Before You Try Long Exposure Photography For The First Time

Have you ever seen photographs with silky smooth water, moving clouds, light trails and so on? Those kind of photographs are achieved by slowing down the shutter of your camera; what it essentially does is open the camera’s shutter long enough to capture motion. 

There are a lot of use case scenarios for using long shutters, however this article/ post is meant for the absolute beginners who are planning to try out the art of long exposure photography for the first time. 

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Nikon D7200, 16mm, f/22, 2″ Exposure, ISO 100

Stabilizing the Camera or Phone

A highly recommended, but not essential tool for capturing long exposures will be a tripod, in case you are not having one do not worry, you can use any stable surface for your mobile phone or your camera. A word of caution; do not balance your equipment on any narrow surface. It will be far better to tie down your expensive equipment on a narrow surface like a railing than to balance it. A small wind is all is needed to put your money down the drain. Having a stable solid surface for your camera is absolutely vital to pull off a sharp photograph, any slight movement will induce a blur in your images.

Use a stable and steady surface and use everyday items to angle the camera in case you don’t have a tripod

Use the Timer

Even though you have stabilized your camera, there is always a chance of camera shake when you press the trigger button, be it on your phone or your camera. Ideally the timer should be set to 5 seconds or above as 2 or 3 seconds will be too less of a time.

Working Out the Settings of the Camera on Manual Mode

The two recommended modes for long exposure photography in your DSLR/ Mirrorless camera’s are Aperture Priority and Manual Mode. Aperture priority mode is an excellent way to start as you can restrict the ISO to 100, keep a sharp aperture (the f value high) and observe how the camera is adapting to the light by changing the shutter speed. I have gotten used to my camera and the settings to a comfortable level so that I can look at the light, guess the settings and fine tune with the details from your camera. Make use of your camera’s display to analyze whether you are over exposing (keeping the shutter on for too long) or under exposing the photo (using a fast shutter when it should be a slower one). With mobile cameras and mirrorless cameras it is relatively easy because there is live simulation on the back of your screen. In a DSLR, check your information screen and use the meter which shows the exposure to adjust your settings. Go through the images (DSLR info screen & Mobile Phone camera screen) below to understand the words more clearly. ISO value is kept to the minimum to reduce sensitivity towards light and in cases where you are going for very long exposures, noise can creep in a lot.

Underexposed image will be the result

Overexposed image will be the result
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Perfectly exposed image as per the meter reading

*I tend to keep the image slightly over exposed, because if I keep the exposure spot on as per the meter reading in my camera, there is a slight chance of the image being under exposed

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Slightly Overexposed – for my camera this produce good results. Don’t forget to check for the ideal spot in your camera

A mobile application to help you find the right settings: I have found a decent enough free app (not sponsored) for Android phone which can help you with determining your settings (click here); make sure that you read the help section.

When you are using your phone, check the histogram and watch out for changes appearing in the scene. In this case, the histogram peaks towards the left meaning that there are more shadows and is underexposed
Here, the histogram is more evenly distributed (though not ideal) and the resultant image will be exposed almost accurately

Focusing (Can be a Potential Issue in Some Cases)

If your autofocus (AF) works well and there is live accurate simulation visible on your screen consider yourself lucky. Most of the new cameras are good at focusing in low light conditions. If you’re trying long exposure when it is dark, it can be a tough thing to do; especially if you have on old DSLR and your lens doesn’t have a focus ring marking. If there is some light source visible; switch to manual focus, go to live mode, zoom in using the buttons/ touch screen and use the focus ring to get an accurate focus. Do not rush the focusing part as it is vital for a photo that is not blurred. In case you use the AF for focusing the image, switch off the AF button on your lens once you have fixed the focus point and is satisfied; if your camera has a dedicated focus switch button make use of it. I suggest this step because the AF might work the first time, but might start focus hunting just before you start taking the image.Another important tip is to use single AF instead of continuous AF.

In some entry level cameras coupled with kit lens, it can be difficult to focus in low light conditions; I used to have this issue with my first camera, the Nikon D3200. The workaround I found was quite simple; mark out some points on your lens using some kind of a sticky tape that doesn’t ruin your lens. You can use the white marking near the end of the focusing ring (the marking is for aligning & mounting a lens hood) as a reference point and mark the closest focus point and the infinity focus, further make 2 or three markings and keep a note of how many meters or feet is that focus point from your camera. This will help in focusing accurately up to 90%. Another workaround is to use a torch or a flashlight to shine on the area in which you want to focus. Please do not use paint or any such liquids to mark the points, if it seeps in to your lens that is a death sentence to your lens.

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You can use workarounds like this in case you feel the focusing of the camera is not good

Trees & Shrubs in the Foreground are Your Enemies

While trees and shrubs or even tall grass in the foreground, close to your camera can add a good perspective in normal captures; they have the potential to ruin your images in long exposure captures, especially if it is windy. But, if it is half way through the image and beyond it; it can add a sense of movement. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and it is highly depended on the photograph you plan to take. Take a look at the images below.

An ND Filter?

ND or Neutral Density filters block the light from reaching your camera sensor. If you want to shoot a long exposure in bright and sunny conditions, having an ND filter is advantageous and necessary. In such conditions narrowing down the aperture (high f value) will not help either. In case you don’t have one, it is better not to try a long exposure when there is too much light. You can take multiple shots and stack it together in Photoshop to achieve the same effect, however it will not have the consistency of shooting a long exposure in the camera itself. In case you are planning to purchase one, stay away from very cheap fiber ones as they tend to ruin the image with colour casts and uneven exposure. Save money for a decent glass one. I will make an exclusive post on how to select an ND filter. If it is after dusk, before dawn, night time or in shadowy conditions, you don’t need to have an ND filter, so you can start your trial for long exposure photography in these situations.

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This image required the use of an ND filter as it was too bright to go without one. Nikon D7200, f/5.6, 13mm, 30″ exposure, ISO 100
Taken without the aid of an ND filter. Nikon D7200, f/4, 11mm, 25″ exposure, ISO 100

When Does it Make Sense to go for a Long Exposure

The basic principle is to capture motion when it comes to long exposures or when you want to allow in more light to the camera. So, waterfalls, moving clouds, moving people, vehicles and so on can make interesting subjects for long exposures. Other instances include cityscapes, fireworks, city at night, star trails, a building at night and so on. It certainly is not limited by any chance and the just like any art form, the limitations are what we set for ourselves.

Try something like a monochrome trail photography on city outskirts. Nikon D7200 f/5.0, 30″ exposure, 50mm, ISO 100, no ND Filter used
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View from a terrace. No ND filter, but used a remote wired shutter to achieve this shot. The exposure for this capture is 3 minutes. Nikon D7200, f/13, 11mm, ISO100

Recommended Accessories (Not Essential)

  • A Tripod – to keep your camera steady.
  • ND Filter – if you want to capture long exposures when it is bright.
  • Remote Shutter Release System – To go for super long exposures and to reduce camera shake.
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I highly recommend buying a sturdy tripod as it can improve your landscape photography in general

A general word of advice – it is not necessary that you will be able to pull off an amazing long exposure photograph on your first few tries. Try to understand what went wrong and try again, if you do not want to shoot another photograph on the same day, you don’t have to. Try with a fresh mind the next day. My first few long exposure photographs were horrible and sometimes I still take some horrible pictures, so when you start out you will make mistakes and you might feel let down; do not stop there, address the issues and keep trying. I am available on my Instagram handle in case you want me to help you with your captures. 

Wish you all the very best in trying out long exposure photography. Please let me know how your shoot went in the comments.

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