In this comprehensive guide to long exposure photography, renowned photographer Colby Brown takes you through his thought process, gear, and techniques for creating incredible long exposure images. With a little creative preparation and a sturdy, dependable tripod, the sky is the limit in terms of what you can create.
When it comes to understanding various different photo techniques, few confuse photographers as much as creating long exposure images. Unlike other forms of photography, experimenting with long exposures can not only be frustrating because of the additional tools required to create impactful images but also the multitude of creatives choices one must make in the field that can drastically change the look and feel of your images.
Throughout the course of this photo guide, we will discuss the impact and significance of motion in images, discuss the various different photography gear you might need and do a deep dive into a variety of different long exposures scenarios, giving you plenty of tips and tricks along the way.
1.0 Required Gear
The Power of Motion
When thinking about the exposure triangle (ISO, Shutter-Speed, and Aperture), it is important to understand that each element of the triangle plays an important role when it comes to the atmosphere of the images that you capture. While Aperture’s role is to help you control the depth of a given scene and ISO is meant to help balance grain, color quality and light sensitivity of your shot, it is your choice of Shutter Speed that dictates how movement is captured.
When you think about it, it is the motion of an image that often determines the tension and feeling of a photo. For example, using a fast shutter speed to freeze a moment in time can help add tension and a sense of urgency to a scene. Leave your shutter speed open longer and you can capture the motion and flow of your subject, often giving you a sense of momentum and speed, often with dreamlike results.
Bruarfoss Waterfall, Iceland
Like most aspects of photography, it comes down the creative choices a photographer makes while out in the field. Even within this Long Exposure Guide, you have a choice. The difference between a 1-second exposure is much different than a 30-second exposure…especially when you add in the variable speeds in which the subject of your photograph is also moving, regardless if they are tourists at a pagoda in Tokyo or the Northern Lights dancing over mountains above the Arctic Circle.
Here is a breakdown of the gear you might need to accomplish some of your long exposure goals.
As obvious as it sounds…yes, you do need a camera in order to take long exposure images 😉 However, to expand upon that a little more, at the bare minimum you want a camera that can allow you to manually set your shutter speed to a minimum of 30 seconds. This could be a pocket sized point & shoot camera (such as the Sony RX100 V), a DSLR or one of the newer and more portable mirrorless cameras out there like the 42mp full frame a7R II that I use as my main camera out in the field.
These days, there is a number of top of the line cell phones that are starting to add exposure control into their camera apps. Regardless of what camera you choose to use, manually setting your shutter speed either in “Manual” or “Shutter Speed Priority” modes is essential.
Taken with an LG G4 Cell Phone
All modern cameras limit your shutter speed to a maximum of 30 seconds before forcing you to use the “Bulb” mode which allows you to leave your shutter open for as long as you wish (seconds to minutes to hours), although you will need a wired or wireless remote to truly use this feature, which we will talk about shortly.
While even some of the best photographers in the world can hand hold a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second with a wide angle lens (often with the help of in Camera/Lens Stabilization) and get sharp results, no one can hand hold a 20-second exposure without blurring their image. Human beings simply move too much to make it possible. Between breathing and our natural swaying movement, let alone external factors such as the wind, we are a species constantly in motion. To address these challenges, a photographer needs to use a quality tripod to attach your camera to in order to take really dive into long exposure photography. While you could place a camera on a table or a balanced rock in a pinch, you are often severely limited in your compositional options in those situations.
So what should you look for in a tripod?
My go-to tripod when I need to make sure sturdiness is my #1 priority is the Induro GIT 304L. When I am working in windy or challenging environments, this tripod is always rock solid. While it doesn’t pack as small as other tripods, it is airline carry-on friendly and with its carbon fiber body, it is fairly lightweight for such a strong & tall tripod (a must since I am 6”3).
Light & Portable
When I need to very weight conscientious on a given trip, I will often reach for my Induro CLT-104 tripod with the BHL1 ball-head. It can easily attach to any backpack and can fit in most messenger bags. Given its size and portable weight, it is still very sturdy, although it doesn’t extend nearly as tall as the GIT 304L mentioned above.
Easily one of the most under-rated pieces of equipment for long exposure photography, an L-Bracket is something I highly recommend to all of my photography workshop clients around the globe. So what is it? Essentially it is a custom metal bracket that fits along the bottom and one side of your camera that allows you to easily move from shooting horizontal to vertical images without forcing you to position your camera on the side of your tripod.
It secures to your camera using the tripod screw hole at the bottom of your camera while easily connecting to various different tripods that support the “Arca-Swiss” tripod mount. I personally don’t own a camera that doesn’t have an L-Bracket on it.
While some photographers might feel that advances in post processing applications have rendered filters useless, the truth is that they couldn’t be more wrong…at least in certain situations. While great strides have been made to artificially reproduce the effect of graduated natural density filters (where only a portion of the filter is darker) in applications such as Adobe Lightroom & Photoshop, the effects of both standard Neutral Density Filters and Circular Polarizers have yet to make it to our computers.
So what exactly do these filters do?
One of the most important filters for long exposure photography is the Neutral Density filter. Unlike the GND (Graduated Neutral Density) filter I mentioned before, an ND filter is simply a dark piece of glass or resin that you put in front of your lens that darkens your entire frame. Why would you want to do this? Simply put, to force your camera to use a longer exposure to bring more light into your sensor, allowing you to select a shutter speed that is longer than you normally could in a given scene.
The strength of ND filters are based on “Stops” of light. So a “1-Stop” ND filter will darken your scene by a single stop of light as if you were adjusting the exposure on your camera manually. Similarly, a “10-Stop” ND filter will darken things significantly by 10 stops. You can even stack filters on top of each other to add ND strengths together, such as a 10 Stop ND filter + a 6 Stop ND filter = 16 Stops of light being blocked. This is how photographers take incredibly long exposures during the middle of the day when the sun is nice and bright.
In addition to the ND filter, a Circular Polarizer is one of the most used filters in my gear kit. This screw on filter attaches to the front of your lens and allows you to either enhance or remove the reflected light from a given scene. For example, if you were photographing the shore of a lake and wanted to see through the water to the rocks just below the water, a circular polarizer would allow you to do just that. Additionally, if you were trying to take an image of a mountain reflection at sunset, a CPL filter could help you bring out that reflection, making it brighter and more apparent in your shot.
Combining a CPL & an ND filter can produce some awesome results with the right scene
Additional uses of a CPL filter:
- Enhancing rainbows
- Removing bright reflections on wet rocks along the side of waterfalls
- Bringing out the contrast found in clouds on a cloudy day
- Increasing the saturation of blue and green color hues
The Colby Brown Signature Edition Landscape Filter Kit
If you are thinking of starting your own filter collection or moving to a new filter brand, I have partnered with the amazing people of Formatt Hitech to offer a filter kit, built specifically for landscapes photographers in mind.
In it you will find the following:
- Filter Holder
- Built in CPL filter
- 6-Stop ND Filter
- 2-Stop Soft GND Filter
- 2-Stop RGND Filter (Reverse GND)
More info can be found at:
While a sturdy tripod is pivotal in capturing sharp long exposure images, it isn’t the only piece of gear that can be helpful. Even after setting up your camera on a tripod, the physical act of pressing the shutter release button can be enough to slightly shake your camera…causing unnecessary motion blur in your image. To combat this, you can use a remote control like the Phottix Taimi. Most camera manufacturers support both wired and wireless remotes to allow you to engage the shutter remotely.
If you don’t have a remote control, it is highly recommended that you engage the shutter delay function on your camera. Most manufacturers offer a 2-second delay, while others include 5 second and 10-second options as well. Engaging this feature allows for a delay between the moment you press the shutter release button and your camera actually taking the photo. Often times a
2-second delay is enough to allow any incidental movement when trying to take an image.
A side benefit of using a remote is the ability to shoot in “Bulb” mode for those really long exposures. Without one, you would have to physically hold down the shutter button on your camera, which would inevitably shake the camera in some form or fashion.
If you find yourself without a remote control or even without a set of filters, some camera manufacturers such as Sony have begun to offer in Camera applications to add functionality to your camera for an additional cost (usually between $0 and $15).
Visit Play Memories Camera Apps for more info
These two Sony camera apps can be very useful for long exposure photography if you happen to own a Sony mirrorless camera…
Smart Remote (FREE)
A great alternative to a wireless remote, the Sony Smart Remote app comes pre-installed with all Sony mirrorless cameras. By using the Sony PlayMemories App (for both Android & IOS), you can easily connect to your camera via Wifi and control many aspects of your camera. You can use your smartphone to engage touch focus, adjust your exposure (ISO, Shutter Speed & Aperture) and of course take a photo.
Unlike wireless remotes that force you to be right next to your camera to engage the shutter, the Smart Remote app gives you a lot more flexibility to move around the scene or even get in the shot yourself, making epic selfies much easier to accomplish.
If you find yourself in a bright situation without any filters but still want to try your hand at long exposure photography, the “Smooth Reflections” Sony camera app can be very handy. Instead of using an ND filter to darken the scene, allowing you to use a longer exposure, this app instead takes helps you take a ton of images at faster shutter speeds, but then combines the images together in camera, mimicking the effect of a long exposure image. While it isn’t a perfect solution for all long exposure images, it can certainly help you out in a pinch.
Practical Uses of Long Exposure Photography
When it comes to long exposure photography, there are a variety of different scenes that often call for a variety of different tactics. Let’s take a deep dive into some of the more sought after uses of long exposure photography…
One of the most popular uses of a long exposure for landscape photographers often involves waterfalls and for good reason. Between the consistent flow of water, dramatic rocks and often lush green surroundings, there is a lot to love when it comes to waterfalls.
More times than not, I am often reaching for my wide angle lens when photographing waterfalls, usually something in the 16-35mm range. Because my focus is on both motion and depth of field (so I can get close to the water), I usually don’t require very “fast glass”, so a f/2.8 lens is not needed in most situations.
Shot with a 16-35 f/4 lens at 17mm
Colby’s Ideal Camera Settings
ISO 100 | f/11 | .5 – 2 Seconds
As with most photographic scenarios, I want to try to use as low of ISO as possible. This helps to allow me to capture the most vivid and accurate colors/details through my image. As I mentioned above, most of my waterfall shots are taken between f/8 – f/11, which is also known as the “sweet spot” for most wide angle lenses.
Shot at 1.3 Seconds
While some photographers might prefer the dream-like look of a 5 or 10-second exposure with a waterfall, my happy zone usually has a shutter speed that rests between .5 and 2 seconds. Why? Because I find that it often offers an excellent balance between capturing motion while still maintaining some degree of texture in the water.
Tips & Tricks
Look for Leading Lines
Waterfalls are great resources to find things such as leading lines to help direct the viewer throughout your frame. By giving your viewers a pathway to follow along, they have a higher chance of paying attention to all the subtle details hidden throughout your image.
Kirkjufellsfoss Epic Sunset West Iceland
Don’t Be Afraid to Shoot Vertical Images
While many photographers prefer to stick to horizontal images, vertical images can help you add a bit of depth to your images. By getting close to a waterfall and shooting vertical, your images can often pull people into your frame, helping them feel as if they are right there with you.
Another popular use of long exposures is Seascapes. These are photographs involving the shore of an ocean or lake, often mixed with rocky foreground elements and fast moving water.
Just remember to try to keep your camera and lens free from salt water!
Similar to waterfalls, I often find myself using wide angle lenses when photographing most seascapes around the globe (such as my Sony 16-35 f/4 FE lens). However, I should note that because seascapes typically involve working in close proximity to a moving shoreline with a rising or lowering tide, some photographers might prefer to keep a safe distance away from the salt water that is known to kill electronic devices. In these situations, you might want to reach for a 24-70mm lens instead.
Shot with a 16-35 f/4 Lens at f/16
Ideal Camera Settings
ISO 100 | f/11 – f/16 | Variable Shutter Speed
While an ISO of 100 and an f/stop of f/11 are similar to shooting waterfalls, I often enjoy experimenting with shutter speed much more when it comes to seascapes. While I short shutter speed of .5 seconds can still balance motion and texture, a long shutter speed can help you produce very serene and dreamlike effects with your images. Depending on the speed of the waves coming in, a shutter speed of 1-4 seconds can really make a difference.
Shot at ISO 100 | f/16 | 1.6 Seconds Unstad Beach – Lofoten Islands, Norway
Tips & Tricks
Use Waders or Gaiters
As I mentioned above, shooting Seascapes often involves working closing with fast moving water, making this kind of photography not only dangerous for your camera equipment but for your clothes and well-being as well. Using waders or a pair of gaiters to keep your feet/shoes/body dry can be very helpful in allowing you to get very close to this kind of dramatic subjective matter. Just remember to try to keep your camera and lens free from salt water!
Timing is Key
Anytime you are photographing a moving subject such as a shoreline, timing becomes key in terms of when you press the shutter speed. Often times I will take 6 or 7 exposures in a row as a wave is both coming in and retreating back into the sea. Each image will have a different feel and look, depending on the speed of those waves and your choice of shutter speed.
As photographers, many of us got into photography because of our love of travel. As we move about our own city, country and the planet, we get excited by the notion of capturing the world around us. When it comes to creating something unique in these situations, a long exposure can often do the trick.
When it comes to travel/Architecture, you will often find yourself using a wide variety of lenses. From a wide angle 16-35 to a mid-range zoom of 24-70 to a telephoto 70-200, each lens has its merit depending on how close or far away your subject might be.
Taken with a 70-200mm f/2.8 Lens Vivid Sydney, Australia
Ideal Camera Settings
ISO 100 | f/2.8 – f/11 |Long Shutter Speed
While trying to maintain a low ISO, I often find myself using a wide variety of apertures, depending on the amount of light in a scene. Choosing to use a longer shutter speed can also help you create some pretty effects, such as blurring the movement of people to allowing clouds to look as is they or flowing throughout your frame, rather than stuck frozen in time.
Taken at ISO 500 | f/5.6 | 15 Second Shutter Speed Ancient City of Petra, Jordan
Tips & Tricks
The Blue Hour Is Your Friend
One of my favorite times of the day to shoot long exposure travel photography is during the blue hour, typically the hour just after the sun has set. It is during this transition between day and night that I often find the best balance between light and contrast.
Let People Move Through Your Scene
Commonly I think many photographers constantly try to remove all people from their travel images, which can be a shame. By setting up your camera on a tripod and capturing a long exposure with people moving through your scene, you can get some pretty dramatic effects, such as the blurred motion of people walking around you.
By far, one of my favorite uses of long exposures has to be night photography. There is something special about finding new and creative ways for my camera to capture the vastness of space, as well natural occurring phenomenon such as the northern lights. Combine night photography with any of the other kinds of long exposure use cases we mentioned above, and you are in for a treat!
Because night photography typically involves working in very dark environments, you will want to have the fastest glass possible. In terms of lenses, this means something in the f/2.8 or lower range. The lower the f/stop, the wider the aperture can open to allow light in, which can really make a difference when it comes to night photography. Pair this with a nice wide angle lens, such as a 16-35mm lens and you are good to go!
Coipasa, Bolivia 2012
Ideal Camera Settings
Lowest ISO Possible | Fastest Aperture | 4-30 Second Shutter Speed
Like nearly all forms of photography, you want to use the lowest ISO possible for your images, but because you are working in such dark situations, you ISO will have to go a bit higher than 100. Many of my best images taken at night are shoot between ISO 800 – 3200. In addition, to allow more light to hit your sensor, you will want to shoot as wide open as you can when it comes to your aperture, so around f/2.8 if possible, but if you have a f/4 lens…shoot at f/4. As for shutter speed, you want to keep it open long enough to capture your scene. This could mean 4 seconds or 15, depending on your choice of subject matter.
Taken at ISO 1000 | f/2 | 15 Seconds at 25mm
Tips & Tricks
Manual Focus For the Win
One of the biggest challenges for photographers when it comes to night photography is focusing. Because our cameras need content to focus properly, most cameras struggle to autofocus in the dark. To get around this, you need to manual focus your lenses in these situations. Look for an element in your scene that has a nice contrast line, such as a mountain against the night sky and use that to pinpoint your manual focus. Most likely, that subject is going to be pretty far away, which means that you have found your “infinity” focus point to get most of your image in focus, even with a wide open f/stop.
Manual focus on the point where the mountain and the sky connect to pinpoint focus in a dark scene.
Let the Sky Take Over
To me, night photography is all about the sky. While I do want to have an interesting or engaging subject in my foreground, I want the sky itself to be the main character in the story of my image. Because of this, I often find myself using very wide angle lenses while also shooting in vertical orientation. This allows me to fill most of my frame with the sky itself…capturing all of the beauty of the abyss of space in the process.
Nighttime in Skogafoss, Iceland
I think it is safe to say that after 11 years of pursuing landscape and travel photography, long exposures are both technically challenging and creatively fulfilling. With so many moving parts, it is important to have a vision for what kind of images you want to create before you press the shutter button or jump into BULB mode for the first time. With a little creative preparation and a sturdy and dependable tripod, the sky is the limit in terms of what you can create. Now get out there and get shooting!