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Photography

5 Ways to Experiment with Long Exposures for the First Time

This post is part of a series called Time-Lapse and Long Exposure.
Introduction to the Tools of Long Exposure Photography
The Best Way to Learn about Long Exposure Photography

When you’re starting out as a photographer, you see a lot of photos and just think, how did they do that?! Sometimes, these clever photographs involve long exposures, using light and movement in creative ways. Here are five ways to have some fun with long exposures.

1. Traffic Light Trails

Capturing moving light is a great place to start when working with long exposures. As with all of the shots that we’ll discuss, you’ll need to find a steady place to rest your camera, perhaps a wall or even better, a sturdy tripod. When working with traffic light trails, it’s all about the vantage point. In the image below, I found a bridge overlooking a quiet road at night. The only available light came from the traffic, which enabled me to maximise the effect of the light trails.

Image Credit Traffic Trails on the A34 by Simon Bray
Image Credit: Traffic Trails on the A34 by Simon Bray

2. Smooth Silky Water

This technique is a long time favourite of many landscape photographers and can be used in any context that involves moving water. In the shot below, I used a neutral density filter to restrict the amount of light entering the lens, and was then able to create a long exposure to capture the water moving downstream. This effect highlights both the movement of the rushing water, and the dreamy feeling of the surrounding landscape. If you don't have a neutral density filter, that's ok—try it in a low light situation. Start out with a small stream and for practice then you can go on to find huge waterfalls and dramatic seascapes to capture.

Image Credit Stanage Edge Stream by Simon Bray
Image Credit: Stanage Edge Stream by Simon Bray

3. Making the Clouds Move

Depicting movement within a landscape shot can add to the drama of the scene. The photographer has used a very similar technique as in the image above, using a filter and a long exposure, but this time aiming the camera up to capture the clouds moving across the sky. This effect really draws you into the image and gives an otherwise very still image an added sense of motion. 

Calculating how long to set your exposure for a picture like this can get a little tricky. Harry Guinness has a tutorial on TriggerTrap, a handy smartphone app for making those calculations much easier.

Image Credit Enniskillen Castle by Graham Noble
Image Credit: Enniskillen Castle by Graham Noble

4. Get Creative with Light Painting

There are two ways to use light painting. In the first example below, the photographer has used a single light source and a long exposure to ‘draw’ with the light, which can be hours of fun! All you need is a torch and some creativity. 

Image Credit Light of Love by Jeremy Raff-Reynolds
Image Credit: Light of Love by Jeremy Raff-Reynolds

In the second example of light painting, the photographer has set up their camera to photograph a scene, set an exposure of around 30 seconds and then used a torch to paint light across the scene, holding it in place pointed at specific points of the scene for up to ten seconds at a time. This technique is all about deciding which areas of the image you want to highlight, and creating interesting shadows.

Image Credit Castle Beach by William Cho
Image Credit: Castle Beach by William Cho

5. Take Breathtaking Star Trail Photos

Now if you’ve got plenty of time on your hands and you don’t mind standing around in the dark, then why not head out at night and capture some star trails. You’ll need a clear night away from any city lights, some warm clothes, and plenty of patience. The amazing shot below was a 45 minute exposure, so make sure you do your research before you begin so you know which way to face and how long to have your shutter open for.

Image Credit Star Trails while watching Perseid Meteor Shower by Rarvesen
Image Credit: Star Trails while watching Perseid Meteor Shower by Rarvesen
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