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5 Inspirational Long Exposures and How to Make Your Own

This post is part of a series called You Can Do This!.
5 Inspirational Black and White Images and How to Make Your Own

Long exposure photos seem more popular than ever before. Buy any recent photography magazine and you’ll no doubt see a majestic, smooth sea or sky gracing the pages inside. These impressive images have never been easier to achieve now that digital cameras and neutral density filters can be obtained for relatively little cost.

In this tutorial we'll show you five inspirational long exposure pictures to get you raring to go, and I’ll go through my top tips to nailing your perfect photo and what kit you’ll need to do it.

What You Need

Neutral Density Filters

Essentially, these filters they block out the light. By how much depends on the filter. This is quantified by their f-stop reduction, anything from one stop to a whopping ten stops of light. You'll likely only need one of these if you’re planning to shoot a long exposure in daylight.

  • 1 stop reduction = ND2
  • 2 stops reduction = ND4
  • 3 stops reduction = ND8
  • 4 stops reduction = ND16
  • 5 stops reduction = ND32
  • 6 stops reduction = ND64
  • 7 stops reduction = ND128
  • 8 stops reduction = ND256
  • 9 stops reduction = ND512
  • 10 stops reduction = ND1024

You’ll note that each ND number is double the one preceding it, and that’s because each stop of the filter reduces the light entering the camera by a factor of two. This doubles the time you’d need to leave the shutter open in order to get a properly exposed image (which is exactly what we want). So, for example, with an ND2 you’d need to leave the shutter open twice as long as you would if you had no filter attached to achieve the same exposure.

Which filter you need depends on what it is you want to achieve. You can stack filters to get your desired effect, or go for a darker filter such as an ND10 and be prepared to use longer shutter speeds, lower apertures or high ISO (or a combination of all three!).

Some filters, especially poor-quality ones, leave unwanted colour casts. Always check reviews before you buy. Remember, sometimes buying cheap means you pay twice!

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A Tripod

A tripod is a necessity with long exposures. Make sure your tripod has sturdy legs so that it won’t blow over in the wind, and consider bringing a weight or sand bag to hold it down. Avoid extending the middle column for the same reason, it can make the tripod very top heavy, particularly if you have a heavy camera and lens attached.

Recommended Reading:

  • How to Use Video Tripods in 60 Seconds: Although tripods for photography and filming can have different desirable qualities, it's important to learn the basics of a good tripod.
  • Introduction to Digital Photography Equipment: Photographic equipment sometimes gets complicated and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options. In this course you'll find out exactly what gear you need to master the basics of digital photography. 

A Remote Shutter Release

Pressing the shutter button and removing your finger can cause camera shake that makes your image blurred from the outset. Use a remote shutter release or your self-timer with a delay of a couple of seconds instead.

If you want to do an exposure that’s longer than 30 seconds then you really will have to use a remote shutter, otherwise you’ll be touching the camera while it’s exposing. You also need to check that your camera has a BULB mode. If it doesn’t then you’re limited to a 30 second exposure–that might have implications on which ND filter you use.

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I find a wide-angle lens is best for really dramatic shots. They also give an interesting field of view because of their barrelled distortion. You can use any lens you like though, just be aware of the different thread sizes associated with the lenses you want to use when purchasing filters to fit them.

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London at Night in Black and White

london at night
London at Night via Pexels CC0

There tend to be a lot of night-time city related long exposures, but what makes this different for me is that it’s black and white; you don’t see too many of those! Usually, photographers are keen to make the most of the colours within the movement, like moving head and tail lights and bright orange glow of the city.

I think this photograph really works without colour, particularly because of the illumination and added height of Big Ben (the clock tower). The plain sky helps to keep our focus on the ‘action’ in the photo and the car lights act as leading lines to take us right to Big Ben, positioned neatly to correspond with the rule of thirds.


Sunrise via Pexels CC0

Images of the sea at sunrise and sunset are a favourite amongst photographers who favour a long exposure. Capturing the glorious colours reflected in the water often makes for a stunning photo. Timing is everything with these photos and you may spend many a morning disappointed by too much cloud cover or too little, resulting in a boring sky.

Here, the photographer has just enough cloud for an interesting sky and great colours which reflect well in the sea, but the image wouldn’t work without the boat in the foreground. If you’re photographing a vast expanse, like the ocean, then something to focus the viewers’ eye on is integral. Be aware that as the sea moves, so too might your anchored boat!


Jetty via Pexels CC0

A long enough exposure on a grey day can blend water and sky into one, creating something eerily beautiful. Here, we’re lead into nothingness; the space beyond the jetty indistinguishable from anything else.

I think the composition would have worked better if it was exactly central, but aside from that, this photograph is a great example of how nothingness can be the real interest in a photograph. The great thing about an image like this is that it’s achievable on dull, grey days, which some of us have a much better chance of than catching blue skies and sunshine!

Night Sky

night sky
Night Sky via Pexels  CC0

Long exposures at night can be truly stunning, but they take patience and practice. If you’re shooting foreground as well as the sky, you’ll often need to illuminate your subject for part of the time of the exposure, so bring a torch! Depending on the light and how the sky is, you might not be able to get what you want in one shot and have to create a composite of several different exposures in order to get what you want.

I don’t know for sure, but the image above looks like a composite to me. Either way, it’s a very effective photograph. The foreground interest is well placed and frames the silhouetted figure nicely. Some might like the splash of yellow off to the right but I think it’s a distraction; my eye is drawn to it rather than the arch.

Leaving the shutter open for too long will create blur, due to the movement of the earth, but leaving it open for a very long time, will create circular patterns known as ‘star trails’.


Waterfall via Pixabay  CC0

This image’s earth tones really work for me and despite the waterfall being in the top centre of the photograph, the mossy rocks in the bottom left really pull our eyes back down, balancing the whole thing out.

Waterfalls are, by their very nature, quickly moving (well, falling!) water. This means that you actually don’t need a very long exposure at all in order to create a smooth effect. You can see from the image above that the pool of water at the bottom still looks slightly choppy but the waterfall itself is feathery, which most likely results from a shorter-duration long exposure, if that isn’t too much of a contradiction!

Even if your camera doesn’t have a BULB function and even if you don’t have a filter, with the right subject you can make great long-exposures with a shutter speed of a couple of seconds. Compensate for the light using with a small aperture and low ISO.

Top Tips to Getting Great Long Exposures

  1. Choose your day and time wisely. Very still water and no clouds will make a long shutter speed pointless. The aim of a long exposure is usually to capture movement, so make sure you have something that moves!
  2. Compose and focus your shot before you put on your filter, or you won’t be able to see or judge properly!
  3. Foreground, foreground, foreground! Have a point of interest in your images draws in the eye. Remember, 'nothingness' can be a point of interest too!
  4. Avoid hanging a bag from tripods to weight it, if the wind catches it and makes it swing it can pull your tripod over.
  5. Close the view finder shutter or cover it with tape to prevent light leaking in and creating strange casts on your image.

Further Resources

Capture Motion With Time-Lapse Video

Long exposure is a great way  for photographers looking to portray motion. In Time-Lapse Video for Photographers, you'll learn a closely related technique: how to create a video with flowing motion using your still camera. Kevin Gater will show you how to create a high-quality time-lapse video in an easy-to-understand, step-by-step process. You'll learn all about selecting the proper time lapse gear, configuring your camera, shooting on location, and processing your time lapse sequences.

Final Thoughts

Getting the basics in your mind before you go out and shoot is a great idea. I remember years ago trying to take a long exposure with no filter and wondering why it didn't work... This was a very long time ago, I promise. Still, some things can seem obvious to everyone else but you can overlook them, it's perfectly natural and making mistakes is all part of the learning process.

Find what you need and then practice, practice, practice: it's the only way any of us get good at something. The most important thing is to enjoy yourself, have fun and reap the rewards of your new awesome skill. Speaking of which, we would love to see the results if you give long exposure a go so please do share them with us in the comments below.

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