The Why and The When
Now that we’ve got your technical basics down, let’s discuss some of the ways in which you can use long exposures. These topics are loose guidelines meant to steer you in the right direction. If you’re feeling confident in your knowledge, fiddle with them to your heart’s content.
Long exposures are most commonly used for capturing elements of night scenery, landscapes, and light trails.
Before you get started, there are a few generic rules you’re going to want to keep in mind for every subject you may choose to cover. The thing about long exposures is that, as we know, they take place over a period of time. They don’t just happen in a few fractions of a second.
That means you’re going to want to be precise and picky about the locations and times you chose to shoot. While there’s absolutely no saying you can’t just stumble onto an amazing scene for a long exposure, taking your time to carefully pick the spot for the perfect framing and conditions can go a long way to taking a great photo.
For almost all of these subjects, you’re going to want to:
- Pick a location.
- Envision the framing (doing test runs with your equipment will benefit you).
- Set up your tripod. Make sure it is firmly positioned. A shaky tripod will result in shaky photos.
- Calculate the aperture and shutter speed you will need to use.
- If you are using an ND filter, manually focus the photo.
- Place an ND filter on if needed.
With that in mind, here are a few subjects that are popularly chosen for long exposures.
The flow of water is a popular subject for long exposure photography. The misty appearance that water often takes on in long exposures tends to appeal to the eye, and often adds a sort of mystic, even fantastical feel to intense landscape photos.
For these kinds of long exposures, choosing a location beforehand and envisioning the composition of your photo can be particularly helpful.
For instance, if you’re shooting a waterfall, nailing the framing before you take the photo can make for a much more compelling picture. While the rule of thirds is a popular and safe guide for shooting landscapes, you should feel free to experiment with the positioning of, for instance, this hypothetical waterfall.
The important thing to keep in mind is how the surrounding environment changes your photos. A gray-ish looking waterfall that takes up top-to-bottom of your photo might not be the most interesting to look at.
Search for scenes where elements work in tandem to create an interesting picture. Water ricocheting off of rocks, or a fall tucked into an alcove of trees can all make for great, compelling photos.
Keep in mind that the waterfall doesn’t need to be the focal point of your photo. It can be just as compelling to use it as an accent to your work, rather than the main subject.
If you choose to capture these photos in bright light, you want to be sure you have your composition and focus set before screwing your ND filter on.
Finally, if you want to capture water moving in any capacity, I’d recommend a shutter speed of one second or slower. These produce great, misty waterfalls, and capture just the right amount of movement to imply the passage of time.
Similarly to water, streaks of clouds can also add a dreamy effect to your photos. In the case of cityscapes, they can serve to draw attention to skyscrapers by pulling the viewer into the photo, or reduce the noise in a crowded city skyline by essentially fading into the background and serving as an accent to the photo.
When capturing clouds, you’re going to want to follow a lot of the same rules that apply to long exposures. Checking the weather also helps!
How much of the sky you choose to include in your photos is also up to you. For the best results, I’d suggest having the sky taking up at least one-third of your photo (horizontally), and at the very most, about two-thirds.
The above photo shows a composition where the sky takes up about one-third of the photo. Two-thirds of the photo would be down to the second horizontal line.
Motion-blurred clouds do the best job as backdrops to beautiful scenery. So, for instance, a vast city skyline or a sprawling valley could benefit from the intensity and motion of clouds. Dark, tumultuous, stormy scenes can also be intensified by long exposures that include clouds.
The direction the clouds are moving in also plays a huge role in how our eyes perceive the picture. Clouds moving towards the viewer create the illusion of an expanding photo, whereas clouds moving away from the viewer create the opposite effect.
Now, one of the major differences between water and clouds is that clouds tend to move much slower than water. This means you’ll have to use a pretty slow shutter speed. For the best results, I’d recommend a shutter speed of a minute or longer.
Believe it or not, the blur of people going about their day can add tremendously to your photo. While the streak of clouds or the mist of flowing water might throw the average viewer off (after all, Photoshop exists, and many believe those effects are edits), the passage of people couldn’t scream more loudly that you’ve taken a long exposure. Even if your audience doesn’t understand how you’ve done it, they’ll get what you did.
Blurry people work especially well in cityscapes. Because it’s so typical for people to view cities as bustling, overcrowded metropolises, motion-blurred people fit right into that narrative, emphasizing the hustle and bustle of city life.
Finally, lights are one of the most commonly used subjects in long exposure photography. Using long exposures, a photographer can use lights to make trails on crowded roads, paths of stars, or paintings composed exclusively from streaks of light. There are many varying ways you can fiddle with lights and long exposures, and what you want to do with them rests in your hands.
For example, you could artificially set up your own light show. Light painting is a photographic practice wherein people use long exposures to draw pictures or scenes with a source of light directly manipulated by the photographer or someone assisting them.
You might also want to capture something you have less control over, like, for instance, star trails or light trails from a busy highway. For these photos, you most likely won’t need to use an ND filter.
For light trails, locations like busy highways make the perfect subject. These kinds of photos are framed nicely by cityscapes and skylines. For highways in particular, it helps to have an overhead vantage point, but it isn’t always necessary, like in the photo below:
Shooting star trails is a little bit different. The first thing you’ll want to make sure you have access to is an actually starry sky. If you’re like me and live in New York City or some other big city, then the idea of seeing stars anywhere is a far off dream that forces you to travel many miles just for a decent night sky shot.
Hopefully you’re not like me.
But, it’s not enough to just locate the starry sky. You’ll also have to make sure the sky is cloud-free.
There are two common practices when it comes to capturing star trails. One involves stacking many photos captured throughout the course of a night, and the other is a long-exposure. Obviously, we’ll be looking at long-exposures.
In the case of starry long exposures, light from the moon can actually help (so long as your camera isn’t facing the moon). You’ll want to use a low ISO (around 400, and as high as 800) and a wide aperture (f/5.6, and preferably wider). For long exposures, if you want to capture the stars in movement, you have to be prepared to dedicate a very long time to the exposure. I’m talking 30 minutes and more. And unlike star trails that are popularly posted, these long exposures most likely won’t look like the picture below:
Instead, they’ll probably look something like this:
You can definitely get longer trails by using a longer exposure, but you also have to factor in how long your camera’s battery will last in the circumstances. For a first night-time long exposure detailing stars though, this is a great place to start.
If you do want the trails of the first photo, those kinds of photos require lots of patience, pictures, and editing. The photo I happened to use as an example also contains a light trail that was most definitely taken using a long exposure, but the overall photo is likely a composite photo that was put together in something like Photoshop.
While long exposures might seem daunting at first, they are completely worth the effort it takes to execute them. Once you know your ins and outs of the whole method, you’ll be effortlessly shooting long exposures left and right. And the only way you’ll be able to learn is to get out there and take photos. Be patient and persistent, and in no time you’ll be shooting great long exposures!