Get Started with Long Exposure Photography

By Geoff Harris

Long Exposure Photography

If you are looking to take more creative photographs in 2015, using slow shutter speeds, or long exposures, can yield some great effects. It's one of the easiest ways to get creative with your camera but it does require thought and practice.

There are two main pitfalls to be aware of. As you are keeping your shutter open longer, lots of light is flooding onto the sensor, which is handy if the light is poor, but can often cause overexposure on a bright and sunny day.

Long Exposure Photography

Second, as even the slightest movement will be recorded by the sensor, any inadvertent movement of the camera will make the image soft and blurry. It's hard to shoot handheld with long exposures and avoid everything looking blurry.

Filters are often needed to combat the first problem, tripods the second. It sounds complicated but it's not, so let get started...

Milky waterfalls

Long Exposure Photography
This is a great way to practice with slow shutter speeds. You don't need Niagara, even a water feature in your garden will do. Overcast days tend to work best to avoid overexposure, or buy a Variable ND filter.

Long Exposure Photography

Simply set up your camera on a tripod, attach a cable release (to avoid camera shake as you take the picture) then choose a narrow aperture (say f/22) and a slow exposure of 1/4 sec.

Long Exposure Photography

This may seem fast to us, but it's pretty slow for your camera. Change to a low ISO of 100. You will need to use manual focus, so autofocus doesn't get distracted, focussing on the surrounding rocks – obviously the milky looking water will be out of focus.

Slow the shutter speed further for even more radical results.

Traffic trails

Long Exposure Photography
This is another cool technique that is relatively simple, and will again get you used to working with slow shutter speeds. Stand by the side of the road at dusk or nighttime, and again, use a tripod and cable release.

Long Exposure Photography

Switch to manual focus and focus on a static object in the scene, such as a building or landmark. Pick a slow shutter speed of, say, 10-30 seconds and keep ISO low (you want to minimise noise, and higher ISOs push up shutter speeds, remember).

Long Exposure Photography

Narrower apertures work best too, but be prepared to experiment. As the cars whizz past, take the shots and you should end up with cool-looking light trails!

Star trails

Long Exposure Photography
Once you have mastered these fairly simple effects, why not have a go at star trails? It's a perfect technique to try on a bright, clear, moonless winter night. This time you will nee a higher ISO, say 800, to help capture the stars and a very slow exposure of 30 seconds, along with a mid-range aperture from f/5.6 to 8.

To make things easier, change to continuous shooting mode, so your camera is taking a shot every 30 seconds so long as you keep the cable-release button pressed down. As always with long exposure, a sturdy tripod is essential.

One final tip is to turn off long exposure noise reduction so the camera can shoot continuously.

Further Study

Low Light Landscape Photography A 4 week online photography course with master photographer Tony Worobiec

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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