I use long exposures more often than not in my landscape photography, and I have done so for more than three years. Here, I share some tips on how to do it, but most importantly, why I do it.
The effect of long exposure is one of the most used in landscape photography. These days, it sometimes feels as if all landscape photography with movement has been long-exposed. I was guilty of this when I started out in landscape photography. All scenes with moving clouds or water wer shot with a ten-stop filter and a random exposure time to get everything smoothed out. Why? Well, it looked cool! As time has passed, I have become more aware of my art and why I choose to add certain effects. Here I share some of my experience in tips form for long exposures.
Tip 1: Think About Why You Do It
The long exposure effect is commonly used in landscape photography. The main reasoning behind it is to smooth out things in movement such as water and clouds. Some do it to show the movement, while others like it for simplifying the scene or giving it an ethereal look. Some again just like the look of it, and some simply need to do it to collect enough light; an example of this could be night sky photographers. I do, however, urge you to think about why you use it and not just do it because it is popular. It is popular for a reason, but after all, it is just an effect and effects alone do not make a good photo, just as special effects alone do not make a good movie.
Tip 2: Use the Right Camera
To generate the long exposure, you will need a camera that can photograph in manual mode or where you at the very least can control the shutter speed. The long exposure is obviously based on how long you expose, which is controlled by the shutter speed. Whether this is 1/10 of a second, 1 second, 30 seconds, or 30 minutes, you will need a camera that is able to do that. These days, almost all entry-level DSLRs, mirrorless, or hybrid cameras have a sort of manual mode. Even some smartphones can create long exposures these days.
Tip 3: Use Filters
The longer you expose the scene to get the long exposure effect, the more light you let onto the sensor. To get a proper exposure, you are forced to compensate by closing down the aperture or lowering your ISO. In most scenes during daylight, whether or not it is overcast or not, adjusting the aperture or ISO is just not enough. Here, neutral density filters (also known as ND filters) enter the equation. Filters are basically sunglasses for your camera and the stronger the filter, the less light it lets through. The effect of filters is measured in stops, just as the other exposure parameters are. I have ever only used a 6-stop and 10-stop filter, which has been enough for my photography.
Tip 4: Use a Tripod
When the camera exposes for a long time, all movement will be blurred. If you move the camera or it shakes during the exposure, the entire scene moves, and you get a blurry photo. A tripod is a fantastic tool for holding your camera still. The sturdier a tripod is, the better it holds the camera still. For tips on this, check out my article on that subject.
Tip 5: Bring Cloths
If you are photographing near the ocean or a waterfall, you might get water spray on your lens. A microfiber cloth is what you will use to wipe off the lens or filter.
Tip 6: Composition
As movement in the scene is smoothed out, you will have to consider that when you compose it. The scene still needs a focal point (for the most part), leading lines or elements, depth, etc. What is it you want to show the viewer? Will the smoothed-out water make a difference concerning leading lines and visual flow?
Tip 7: Choose the Shutter Speed Appropriate to the Scene
This tip is related to tip one, but I think it is important to emphasize. Related to why you choose to make a long exposure in the first place is choosing the appropriate shutter speed relative to the scene or story you want to show. Is it a waterfall, stream, waves, grass, clouds, trees, cars, people, or something else? How fast does it move relative to your camera? Different shutter speeds makes very different effects. The difference between 1/3 of a second and 0.5 seconds can make a huge difference in how long the streaks of an exploding wave will be, not to mention what happens if you choose a 30-second exposure on the same scene. In the photo below, I tried a few different shutter speeds before I settled on 0.6 seconds, which for me, gave the best result for showing movement and drama without blurring the water too much.
In the end, you might also benefit from thinking why you should not make a long exposure. In the below photo, I chose a fast shutter speed, because I wanted to show how the water is spread by the air when it falls down. This gives a good idea of how big the waterfall is. Had I used a slow shutter and smoothed out the water, the sense of scale would disappear.
I learned this lesson some years ago while making a 30-second exposure of the ocean (photo below). The scene was nice and smooth, but as a viewer, you completely lose the sense of scale, as you cannot see any waves, water particles, or seagulls. And as people who have visited this location know, this place is huge! This made me very aware that long exposure is not the answer to all great landscape photos. After all, it is just an effect, and effects are to emphasize something else.
What about you? Do you feel you have overused the long exposure effect? Do you have any tips on the subject? Write down below and let us start some exchange of knowledge.