It's often thought that a simple snapshot captures a fleeting, brief moment in time, hence the name “snapshot”, while film and video can capture extended moments. However, photography is also capable of capturing the passage of time in its own unique way.
This form of photography is called long-exposure photography, and it has been a part of the photographer’s arsenal as long as there have been photographic film.
What is Long Exposure Photography?
If you remember reading our blog post about travel photography, there was a section there that referred to what’s called the “exposure triangle of photography”. This triangle comprises the shutter speed, the ISO, and the aperture.
Long-exposure photography takes advantage of shutter speed and pushes it to its maximum effect. Shutter speed is the length of time light is allowed to pass through the camera’s sensor.
Put simply, long exposure photography will have the shutter speed set to a long duration, from a few hours even up to a year! Doing so will sharply render stationary objects, but for moving objects the sum effect will show various movement trails to create an ethereal photograph.
This technique is easier said than done, but fear not! We’ve provided a list of protips you can use when taking these photos for both a digital camera as well as your smartphone!
Tips and Tricks for Both Digital and Smartphone
Given that long-exposure photography captures images over time, it's super important to plan ahead. It’s a very different animal to plan a photo that lasts an hour rather than just a simple snapshot. Factors such as the time of day, weather conditions, length of time to take the photo, and even your own personal schedule must be considered when trying to capture a long-exposure photo.
Invest in Proper Equipment
Another protip to take advantage of is to use the right equipment, in particular, a tripod and remote shutter release control.
These are must-haves when taking long-exposure photos. The smallest jitter while holding the camera in your hands will be reflected in the photo itself which can lead to various trails, blurring, and other issues that could make the end result visually unappealing.
Investing in a tripod will guarantee that your camera or smartphone will remain still and properly capture the movement as the shutter speed is wide open for some time, while a remote shutter release can offer even more hands-free control while taking the photo.
A remote shutter release can either plug into your camera or phone directly or wirelessly and can control the camera’s settings without having to physically touch the camera at all. Just as a tripod can help stabilize the photo over a long period of time to correctly capture the photo, a remote shutter release will also allow you to control the shutter speed and other settings without jostling the camera as it takes the photo.
If you ever find yourself staring at a beautiful waterfall, but realize you left your remote shutter release at home, not to worry! Virtually every camera and even smartphone will have a self-timer mode, which waits 2, 5, or 10 seconds after you manually press the shutter button to start your exposure.
This ensures any camera shake that may have resulted from you touching the camera has run its course and is longer affecting your shot. Generally, the less stable your tripod is, the longer your self-timer should be.
There are other obstacles that often get overlooked when attempting to take a long-exposure photograph. Due to the length of time the shutter speed stays open, there may be too much light present, thus leading to an overexposed photo even when the rest of your camera’s settings were correct.
That’s where neutral density filters come in handy. These are often called ND filters and allow the camera’s setting to remain in place while artificially altering the aperture. Not only are these available for digital cameras but they are also available for smartphones too!
Bulb Mode for Long Exposures
Because the shutter speed needs to be open for a long time, there is a specific setting within both digital cameras and smartphone cameras called “Bulb mode.”
Bulb mode is a setting where you can set the shutter speed to virtually any length of time. Depending on the type of camera there may be a specific time limit to bulb mode, so you should always check, but generally speaking, bulb mode allows you to customize the timing of the shutter speed.
Depending on the type of smartphone you have, accessing this feature is different from phone to phone so we suggest looking up that information for your specific camera phone prior to using your smartphone for long-exposure photography.
Choose Kinetic Backgrounds for Stationary Subjects
A good starting point when choosing subject matter for a long exposure photo is to pick stationary objects, usually the larger the better, that have or are surrounded by kinetic (moving) backgrounds.
Subjects like buildings next to a busy street, a rocky waterfall, or a mountain vista with the night sky are all great examples of subject matter that lends itself well to take a long exposure photograph.
Like any photography shoot, it's always a best practice and an even better idea to take a few test shots before going all in. Taking a few test photos can help you better dial in your settings ahead of time rather than after your photo has been taken. This will save you not only time but the headache and frustration of realizing midway through the photo that you should have changed your shutter speed or altered the width of the aperture.
Shoot in RAW
We also suggest that when taking long exposure photography (as well as any photos personally speaking), you shoot the photos using the file format RAW. Compared to other file formats like .jpeg or .png where the data and therefore the image is compressed, RAW files are uncompressed and are nearly identical to what your camera’s viewfinder captured.
Having uncompressed and “real” images will allow you greater control over various visual parameters when adjusting the photos in post-production applications. That being said, because RAW files are uncompressed, they take up a lot of room on your laptop, computer, or smartphone's hard drive. Because of this fact, we also suggest buying an external hard drive to store your photos so they don’t eat up space on your other devices.
Adjust in Post
After your photography session has ended, you’ll often have more photos than you know what to do with. That’s a good thing! Part of being a photographer, whether a humble hobbyist or a professional, is editing and adjusting your photos in post-production to make them truly pop!
There are tons of tutorials or walkthrough videos that can help you achieve the results you are looking for, but specifically for long-exposure photography, we recommend using the industry standards of Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom when rendering and applying effects to your photos after the photoshoot.
Focus on Composition
As always, it's important to focus on composition while taking your photos. Since a lot of long-exposure photography often occurs outdoors, you can refer to our outdoor photography guide on how to achieve great compositions and other techniques to level up your photos.
Because of the stationary nature of most long-exposure photography, we will offer a few ideas for where to start subject matter-wise for your first foray into this style of photography.
A great place to start practicing long-exposure photography is right in your backyard. Turning your camera to the night sky and capturing star trails is one of the best and easiest ways to start practicing and experimenting with this style.
Now obviously you need to find a clear night sky, so if you live in an area with a lot of light pollution or a major city, photographing this type of subject matter may prove easier said than done, but if you’re in the woods or even in a sparsely populated suburb, getting a long exposure photo of star trails is a great starting point for this style.
Similar to the light trails that one can capture with traffic, a long-exposure photo of a Ferris wheel combines the kinetic movement of lights with the imposing focal point that only a Ferris wheel has.
The only issue is that Ferris wheels are usually few and far between or only occur during seasonal festivals like state fairs, autumn fairs, and the like.
Another common long-exposure photo to experiment with is getting light trails of passing cars and general traffic against an imposing building or structure. These types of photographs are another easy-to-capture idea when playing and experimenting with long-exposure settings.
The first thing is to find a compelling structure or object to center your image around. The issue to tackle is to ensure that the focal point is either foregrounded or backgrounded with a street or highway that has enough consistent traffic that when taking a long-exposure photo, the light trails from the headlights will create a wash or white and red lights.
Light drawings are another awesome technique to create stunning long-exposure photos. Sometimes called light art or light graffiti, this technique uses a movable light source like a flashlight, smartphone, or even a glow stick.
If this is an idea you want to explore further, we recommend that you play with the light drawings by waving, “drawing”, or “painting” the lights at an angle rather than directly in front of the camera. The other tip we suggest is that if you want to have light graffiti be the subject of the main focus, you should wear dark clothing.
A blurry waterfall is another great photography subject to experiment with in long-exposure photography. The waterfall acts similar to the Ferris wheel where the water acts as the kinetic movement while the stones and boulders anchor the photo with a sense of visual calm.
Long exposure photography, as a stylistic form, is often thought of as new but has been around since the dawn of photographic film itself. The earliest photographs often required exposure times of 10 minutes or longer.
It’s only recently that photography as an art form has been able to artistically capture the passage of time with shimmering blurs and ghostly afterimages of movement in a beautiful way that adds, rather than hinders, the photo. So rather than capturing simple snapshots, why not branch out and capture those fleeting moments?!