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.