How to take a long exposure photograph

When we are to take a photograph of a flowing waterfall, the waves of grass on a field or perhaps the dreamy slow flow of a small creek it is easy to end up with an image where all seem frozen. The feeling of the location that was so clear at the site disappear completely when the photo has frozen the motions that was visible. How to counter this to bring a photo back in which we can save the feeling and the look of what we actually saw?

The reason is that cameras often in automatic modes use a short exposure give us a sharp image where motion often is reduced or removed all together. By instead increasing the exposure time we can bring back the motion into these images and end up with a photo which includes what we tried to remember. A night at the beach by a concrete pier can end up with a photo as below.

Nikon D80, Nikon 18-200 VRII @ 28mm, f/25, ISO 100, 18 seconds

 

Since we will be open up the sensor for quite some time a tripod or something to hold your camera in place is a must. Also, if you are out in daylight or in a setting which is already lit a neutral density filter can prove to be much helpful.

Long exposure photography, a quick guide

  1. Command dialTurn the mode dial of your camera to manual mode. The manual mode is often shown as an ‘M’ on the dial on your D-SLR where you can also find modes for aperture priority, shutter priority or the preset modes. Also place the camera body steady using a tripod or similar, all to reduce the shake which will cause blur when we are using longer exposures (lower shutter speed).
  2. Lower your ISO to the lowest possible setting, often between 80 and 200 depending on your camera. Since the ISO is a measurement of the sensitivity of the sensor in the camera a low value will require more light to enter the camera to sow up in the photo.
  3. Reduce the aperture to the lowest setting you can use, often about f/22 but can go even higher depending on your lens. The aperture is how big or small the opening or iris is in the lens to let through light into the camera. Beware however that on very small apertures the quality of the photo might be reduced.
  4. If you have neutral density filters, apply these to your lens. The neutral density filter is a filter which goes on your lens which then reduce the amount of light which can pass through the lens into the sensor of your camera. By doing this you can open the shutter for a longer time without getting to much light into the camera and by that, get an overexposed image.
  5. Set an exposure time between two and thirty seconds. The exact amount of time you need to open the shutter is depending on the light conditions you are in. If you are taking photos at dawn the light will change for every minute that pass so you can’t even use the same value for two photos to get the same result! Simply start with a value of a couple of seconds to see if you need more or less. A too dark image need a longer time with an open shutter and a to bright image need a shorter shutter time or that you as a photographer wait until the sun has set some more.
  6. Use a remote trigger. To reduce camera shake even further use a cable release or a remote control or if you have none of these use the timer mode in your camera to delay the photo being taken for a few seconds after you press the shutter release.
  7. Good luck!

Additional tips

  • Before you start taking photos, walk for a bit and look for settings which would be a great photo. For long exposure photos of water personally I find locations where items are in the water which the waves can crash against to look most stunning.
  • Always think about photo composition when looking for a location. Foreground and background is just as important as the main subject in shots where you want to show a large area. If you are on a beach, look for stones and drift wood.