Long Exposure Photography and All The Amazing Ways It Can Be Used

A long exposure of traffic lights in a foggy intersection. The exposure was timed right as the lights switched, leading to all three lights being visible in the final image.
6 second exposure at f/5.0 aperture, 800 ISO, 24mm focal length. Shot with a Canon 5D Mk. II and a EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens.
Photo by Lucas Zimmerman (CC BY-NC 4.0)

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

A black and white long exposure of a waterfall in Scotland.
A waterfall shot in Highland, Scotland, United Kingdom.
1/6s exposure, f/8.0, ISO:100, 95mm
Photo by Spodzone (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

A small wave breaking on the shore of a beach. The water appears perfectly still because of the fast shutter speed.
At fast shutter speeds, water appears to be frozen in time, with each little detail clearly visible, with intricate reflections that would never be seen without a camera. These kinds of photos are typically shot at 1/600s shutter speed or faster.
1/800s, f/5, ISO:400, 50mm
Photo by Bradd Mann.
The shoreline of a beach, where the water is blurred in the foreground due to the 1/10s shutter speed. The water farther out in the distance remains clear.
At about 1/10th of a second to 1 second, moving water takes on a painterly quality. At these medium shutter speeds, you can still clearly tell it’s water, but there’s a beautiful blurred motion within it that lets the viewer know exactly how the water is moving, and where the the most motion is. Notice how further out, the ocean looks normal, but the water at the shoreline is blurred.
1/10s, f/22, ISO:200, 22mm
Photo by Darek Roslaniec.
A long, 30 second exposure of the Pacific Ocean off of Santa Cruz, California. The exposure time completely abstracted away the water, making it look like a field of fog.
At longer shutter speeds, water can take on an ethereal, ghostly quality that makes it look smooth and featureless. The water can appear almost like still fabric draped over the earth. Large bodies of water can look like a field of fog, giving off an impression that the photo could have been taken on an entirely different planet.
30s, ISO:100
Photo by Stanislav Sedov (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

Rocks and water movement around them cause a milky-like look to the water.
Anywhere where there are rocks or obstructions in the way of water flow makes for a potential candidate photograph. The flow and turbulence of water over and around any obstacles ends up looking like a sort of flowing fog in the final image.
15s, f/8.0, ISO:100, 17mm
“Drifting Away” Photo by Chris Chabot (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Chutes du Diable Waterfall in Les Laurentides, Québec, Canada
Waterfalls frequently make great subjects of long exposure photos. The exact movement of the water can be recorded in a telling way.
Photo by Nicolas Raymond (CC BY 2.0)

Light painting & light trails

A light painting (using a sparkler firework) around a bicycle in Bowling Green, United States.
A sparkler firework is used in a long exposure photograph to trace the outline of a bicycle. The trail leading off to the left indicates which direction the person holding the sparkler ran into the frame from after lighting the sparkler (or left the frame with the sparkler still going after finishing the light painting).
61s, f/11.0, ISO:100, 27mm
Photo by Cassie Boca.

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.

Multicolored light circles surround a silhouette in a dark room.
Something like the above can be accomplished by tying multicolored lights to a string and spinning them around your head. Maybe some Christmas lights could do the job.
10s, f/11.0, ISO:100, 18mm
Photo by Ben Grantham (CC BY 2.0)
Light Painting at La Perouse in Botany, New South Wales, Australia.
Fireworks often make a great subject for long exposure photographs. They produce spectacular light trails, and can lead to some amazing images.
17s, f/13.0, ISO:100, 29mm
Photo by Paul Carmona.
An abstract light painting using red and blue lights sit in the middle of a totally black background.
Light paintings can be completely abstract, with no indication as to what is even going on, and made so that viewers aren’t really sure if what they’re looking at is even a photograph.
5s, f/5, ISO:250, 18mm
Photo by Boris Boguslavsky.
A single trail of white light floats and twists through a dark forest, acting as the sole source of illumination.
The light in a light painting can also be used to illuminate the surrounding environment, giving the photo a supernatural-like feel. In this image, the person isn’t visible because the exposure was fairly long and whoever ran around with the light source never stood still.
8s, f/3.2, ISO:100, 22mm
Photo by Harishan Kobalasingam.
A long exposure of a tree with a spiral light trail above it from a drone.
Mounting a light to a drone can be a great way to create interesting images as well. In this image, a drone carrying an LED light circles a tree, providing top-down illumination onto the subject and giving the tree a spiral halo of light.
Photo by Alexander Kesselar (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
4 people spell out the word 'cool' with light trails in a long exposure firework sparkler.
Words can be traced out in light, spelling a message.
Photo by Collin Armstrong.

Astrophotography and star trails

A landscape with vivid star trails taken in Koto, Montenegro.
A Landscape taken in Kotor, Montenegro.
Multiple stacked exposures, f/5.6, ISO:320, 25mm
Photo by photo-nic.co.uk nic.

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.

A sky full of vibrant star trails overlooks a winding road filled with headlight and brake light trails from passing cars.
In this example, star trails and the lights of cars are all combined together in one gorgeous photo. The faint sunset in the distance only adds to the overall composition.
Photo by Samuele Errico Piccarini.
The milkway is visible over the silhouette of a landscape.
Sometimes, star trails are not the desired effect. On a clear night, a long exposure allows for a detailed glimpse of our own milky way galaxy. In these cases, the more secluded the area, the better off you’ll be.
10s, f/2.8, ISO:3200, 16mm
Photo by Hugo Kemmel.
A transmission tower in Araçatuba, Brazil. Circular star trails serve as the background, with the transmission tower at their focal point.
Star trails can even be used as a sort of framing device or backdrop for the subject of a photo. In this photo, a power transmission tower stands as the subject, and the start trails serve as a sort of cosmic backdrop.
Multiple stacked exposures, f/1.8, ISO:400, 35mm
Photo by Rodolfo Marques.
A vivid shot of the milky way galaxy over a mountain range.
The Milky Way as seen from Refuge des Merveilles, Tende, France. These kinds of images can require a star trackera device that moves your camera in sync with the earth’s rotation so that stars aren’t motion blurred. This particular photo was taken without one. It’s a 30-second exposure (with heavy post processing), and in just that short timeframe, the stars can already be seen to make small light trails.
30s, f/2.8, ISO:6400, 19mm
Photo by Denis Degioanni.
A night time photo of a tree in the middle of Rattlesnake Lake, US. The Milky Way galaxy is clearly seen behind it, extending vertically right out from behind the tree into the top of the frame.
The Milky Way can be used as a great backdrop, or in tandem with other subjects.
Photo by Nate Rayfield.
A wooden church sits in a field, while the Milky Way galaxy floats above.
Most of the time, these are composited images with the sky being a stack of multiple long exposures, and the land being a different single exposure.
220s, f/2.8, ISO:400, 12mm
Photo by Zoltan Tasi.

Long exposure effects in landscape photography

A desolate tree on a hillside sits alone, while the clouds blur by it. The long exposure makes the clouds look like they're passing by very quickly.
A fantastic example of how long exposure photography can be used to enhance a landscape.
32s, f/11.0, ISO:200, 19mm
“Alone”, by Richard Walker (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
See Richard Walker’s detailed video walk-through of his editing process for this shot.

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.

A blurred roadside shot of a farm field, with an apparent parallax effect of motion blur where the foreground is more blurred than the background.
Long exposure can be used in tandem with the parallax effect to blur a foreground while keeping the background and mid-ground clear and sharp. This was a photo I took back in 2016 out of a moving car. The movement of the car, coupled with the 1/20 exposure led to the blurring of the foreground. Since the background and sky didn’t move as much because of their distance to the camera, they remain clear.
1/20s, f/22, ISO:100, 24mm
Photo by Boris Boguslavsky. Print available on Etsy.
An abstract long exposure photograph of a field, where the entire image is heavily blurred.
Long exposure landscapes can get pretty abstract as well, often resulting in an image that’s more about colors than it is about content. This photo was (in all likelihood) also taken out of the window of a moving car.
1/10s, f/10.0, ISO:400, 18mm
Photo by Adele Cave.

Long exposure also opens up the possibility of shooting landscapes at night, and using various lighting techniques to give the landscape an otherworldly feel.

A night time shot of Stakkholtsgja Canyon, Iceland where a long figure stands in the bottom center of the frame, illuminating the sides of the canyon with a flashlight.
With longer shutter speeds, landscapes can be shot at night, and even creatively illuminated by artificial light sources.
Stakkholtsgja Canyon, Iceland.
10s, ISO:500
Photo by Jonatan Pie.
Rock Formation Lit By Drone Light Trail in Trona Pinnacles, Claifornia, USA.
A rock formation lit by a light trail from an ascending drone in Trona Pinnacles, California, USA.
15s, f/1.8, ISO:2000, 20mm
Photo by Cameron Venti.

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

A panning shot of a biker at night in München, Germany.
A panning shot of a cyclist taken from the window a moving car.
1/8s, f/1.6, ISO:400, 35mm
Photo by Simon Lohmann. (Cropped by Boris Boguslavsky)

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.

A panning, black & white shot of a motorcyclist driving parallel to the photographer. The background is blurred.
With panning images, the photographer is often riding alongside someone in a vehicle. The above photo was most likely shot from a car traveling at the same speed alongside the motorcyclist.
1/30s, f/16.0, ISO:200, 23.3mm
Photo by d26b73 (CC BY 2.0)
Black and red F1 car speeding on a racetrack at Le Mans, France. The background behind and around the car is motion blurred due to the camera panning along with the car during a long exposure.
Panning can give images a sense of speed, and is a commonly used technique in advertisement and extreme sports photography. In this case, the shutter speed was a relatively quick 1/50s, but the long focal length of 112mm resulted in a blur anyway.
1/50s, f/10, ISO:500, 112mm
Photo by Ameya Sawant.

Motion blur in wildlife photography

Seagulls take off from a beach in Abbasabad, Iran. The long exposure blurs the movements of their wings, creating a chaotic but beautiful image.
"I was standing on the rocks beside the beach, and seagulls were flying in front of my camera. They were trying to pick the pieces of food."
A long exposure shot of seagulls taking off from a beach.
1/30s, f/15.0, ISO:100, 135mm
Photo by Hassan Almasi.

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.

A Puku runs through a field in Africa. The photographer panned the camera with the animal so that only the Puku remained clear, and the rest of the scene was motion blurred.
A puku runs through a field in a panning shot, isolated from the rest of the scene.
1/15s, f/14.0, ISO:200, 320mm
Photo by Pim GMX (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Fireflies in front of a forest create light trails.
Fireflies flicker and glow in front of a forest, creating all-natural light trails.
Photo by kobaken++ (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Hummingbird in flight. The shutter speed was carefully dialed in so that the frantic flapping of the wings were blurred, but the rest of the bird's body remained clear and crisp.
A perfectly chosen shutter speed highlights the quickness at which a hummingbird flaps its wings, but retains clarity in the rest of the bird’s body.
Photo by Bill Williams.

Motion blur for its own sake

A train zooms by a station, blurred in motion while a woman stands still and in focus in the center of the frame.
The motion blur of a train is used as a framing device.
1/5s, f/22.0, ISO:2500, 24mm
Photo by Hannah Cauhepe.

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.

A passing scene shot from the inside of one of Chicago's CTA trains. The world through the windows of the doors is motion blurred.
A passing scene shot from the inside of one of Chicago’s CTA trains.
1/2s, f/22, ISO:100, 22mm
Photo by Boris Boguslavsky.
A person stands in front of a train as it passes by. Minneapolis, MN, USA. The train is motion blurred but the person is clearly visible.
Someone with an umbrella waits for a train to pass.
1/160s, f/2.8, ISO:100, 50mm
Photo by Kevin Nalty. (Cropped by Boris Boguslavsky)

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.

A vertically panned photo of what I can only assume are flowers. The medium-long focal range coupled with angling the camera downward during the exposure can produce this effect.
A vertically panned photo of what I can only assume are flowers. The medium-long focal range coupled with angling the camera downward during the exposure can produce this effect.
1/20s, f/7.1, ISO:100, 85mm
Photo by Adele Cave.
An abstract, motion blurred color field of a seascape with a sunset in the background. The motion blur is so extreme, that the image becomes completely abstract.
Long shutter speeds taken of a seascape from a moving car (and then generously treated with post-processing techniques) can result in something like the above image. In this case, 1/125s is pretty quick, but quickly rotating the camera instead of just waiting for the landscape to go by can give you a similar effect. Another possibility is that a horizontal motion blur effect was applied in Photoshop.
1/125s, f/5.6, ISO:400, 55mm
Photo by Andrew Ruiz.

Variable focal length/distance exposures

A cityscape where light trails from city lights form a tunnel-like shape from zooming in and out with the camera lens during the exposure.
Changing the focal length of the lens during the exposure, can lead to a ‘warp-speed’ like effect. This photo started at a 70mm focal length and then was shortened to a wider one (perhaps 16mm or 24mm) over the 5 second exposure.

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.

Fourth of july fireworks at South Lake Tahoe, California, United States. The focal length was changed during the exposure, leading to tunnel-like light trails from the firework.
A long exposure of fireworks, where the focal length of the lens was changed during the exposure.
70s, f/4.0, ISO:2500, 40mm
Photo by Christian Arballo (CC BY-NC 2.0).
A man sits in a dark room surrounded by Christmas lights. The lights form a  tunnel from the focal length of the shot being changed during the exposure.
A long exposure of a silhouette, where the focal length was changed throughout the exposure.
Photo by Chandler Cruttenden.

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.

A photo of a firework where the exposure started in focus, and the photographer gradually defocused the lens throughout the shot.
In this photo, the moment the firework exploded, the focus was dialed in correctly, leading to the light trails towards the center of the explosion being sharp and clear. As the firework burned up and the light trails traveled farther out, the photographer de-focused the lens, progressively blurring the light trails as they moved away from the center of the explosion.
Photo by Lady Dragonfly (CC BY 2.0)
A photo of a firework where the exposure started in out of focus, and the photographer gradually focused the lens throughout the shot.
This image is the reverse of the last one. The initial explosion was out of focus, and the focus was dialed in as the firework was finishing.
0.4s, f/2.0, ISO:250, 50mm
Photo by George N (CC BY 2.0)

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 Camera

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.

Product shot of a Canon 450D camera.
The Canon 450D is a good beginner-level DSLR that can be bought for pretty cheap. The standard kit comes with an 18-55mm lens.
A screenshot of the camera app user interface on a Galaxy S8 smartphone.
The camera app in a Galaxy S8 smartphone. The app is in “Pro Mode”, allowing for manual setting of shutter speed, ISO, focus, and white balance.

A Tripod

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.

A Man stands photographing the Aurora Borealis in Iceland, using a camera mounted on a tripod.
Tripods are essential for long exposure photography.

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.

A neutral density filter is held up in a photo. The scene through the filter is properly exposed, while the outside is overexposed, demonstrating the filter's ability to reduce light throughput.
Demonstration of a neutral density filter.
Photo by Robert Emperley (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Comparison of two pictures showing the flooded meadows in Havelsee to show the result of using a ND-filter. The first one was taken using only a polarizer and the second one was taken using a pol and a ND1000 filter, which allowed the second shot to have a much longer exposure, smoothing any motion.
Comparison of an photo taken with just a polarizer, and another taken with an ND1000 filter. Notice how the bottom photo allows for a long exposure (smoothing the water, and motion blurring the clouds), while staying properly exposed.
Photo by Mathias Krumbolz (CC BY-SA 3)

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.

Omegon MiniTrack LX2 Star Tracker.
Photo by Giuseppe Donatiello


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.