast with dark areas against light, white against black, clear still water with pebbles, or tall buildings with fast moving clouds for example. All of these objects make for great subjects and when composed correctly can help you capture an amazing image.


The Basics of using your DSLR for Landscapes

So you just bought a DSLR, it’s unpacked, you are ready to get those shots, upload to instagram and see those likes come streaming in. But you want to know the basics on how to use all those features and get the perfect shot. Well look no further, you can find all the details below.


First Things First: the Tripod


When it comes to shooting landscapes, you may often think ‘why do I need a tripod, nothing moves, it’s all trees, rocks, water etc?’ Well a tripod forms an integral part of any landscape photographer's kit. When it comes to capturing those super crisp images, silky water effects or incredible astro images that’s where the tripod comes in. You don’t want your camera to be moving or shaking while you capture that incredible sunrise or the northern lights as they dance across the sky.


You want to start with the best tripod you can afford. Make sure it’s suitable for the weight of your camera plus lenses. I use a 3 Legged Thing tripod (yes that’s the name of the brand) with an airhead pano ball head, there are two reasons behind this:

  1. It’s a travel sized tripod that can extend to an impressive 1.7m yet fold down to 40cm and can be packed in my bag.

  2. It’s carbon fibre, which means it’s light - crucial when it comes to long hikes. Carbon Fibre also helps eliminate shake/ vibration which is big positive if you ask me.


You should also use a remote trigger if you can. This will stop any unnecessary camera shake when you fire the trigger. If you don’t have a cable release (remote trigger), use the 2 second timer function built into your camera.


Composition and Your Lens


I like to shoot as wide as possible when taking landscape pictures. Whether it be in portrait or landscape orientation this helps create perspective and scale which is key for any landscape image. I like to shoot around 16-35mm most of the time as I can capture more of the subject. However don’t be afraid to zoom in, as often this can create a more interesting image.


Look for a leading line that can help lead the eye into focus on the subject or guide it through the image. This could be anything from a river, a road, cracks in a rock, or water lines. Basically anything that creates a line from the outside edge of the image into the subject, be it natural or man made.


The Exposure Triangle


Now I won’t go into too much detail here, but in order to get a perfectly exposed image you require three things, Aperture(depth of field) + ISO + Exposure time(shutter speed). If you adjust one of these elements you will need to compensate with one of the others to balance your exposure.


The first part of the exposure triangle, aperture plays an integral part in capturing your image. You need to select the best aperture to ensure you get the desired result. The lower the aperture number (eg. F2.8), the more shallow the depth of field, the larger the aperture number (eg. F22), the greater depth of field. For landscape photos my general rule of thumb is between F/8-F/14. The reason behind this is because this aperture range creates the sharpest images without soft edges or any warping on the image.

One thing that often confuses people about aperture is that the lower the f stop, the higher the aperture i.e. f/2.8 =more light and f/22 = less light.


When shooting landscapes you always want to use an ISO that is as low as you can possibly go. Most cameras nowadays can get down as low as 32 or 200 ISO. ISO is the scale of sensitivity used to measure light in your camera. The concept has been around for decades. It was originally used to determine film speeds and was clearly marked on each roll of film.

The reason we want our ISO as low as possible is because it shows up as grain/noise. The lower the ISO the lower the grain. This often makes for a more pleasing image unless you are looking to add texture (however this can also be done in post production, and is usually best left to then if that’s the effect you’re after.)

Exposure time

Depending on what you are trying to capture, you will want to adjust your exposure time. When shooting sunsets and sunrises you will often shoot at around 1/25th of a second or lower. This can change depending on whether you are using filters, the weather conditions etc.

  • For soft silky water you want to shoot for between 3-10 seconds

  • For a small amount of flow or motion in the water, shoot around 1/6th-1/3rd of a second

I will be adding another post entirely on motion capture and long exposures, so watch this space.


White Balance

Our eyes are highly evolved and can adapt to various light conditions and colours without us even having to think about it. However our digital cameras are not quite as clever. The simplest way to describe white balance is how warm or cold your image looks. Depending on the conditions you’re shooting in, you may need to adjust the white balance to ensure you image represents what your eyes can see as accurately as possible.

Light obviously changes depending on whether you’re shooting in sunlight, shadows, in an overcast sky, on a rainy day, or even under different types of artificial lights such as flash/strobes, tungsten and fluorescent lights.

Each camera has its own way of adjusting the white balance, so it is best to familiarise yourself with how you change these settings. Although most cameras have a few preset options to take all the guess work out of selecting the correct white balance.

  • Auto – this is where the camera makes its best guess on a shot by shot basis. You’ll find it works in many situations but it’s worth venturing out of it for trickier lighting, or if you find it’s not giving you what your eyes can see.

  • Tungsten – this mode is usually symbolized with a little bulb and is for shooting indoors, especially under tungsten (incandescent) lights (such as bulb lighting). It generally cools down the colors in photos.

  • Fluorescent – this compensates for the ‘cool’ light of fluorescent light and will warm up your shots.

  • Daylight/Sunny – not all cameras have this setting because it sets things as fairly ‘normal’ white balance settings.

  • Cloudy – this setting generally warms things up a touch more than ‘daylight’ mode.

  • Flash – the flash of a camera can be quite a cool light so in Flash WB mode you’ll find it warms up your shots a touch. This is also what you want to use when shooting astro at nighttime and using torchlight in the foreground for example.

  • Shade – the light in shade is generally cooler (bluer) than shooting in direct sunlight so this mode will warm things up a little.

  • Custom – you can adjust this for certain types of light that you may use often.

  • Kelvin – you can manually adjust the temperature from colder(bluer) to warmer(yellow) light and is great for tricky conditions.   

Of course there are plenty of more detailed factors that go into landscape photography, but this is a beginners guide to the basics. I’d love to hear what you think, or any other tips you have to add to it.