long exposure

Long Exposure Photography

Do you know how to take long exposure shots?

We all see those images where it looks like the image is moving. Where you can see the movement of a car, the way the stars circle the earth or the shapes birds make as they fly in sync. But how do you produce these long exposure shots?

To produce an image that captures the movement of time you need to have the shutter open for an extended period of time. Usually well over one second.

Types of Long Exposure

Light Trail Long Exposure

One of the best ways to transform a cityscape or urban scene is through the use of light trails. These can add a dynamic feature to an otherwise static scene through bright streaks of colour and motion.

A light trail can be created by any light source moving through your image while the shutter is open. This could be a car, bus, bike, boat or even a person with a torch or phone. The evening blue hour (twilight) is normally the best time for this as there is more traffic on the road and street and building lighting lifts the rest of the scene.

To get the cleanest light trails, open the shutter before the moving light source enters the frame and close it once it is fully out of shot. Shoot in Bulb mode so that you can control the exact timing of the shot as well as the length of the exposure to ensure you capture enough light for the whole scene and not just the trail.

Top Tip: Use leading lines to walk your viewer through you long exposure shot.

Star Bursts

Turn street lights into star bursts to add a striking impact to your urban scenes. To create star bursts use a small aperture (higher f/stop) of between f/14 and f/20. The more diaphragm blades your lens has and the longer the exposure time, the more pronounced the effect.


Ghosting is caused when people in your frame move during a long exposure. While this is often unavoidable in busy areas, if the people are constantly moving, and the exposure is long enough, then they may not appear. However, you can create some fun effects with ghosting so why not get your travelling companions involved and have a bit of fun creating them.

Can you somehow find a way to combine ghosting into a double exposure?


The Aurora Borealis aka Northern Lights are an amazing natural phenomenon found in countries such as Iceland, northern Scandinavia and Canada (and on occasion can even be seen from parts of the UK). It relies on a combination of conditions including a clear sky, limited light pollution and of course a reasonable level (measured as Kp) of Aurora.

If you are lucky enough to see the lights then shooting them is actually relatively simple using long exposure. You don’t want your exposure to be too long so that you start to get movement in the star but you need it to be long enough to light the scene and to give yourself an interesting foreground.

As autofocus will be difficult in almost complete darkness, set the focus to infinity (lenses often have an indicator on them showing infinity). Use the widest possible aperture (ideally f/2.8 or wider) on a wide angle lens (to capture as much of the sky and foreground as possible). Set your ISO as high as your camera can comfortably produce clean images (We would suggest trying between ISO 2000 and ISO 3200 depending on your aperture) and then a shutter speed of around 15-20 seconds. Review your shot and adjust the ISO and shutter speed accordingly.

These images always inspire people to travel more and become travel photographers!

Milky Way

With a technique similar to shooting the Aurora, the Milky Way also makes for some incredible images, especially when the galactic centre is fully visible. The summer months are typically the best for shooting the Milky Way which can lead to some unsociable shooting time as you wait for darkness. Again a clear sky and no light pollution are key so head away from towns or cities to dark sky areas and use similar settings to the Aurora to compensate for the darkness.

Star Trails

As the earth rotates, long exposure will turn the light of the stars from tiny dots into little streaks. The longer the exposure the longer the streaks. If you shoot a series of long exposure continuously over a period of time i.e. 2 to 3 hours you can stitch them together using PhotoShop or an online star stacker tool such as StarStaX to get dramatic star trails.

In terms of composition, if you can find the North Star you will notice that the stars’ movement forms a circular pattern around it. Again remember an interesting foreground feature will also help your star trail stand out.

A camera timer is invaluable to program the intervals and the number of exposures you want so you can sit back, relax and enjoy the night sky. Also remember to pack plenty of spare batteries and memory cards!

Long exposure


If you want to shoot stars as they appear in the night sky you need to watch the shutter speed. There is a fine balance in letting enough light in and preventing stars blurring in the movement. Any shutter speed slower than 25 seconds will start to show the movement of the stars.

You actually want a really wide aperture to let in as much light as possible. A great go to setting for still stars would be 25 second exposure, f/2.8, ISO 1600. Then you just need to get that focus right.

Light Painting

During low light or night shooting, a fun way to highlight an object in your scene is light painting. Light painting can also be used to create fun effects in your image. The best light painters combine a variety of light sources such as torches, flashes, lit wire wool along with coloured gels, strobes and so on to create some amazing effects.

A great one to start with is light writing. Not only can you include your friends and family in the process but it is very simple to do. Set your camera up on a tripod as you would with the techniques above and use the torch function on your mobile phones to write letters or words. With a bit of practice you can really get some creative results.

This is a great opportunity to use some leading lines to draw the viewers eyes into your subject.

Long exposure


Next time you head to a fireworks display why not have a go at photographing them. Set a low ISO of 100 or 200 and switch to Bulb mode on your camera. Set a medium aperture of between f/8 – f/11 and use a remote release to time when you open and close the shutter.

Unless you have a clear focal point to use then focus to infinity to stop your camera hunting for focus while you are shooting. Trigger the remote just before the firework bursts and close it again once enough light has entered (check your images to get an idea of what is working).


Most of the examples above showcase techniques that work in low light or even complete darkness. With waterfalls these are something you are most likely going to shoot during daylight. If that is the case, the main difference with all of the previous examples is that you will need to use a Neutral Density (ND) filter to control the light.

Read more about ND filters here

ND filters are dark pieces of glasses which cover the front of your lens to reduce the amount of light that enters. In daylight they therefore allow you to do the long exposure required to blur or smooth the water (as it takes longer for the camera to receive the amount of light required to expose the scene).

As some ND filters are very dark you may need to compose your shot and find your focus first before adding the filter. Try shooting in manual mode starting with a setting of ISO 100 and a medium aperture of between f/8 – f/11. You can play with shutter speed to get the desired effect in the water but be careful your water does not over expose (which can happen if it is a bright day and your exposure time is too long). Check your results and adjust your aperture and shutter speed accordingly.

Top Tip: Make sure you cover up your viewfinder when exposing for a long time especially in the day time. If you do not the light can create a green hue all over your image.

Long exposure

Flowing Water

It is not just waterfalls that can benefit from long exposures. Any body of water from the sea to lakes can be smoothed into a calm, flat, almost glass like surface through the use of long exposure.

Smoothing the water can keep an image clean and distraction free by removing the surface ripples as well as boost reflections or the colours of a sunset. Short exposures of a fraction of a second to a couple of seconds can also show the motion of waves or the patterns of tides in the sea.

Equipment and Settings For A Long Exposure


Make sure to keep your camera steady during long exposures. The longer that shutter is open the higher the chance of the camera shaking. Cement it in place using a tripod.

Manual Mode

Most cameras have a “night scene” mode which automates a best case setting. However, You will be better off using the manual mode when shooting long exposure photographs. Using auto settings will leave your photos with some unwanted side effects.

The best way to achieve success with long exposures is to have total control of your camera. Using manual mode allows you to control all the proper settings you need like aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Using anything else can affect your image in a negative way unless you know how to use the other setting to the best of your advantage.

Bulb Mode

Most cameras have the shutter speed capped at 30 seconds. This means if you want to keep that shutter open for longer than thirty seconds you need to put the camera into bulb mode. This is usually the next setting after 30 seconds. In bulb mode you can press the shutter once to open it, wait for a period of time you are happy with, then press the shutter again to close it and expose the image.

Shoot RAW

We always say it don’t we. Shoot RAW to give you more choices in post processing. You will find a lot more information stored in the shadows and highlights when shooting in RAW. This means when editing you can bring out more details.

Some Great Rules

Cover your viewfinder

You will likely get something called light leaking if you do not cover your viewfinder during a long exposure. Light leaking is exactly what it sounds like. The viewfinder will let small amounts of light in from areas you do not want. These can add strange hues to your images. Use your viewfinder cover or a cloth or something to keep the light out of it.

Get Creative

From fun fair rides to escalators, once you have learnt the basics of long exposure techniques you will find many creative ways to put them into practice. Experiment with different settings to see what happens to your image and don’t forget to have a bit of fun with it.

Use the Weather

One thing to be aware of when doing long exposure outdoors is the weather. Strong wind can cause movement while rain (or spray from a waterfall) on your lens or filter will clearly visible when shooting at narrow apertures. In these conditions check your lens and review your images between every shot.

Read about shooting directly into the sun here

Battery Life

During long exposure your camera is working harder and for longer. Long exposure photography can therefore drain your batteries quicker. If you are shooting on a cold morning/evening this too can impact battery performance and so you should always carry spares.

Avoid Light Pollution at Night

There are a lot of artificial light sources at night that will disturb the night sky and create a green/yellow glow on the horizon. Try to get as far as you can from these light sources or use buildings to cover the hue. Another thing to try is to increase the shutter speed a bit. Don’t forget your rule of thirds when you are shooting skylines.

long exposure
Not got a great DSLR?

You can still use your phone for long exposures!


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