How to Create Magical Looking Photos with Long Exposures

If you haven't heard of Long Exposure Photography, it's basically allowing your camera's shutter to stay open for long periods of time -- anywhere from a few seconds to a full minute or even longer -- allowing more light to enter your sensor.

So what's the big deal with long exposures?

It's a great way to mix things up with your landscape photography. If you've ever seen a photo of a landscape where water looks as smooth as glass or any source of light is turned into a sun burst, it was probably a long exposure.

35mm, f/11, 61 seconds, ISO 100

35mm, f/11, 61 seconds, ISO 100

I took the above image about twenty minutes before the sun completely set. Notice the glass-like effect of the water and how the sun looks bright and radiant. If you look closely, you'll see the motion blur of the cars whizzing by on the bridge as the shot was being taken. This photograph was a big hit when I posted it on Facebook -- I even sold a few prints of it!

Some more examples

135mm, f/16, 30 seconds, ISO 250

135mm, f/16, 30 seconds, ISO 250

35mm, f/8, 20 seconds, ISO 100

35mm, f/8, 20 seconds, ISO 100

The Equipment You Need

Along with your camera, you'll need a few key pieces of gear to capture a proper long exposure photograph.

1) Sturdy tripod - I use the Ravelli brand because their tripods are lightweight, super affordable, and they have excellent customer service. I called them about a small issue I had and they promptly shipped me TWO replacements, and this was a little after one year from when I first bought it!

2) Remote shutter release cable - Unless you want to stand next to your camera with your finger holding down the shutter button for two minutes straight, you'll need to invest in a shutter release cable that lets you keep the shutter open without touching your camera. Luckily, they're super cheap. I got mine for less than $10.

3) Wide-angle lens - This isn't necessarily required, but it will make it a lot easier to capture more of the scene if you're photographing landscapes for your long exposures. I pretty much stick exclusively to my 35mm lens.

Camera Settings

When shooting long exposures, you'll want to set your camera to Manual or Bulb Mode.

When in Manual, you can choose the shutter speed you need all the way down to 30 seconds. If you need the shutter to stay open for longer, put your camera in Bulb Mode (a quick Google search will tell you where to find this). In this setting, the shutter will stay open for as long as the shutter button is held down. (In this mode you would use the cable shutter release that I mentioned earlier.)

Once you've chosen the right settings, you'd set up your shot like you would any other time. Make sure that you've framed the shot how you want, ensure proper focus on the subject (switch to manual focus and adjust the focus ring by hand if you need to), choose your f-stop and ISO value. I'm definitely not an expert, but I like to keep my ISO values low to minimize any noise in the image. I also generally shoot between f/8 and f/16 for my long exposures. Experiment!

What if you want to capture long exposures during the day?

Because long exposures bring a lot more light to your sensor, you can't do them in broad daylight

...unless you have something called a Neutral Density Filter.

Here's how it works:

Neutral density (ND) filters reduce the amount of light that enters your camera sensor, making it possible to take long exposures in bright conditions when it otherwise wouldn't be.

The ND filter that I use is a B+W 67mm ND 3.0, which basically means it reduces the amount of light coming through it by a factor of 1,000. In other words, it's dark. Really dark. Which works really well on those bright, sunny days when you want to do a long exposure.

Final thoughts

Have you guys done any long exposures? Feel free to post your work in the comments. And if you have any questions about the settings or equipment I use, fire away! I'm an open book :).