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A Guide to Long-exposure Photography

Raksha Kulkarni Nov 12, 2019
Long-exposure photography is a technique where you keep the camera shutter open for a long time. This helps in capturing moving elements within that frame. Here's a guide and a few examples of this impressive technique.

What is Shutter Speed?

Shutter speed indicates the amount of time the shutter is open (in seconds).
  • 1/500 means a fast shutter. This indicates that less light will fall on your sensor.
  • 1/3 is a slower shutter. A slow shutter means the shutter will have a lot of light entering, and might create an overexposed image.

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Equipment You'll Need

Long exposure is a result of experimenting with camera settings like shutter speed. So, you need a camera with manual settings. Look out for a manual mode, shutter priority mode, or the bulb mode. Some smartphones also have an option saying “professional”, which is the manual mode.
In this technique - since the shutter opens for a long time, even a slight shake can create a blurred picture. 

A tripod is thus an ESSENTIAL tool. Mount your tripod on a sturdy surface and be carefree! You may also add extra weight to the tripod to make it sturdier!
If you’d like to shoot daytime long exposure photos, you’ll need an ND Filter. A Neutral Density filter will render a balanced, not an overexposed picture. It is a shaded glass that has to be fitted to your lens. It reduces the amount of light falling on the lens, just like a sunglass.
The filter is not only useful in daytime, but also at night to control the excess light.

You can use other settings like aperture and ISO, but they are of limited use in low light. Hence, use a filter.

Also, there are applications that help you calculate the correct exposure for a particular stop filter.
A remote is not mandatory, but it's definitely an add on! When you try to press the shutter manually, you will create movement. Also, the shutter limit of most cameras is maximum 30 seconds. If you wish a longer shutter speed, you’ll need a remote.
Before buying a remote, check if your camera can be connected with your smartphone via WiFi or Bluetooth. That way you can directly operate your camera via your smartphone.
Before getting out for the shoot, consider the weather predictions for the day. If you’re shooting a landscape, you’d want some clouds for a dramatic effect. The position of the sun also plays a vital role as your image may get overexposed.

Visit the location a few times before the shoot. You’ll be more confident of the image composition.

Settings for Long Exposure Photography

Firstly, change the camera mode to manual or shutter priority mode. The shutter priority mode enables you to control the shutter speed but the camera will adjust the aperture and ISO itself. Whereas, the manual mode will give you full control over all the settings.

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Set the shutter speed depending on what you’re shooting.

e.g. You’ll need a shutter speed in minutes to shoot the stars. But, you will need shutter speed of a few seconds if your subject is flowing water or traffic. Keep experimenting for the perfect photo.

After setting the shutter speed, adjust the ISO and aperture accordingly.
Before shooting, change the setting to Bulb mode. This enables you to keep the shutter open for more than 60 seconds.

It’s best if you take a few test shots before. It will give you a better understanding of other factors affecting the shot, and you can make the necessary changes.

Examples of Shots

Long exposure can be used to give a soft effect while taking pictures of flowing water.


You can use the ‘extra’ light to click stunning photos of the night sky and also capture star trails. You need to find a place that’s far from the city lights as they may ruin the photo. Also, clear skies will help you get those stars in your frame.
You might need a very slow shutter speed, even more than half an hour to capture the star trails. Longer the time, longer the trails!

To capture the circular motion, you need to find the North Star and start shooting around it.

Moving Traffic!

Light Painting

All you need a source of light as your subject. You can literally paint your frame with any design you wish!

As soon as you hear your shutter open, start drawing in the air. If you’re writing something, remember to write it in reverse so that it's visible in the image.
If you wish to stay in the frame, stand still till the shutter closes.

But if you don’t want to be in the shot, draw or write and move out of the frame.
Another use of this technique is for capturing a lightning in your frame. It sure is very tricky but you need nothing more than patience!
Any area that's poorly lit or dark can be shot using this. This will give you less noise in the image. Just remember that there shouldn’t be any movement in the picture. You don’t want to scare anyone with those white ghosts!

Some More Tips..

Use the “manual focus” option to click sharp images. It can be a task to focus while you’re shooting at night. You can take help from any light source in the image to help you focus better.
Prefer shooting in RAW format rather than JPG. Images shot in RAW format give you more scope for editing the final image.
Last but not the least, practice! It will take some time to gain perfection in setting the right shutter speed. Keep experimenting and you’ll get through!