Light on the Dike

Photo by Joel Olives / CC BY 2.0

Using a long exposure is a great way to create a particular mood with a landscape photo. You could be using a slow shutter speed to soften the appearance of moving water, to emphasize the movement of a stormy sky, or to give a photo a dreamy feel. Long exposure landscapes can be very captivating, but they also require a little bit of practice to get just right. This article provides several tips that can help you to get awesome results with your own long exposures.

Have the Right Gear

Shooting long exposures will require a few specific items, and if you don’t have them your results will not be as good as they could be. Here are the things you will need.

1. Camera that Allows You to Shoot in Manual and Bulb Modes

You don’t need an expensive camera, but you do need to be able to shoot in manual mode so you can have precise control over the exposure.

For exposures longer than 30 seconds you will generally need to use bulb mode. In bulb mode the shutter will remain open as long as the shutter button is held down (or more realistically, you can use a locking cable release so you don’t need to hold a button down the whole time).

2. Sturdy Tripod

Any movement will be magnified with a long exposure, so if you want a sharp photo you will need a tripod to keep your camera steady. Be sure that your tripod is tightened and as stable as possible.

Related reading: 11 Steps to Tack-Sharp Landscape Photos

3. Cable Shutter Release

With a cable shutter release you can take photos without touching the camera, which will eliminate any vibration caused by pressing the shutter button. A cable release is also needed for shooting in bulb mode for very long exposures.

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4. Stopwatch or Timer

If you will be taking photos in bulb mode you will need to time them to get the proper exposure. The clocks on most smartphones include a stopwatch, so this may be an easy solution. However, if you are shooting at night you want a different option as the screen from your phone can put off light that will impact your photos.

5. Neutral Density Filters

A neutral density filter is a dark piece of glass that reduces the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor, allowing you to shoot with slower shutter speeds. If you’re taking long exposures during daylight hours you will most likely need a neutral density filter in order to avoid overexposing your photos.

Neutral density filters come in a many different strengths and varieties. You can get a variable neutral density filter that will allow you to adjust how much light reaches the sensor, but my experience with variable ND filters is not very good. The solid filters tend to be be quality and produce better results. Personally, I have been happy with the ND filters from B+W.


Photo by Nicolas Raymond / CC BY 3.0

Know Your Purpose

Why do you want to use a long exposure for this particular shot? It is important to visualize the shot that you are after as it will impact the decisions that you make. Do you want to blur or soften moving water? Do you want to emphasize movement of clouds in the sky? Do you need a long exposure to capture a night landscape? Do you want to show movement by capturing star trails? There are a lot of different reasons to use long exposures, either because of movement in the scene or a lack of light.

Don’t Overlook the Importance of Composition

Shooting with a long exposure does not negate the importance of a strong composition. It’s easy to get distracted by the details of moving water, moving clouds, or whatever is going on in the scene, but don’t forget to be sure that you have a strong composition.

Explosions in the Sky

Photo by Sergio Tudela Romero / CC BY 2.0

Take a Regular Shot First as a Trial

Before you move to the long exposure photograph the scene with a normal exposure (this may not be relevant to night shots when a long exposure is needed because of darkness). Taking a regular exposure allows you to see if the composition and the subject works. You may find that it just doesn’t result in a great shot, and if that is the case your long exposure probably won’t be that great either. If so, go back to the drawing board and find another composition that works better. That can save you the time of getting your focus set, adding your filter, and waiting for the long exposure to be completed.

Rocks Sunrise

Photo by Sergio Tudela Romero / CC BY 2.0

Use Manual Focus

Autofocus typically won’t work if you are using a dark filter or at night, which means you will typically need to use manual focus for long exposures. One option is to lock in the focus with autofocus and quickly flip the switch to manual focus, then attach the filter and the proper focus should be set.

Boscombe Beach

Photo by Ben Cremin / CC BY 2.0

Shoot RAW

Long exposures can often result in added noise, which will need to be reduced in post processing. Noise reduction is more effective with RAW files as opposed to JPG files. Shooting in RAW is a advantageous in a lot of different ways, and this is just one of them.

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Understand Post Processing

Post processing is necessary with all RAW files, but your long exposures may need a little more attention than other types of photos. The noise I just mentioned is one reason, but neutral density filters may also introduce a color cast or vignetting that needs to be corrected. If you are comfortable with Lightroom your long exposures will be much improved.

Photo license links: CC BY 2.0, CC BY 3.0

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