5 Fun Long Exposure Techniques

November 15, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Long exposure photography is a wide open world of experimentation, and if you're like me, giddy enjoyment. For those unfamiliar, long exposure photography typically refers to images made with exposure times of several seconds or more. The purpose can be to capture a low-light scene sharply, or allow moving elements such as water or clouds to blur into smooth tones. Even fairly basic cameras will usually have the ability to take images with exposure times up to 15 or 30 seconds. In this case, use the timer to avoid camera shake when pressing the shutter button. If you're working with a camera that is more advanced, there will also be a "bulb" option, which allows you to take an image with an exposure time just about as long as you wish. You will need a cable release to avoid camera shake, as it's up to you to tell the camera when the exposure is complete and close the shutter. 

Lose the Tripod

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, taking your camera off the tripod for long exposure work can make for great photographic exploration. From creating outright abstracts via deliberate motion, to utilizing panning or zooming techniques. This can be the most fun, because it is quite unpredictable but with practice you'll learn anticipate your results. When shooting this way, my exposure times usually run from about 1 second up to 8 seconds. I recently wrote about this technique for shooting motion abstracts in greater detail.

MascheraMascheraThis is a combination of camera and subject movement: the leaping flames and twisting movements created an almost Rorschach effect. Light Paint

Light painting is great creative fun. Whether using glow sticks, LED lights, a flashlight, or speedlite, there are infinite applications. Colored light (via gels or colored bulbs) allows you to light-paint the foreground of a landscape image to create unexpected scenes. Using flash on a moving object allows for a ghosting image effect, whether of a person or object, that can be as ambiguous as you please. You can also create shapes or patterns through the frame with various colored light sources as well. An exciting - nay, revolutionary - new tool for light painting is on Kickstarter right now, called the PixelStick, which I cannot wait to try out!

A battery powered blue light on a string allowed for experimentation during the long exposure. This was my first foray into light painting this way, and will certainly require more practice.

Introduce Movement

Instead of moving the camera, introduce movement through the frame. This is something you can easily execute solo or with a cohort. Keep in mind that the when moving element contrasts in color and/or brightness from the static scene it will be more likely to stand out. This can also work in crowded or urban locations, where people or cars blur into random streaks of color and light, and works well in conjunction with a number of light painting techniques.

FleetingFleetingThis combines movement and flash. The model walked towards and then away as I fired an off-camera flash several times. Ambient light allowed her movement to register, while the scene is sharp because the camera is on a tripod.

Do it During the Day

Many people reserve long exposure work for when light levels are low or nearly absent. You can open up the possibilities by shooting long exposures in broad daylight. The critical tool here is an ND filter, which will reduce the light entering the lens, saving you from sharpness-destroying f/22 which may not be enough anyway. A 10-stop filter is potentially sufficient on overcast days, but if it's sunny out, you may need to start stacking ND filters to achieve exposure times topping 30 seconds.

TempoTempoBenefiting from an overcast sky, I was able to achieve a 25 sec exposure, smoothing the water and simplifying the image.


Black Out

Fair warning: this is actually an idea I've been batting around but haven't had the opportunity to try yet. In the analog days, you could create double (or triple) exposures on a single frame, a feature now included on some higher end digital SLR cameras. For those without that option (like me), using a long exposure time you can begin the exposure of one scene, then cover the lens with a black cloth or card and reposition the camera to overlay a secondary scene. Of course, you could also achieve a double-exposure effect via editing, but I enjoy challenging myself to create in-camera too. I expect this will take a fair amount of practice to time correctly, and I look forward to sharing the results, good or bad.


Long exposure photography is one of my favorite areas to play in, and it is becomes easier with a handful of specific tools and gadgets. I'll be following up soon with a selection of these items that make up what I'll be referring to as my "Long Exposure Tool Kit". Feel free to share your favorite long exposure tricks or gadgets in the comments, and stay tuned for the Black Out results.






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