Long exposure photography provides an opportunity to draw with motion, paint with light, express speed, show the passage of time, record the movements of the stars, and much more. There’s a staggering amount of creative potential with this photographic technique. In this article, I will explore some of the more visually interesting ways that people have come up with to harness it.
What is long exposure photography?
First, the basics. Cameras are relatively simple devices. They work by exposing a light-sensitive material to light for a brief period of time. Usually, the period of time over which a photo is taken is extremely short—just hundredths of a second. This is known as “shutter speed”, or the duration for which the camera shutter is open to allow light to enter into the camera and be recorded. It’s measured in fractions of a second. Faster shutter speeds mean that the shutter is open for a shorter time, capturing a smaller amount of light, but a smaller window of time as well. Faster shutter speeds allow for photographing faster subjects. Sports photographers, for example, have to use fast shutter speeds to capture athletes in motion since they move quickly. These photos are usually captured at 1/1000th of a second or even faster. Conversely, longer shutter speeds would result in the athletes being blurry. Other genres of photography are more forgiving. Landscape photography, for instance, can be done at many different shutter speeds, since landscapes don’t move.
A long exposure photo is just a photo where light was captured for a longer duration of time. The shutter speed for a long exposure photo typically lasts seconds, minutes, or longer. In some extreme cases like solargraphy, exposures can last months or even years. The most distinct quality that long exposure photographs have is that motion in them is blurred. This effect can be used very creatively, in many different ways. One common way is photographing water.
Capturing the motion of water
Waterfalls, rivers, shorelines, and white water rapids are some of the most commonly shot subjects by photographers who take long exposures. The shape of the motion of waterfalls becomes clearly defined, and allows the photographer to give their image a beautiful, flowing effect. Different shutter speeds can be used to completely change the look and feel of moving water. Fast shutter speeds can be used to capture a surfer in the crest of a wave, or the freeze the chaos of a wave crashing, but abstract away the actual motion of the water. Medium shutter speeds reveal all the different movements within water, while still maintaining the distinctly recognizable qualities that it has. Long shutter speeds make moving water look completely otherworldly, obfuscating all the regular ways that we perceive water. Make the shutter speed long enough, and a body of water can end up looking like a surreal, featureless desert.
Waterscapes in general are their own photograph sub-genre, and are often taken via long exposure. Even the roughest water can be made to look absolutely still with a long enough exposure. Selvy Ngantung’s gorgeous minimalist landscape series perfectly illustrates this idea. Ngantung uses long exposures to completely erase all movement of the water and sky, and completely isolate the subject of his photographs in a surreal, hauntingly empty world.
Light painting & light trails
Since a long exposure lasts for a while, a moving light source will produce a trail in the resulting image. Light painting is the name for this technique, and it’s a visually stunning way to take advantage of long exposure photography. Get something that produces light and move it around during the exposure. Light paintings can be done in just a few seconds, or can last for longer. You can use headlamps, lanterns, flashlights, and really anything else that emits light. What can be difficult is getting the actual shape of the “painting” right. Since you can’t really see where the light has already been while drawing, it’s easy to lose track of what you’re doing. Common light painting techniques include tracing objects with light (such as in the above photo), waving light sources around in swirls and other patterns, using light to draw letters or write something in the air, and more.
Astrophotography and star trails
Astrophotography is another photographic sub-genre that entirely relies on long exposures. Take a long enough exposure of the sky and the stars themselves produce a light trail due to the rotation of the earth. What better way to instill a feeling of cosmic wonder than to see the movement of the stars themselves? This genre of photography generally takes much more post-processing than something like a waterscape since multiple long-exposure photos have to be combined into one single image to produce the final result.
Usually, dozens of multi-minute exposures are taken throughout the night from a tripod-mounted camera and combined in Photoshop or other image processing software to result in the final image. This combination of multiple images into one is called “stacking”. Photo stacking can get pretty extreme, with some photographers stacking hundreds or even thousands of photos into a single image. Another difficulty is getting somewhere where there is little to no light pollution. Stars can’t be seen in or around cities, and you’re out of luck if there are clouds above.
Long exposure effects in landscape photography
Landscapes can be given a unique look when taken via long exposure. A long shutter speed can be used for the effect of blurring clouds, creating a parallax effect where the background stays in focus but the foreground is blurred, making abstract color fields, and more. One notable artist in this style is Rolf Sach, and his “Camera in Motion” photo series.
Long exposure also opens up the possibility of shooting landscapes at night, and using various lighting techniques to give the landscape an otherworldly feel.
One fantastic project along these lines that’s worth checking out is Rueben Wu’s “Light Storm” series, in which he uses LED lights attached to drones to light up and even draw shapes on landscapes at night. The results are spectacular, with the light trails illuminating the landscape giving a really alien look to the rock formations.
Isolating a subject via panning
So we know that moving objects during a long exposure appear blurry. What if the camera moved along with the object, and it was the rest of the scene that ended up moving relative to the camera? This is a technique called “panning”.
The goal with panning is to keep the subject in the same place within the frame, and at the same distance to the camera throughout the exposure. Since the subject remains relatively still in relation to the camera, but the rest of the scene is moving, the result is an image where only the subject can be seen clearly, while the background and everything else is motion blurred away.
This technique can be used to great effect to convey speed, movement, and works well to creatively isolate a subject from the rest of the scene. The longer the shutter speed, the greater the isolation. The difficulty is in keeping the subject in the same place relative to the camera. Even the slightest shake of your hands, or movement of the camera can ruin the image.
Motion blur in wildlife photography
Wildlife is a genre of photography that normally requires anything but motion blur. But as in all art forms, the rules can be broken. Blur can be used to great effect to enhance the quality and impact of a wildlife photo. To convey the speed of an animal, a panning shot can be used to blur the background. In the above example, the blurring of the birds’ wings gives off a sense of chaotic movement, shifting the genre of the photo from wildlife into something more along the lines of abstract photography, and immersing the viewer in the confusion of takeoff.
Some animals can even produce their own light, which leads to some amazing long-exposure photographic opportunities. In a recent photo series that can only be described as “magical”, Tsuneaki Hiramatsu captures the movements of fireflies in a various forest scenes.
Motion blur for its own sake
All of these creative techniques are possible due to motion blur. Motion blur can be used as a tool to isolate a subject, separate a background from a foreground, emphasize speed and motion, and for many other purposes. But sometimes, motion blur is beautiful just by itself. Some people like the crackle of a vinyl record. Some people enjoy the grain in an old film or photo print. And some people just love motion blur.
Motion blur can be used in a subtle way, or it can become the whole image. Add enough blur to your shots, and your photos become more akin to a Rothko painting than a photograph, where the substance of the image is more about the color fields, and the shape of the blur as opposed to the actual content of the photo.
Variable focal length/distance exposures
One relatively unknown technique to achieve motion blur is not by capturing a moving subject, or moving the camera, but by instead changing the focal length and/or focus of the lens during the exposure. With these techniques, the entire scene is smoothly changing, and you can control how long a specific focal length or focal distance is exposed for.
Lenses with a variable zoom can zoom in and out during an exposure, giving the image a kind of warp speed effect. Changing the easing on the speed at which you change the zoom can have an effect on the intensity of the zoom. For example, if you have a 5 second exposure, and only zoom in on the last second, the effect is less intense than if you were gradually zooming in for the entire 5 seconds.
Changing the focus during the exposure can lead to a really interesting effect as well. Fireworks are a particularly great subject for this technique because they explode outward radially, giving the resulting images an interesting kind symmetry.
What you need to start taking long exposure photos
There are a few key components that you will need to take long exposure photographs. Really, just one of these is absolutely essential, but the other ones can help greatly. I’ll list them below in order of importance.
The only truly crucial piece of equipment you’re going to need is a camera, and the only real feature this camera needs to have is manual adjustment of shutter speed. You could even use a smartphone camera if you have a camera app where you can manually change camera settings such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focal length.
Ideally, however, you will want a DSLR camera. DSLRs offer more control (larger range of shutter speeds, aperture, etc.) and generally take better quality photos than smartphones due to the size of their image sensors and the quality of the lenses. Long exposure photographs can result in quite a bit of noise/grain since the camera sensor is exposed for so long, and DSLRs deal with that noise better than smartphones do.
An additional advantage of DSLR cameras is that they can shoot RAW images. RAW is an image format that lets you have an enormous amount of additional control and post-processing flexibility after you take your photo. RAW images store a lot of data that JPGs just throw away, such as shadow details, highlight details, and more. With RAW images, you can have greater control over exposure and noise in your images when you sit down to edit them after your shoot. Some smartphones these days actually allow you to shoot in RAW, but the depth of the RAW file is not quite as good as modern DSLRs.
Yet another advantage of DSLRs is that they have switchable lenses. You want different focal lengths depending on what you’re shooting and the ability to switch lenses comes in handy.
The next most important piece of equipment would be a tripod. A tripod will keep your camera absolutely still during the exposure, which is important because even the slightest bit of camera shake during a long exposure can completely ruin the image. For anything slower than a 1/30s exposure, a tripod is an absolute must. You might be surprised at how much your hands actually shake if you try to take a handheld long exposure photo.
Neutral Density Filters
With long exposure photography, you will eventually run into the problem of letting too much light into your camera, causing an overexposed, blown out image. The normal ways to compensate for too much light is to narrow the aperture, and lower the ISO. But those two options may not be enough for exposures that are long enough. In this scenario, the best option would be to use a neutral density filter on the end of your camera lens to limit the amount of light getting in.
Neutral density filter (abbreviated as ND filters) are denoted by an NDnumber that indicates how much light they let through. An ND2 filter lets in one half of the light that would normally go through, which is equivalent to a 1 f-stop reduction. An ND4 filter lets in 1/4th of the light that would normally make it in (a 2 f-stop reduction). They go all the way up to ND100000. ND filters can get so dark, that they only let through 0.001% of light.
You can take a look at a table of ND filters and their light reduction properties here. Generally, the longer your exposure, the stronger the ND filter you will need. The stronger ND filters basically black out the viewfinder entirely, so you’ll want to set up the framing, focus, and overall composition of your shot before putting on the filter.
ND filters are available in many price ranges, and some mid-range ones even allow you to turn the filter to adjust its strength. I personally have a K&F Concept Variable ND Filter that allows me to adjust it from ND8 to ND128.
Light Sources for Light Paintings/Light Trails
If you’re going to try your hand at light painting, you need something to generate light trails. There’s a lot of different things you can use. Headlamps, flashlights, lanterns, blinking LEDs, sparkler fireworks, and lighters are all things that come to mind. An LED light that changes colors can lead to really cool effects. One great example of this would be Luke Rasmussen’s rock climbing exposures, where he wears a gradually color-changing LED light while he rock climbs.
A Star Tracker
A star tracker is a device that gradually moves your camera during a long exposure to keep it aligned with the stars, and counteract the rotation of the earth. This allows for exposures longer than 30 seconds, and can completely eliminate star trails. Very handy for astrophotography. Taking in as much light as possible is crucial in this field, so the longer an exposure can be, the better.
In a nutshell, long exposure photography has near limitless creative applications, and can be quite easy to get into, provided you can do without some of the fancier gear. It’s a technique with a long and storied history, with world-renowned photographers frequently utilizing it for many different reasons. It allows for creation of otherworldly images, light paintings, capturing and accentuating motion, visualizing the rotation of the earth, and much more. If you’re into photography, and haven’t yet dabbled with long exposure, be sure to give it a shot.