Long Exposure Techniques for Creating Interesting Effects (2023)

Long exposure photography (or long shutter speed), is a technique used for creating photos with really interesting effects. If you have ever wondered how images that contain car trails, waterfalls with silky-smooth effects, or motion are made, keep reading and I’ll tell you how to do these things.

Photography is one of the best ways to capture a moment in time; in fact, we could say that a photograph freezes time.

This is the way we are trained to see or perceive.

If we translate how our eyes and brain work into photographic terms, we can assume a shutter speed of about 1/150th of a second with a focal length of 50mm.

Life is more like a video, however, and with the use of longer shutter speed, we can certainly add a third dimension and even special effects to a photo.

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These types of images are created with long exposure techniques using a long shutter speed.

What is Long Exposure Photography?

For this article, I’ll consider a good long exposure photo to be an image where the shutter was open for more than five seconds. There is no rule about this; it’s just my opinion.

Any of these long exposure techniques could be wowing when properly done.

Think about fast-moving clouds, car trails, smooth water, and a great trick to make people disappear.

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Long Exposure Techniques for Creating Interesting Effects (3)

Equipment Needed for Creating These Effects

For these long exposure techniques, you’ll need a few specific items in your kit:

(Video) 7 Creative LONG EXPOSURE Photography Effects

  1. A camera with Manual or Bulb Mode: You’ll need a camera that will allow you to control the shutter speed via either the manual settings or bulb mode.

    Most modern DSLRs or mirrorless cameras are capable of this function. However, this could be a challenge with a point-and-shoot type of camera.

  2. Tripod: This is the second most crucial element for achieving this effect. (The first one is the camera, of course.)

    The sturdier your tripod, the better; as the exposure lasts several seconds or possibly minutes. Soit is essential to have a good tripod to avoid camera shake.

    I prefer mine to be carbon fiber.This material is light for traveling, and also its nature helps to absorb vibrations better than aluminum.

    Long Exposure Techniques for Creating Interesting Effects (4)
  3. Remote trigger/shutter release cable: In long exposures, even a small vibration of the camera will contribute to delivering a not-very-sharp image.

    To help avoid that, a remote trigger or shutter cable release is the perfect tool, so you don’t have to press the shutter with your fingers. There are several options, from straightforward ones to more complex phone apps with multiple programs to accomplish this task.

    If you don’t own one, alternatively you could fire your camera using the two- or ten-second timer. I prefer this option as that way I don’t have to worry about carrying another “gadget” in my bag.

    Depending on your camera, there could be certain limitations regarding the use of the timer, as this option will not allow using Bulb Mode. In case you don’t know this term or method, Bulb will keep the shutter open for as long as you have the shutter pressed. So if you need exposures longer than 30 seconds you will likely need some type of remote trigger.

  4. Neutral Density Filters: A neutral density (ND) filter is a dark piece of glass that you place in front of your lens to cut the amount of light reaching the sensor.

    Long exposures can be done at different times of the day. However, during the daytime (or at night in areas of bright light), you’ll need the help of a neutral density filter. That way, in order to get a correct exposure (yes, you guessed it right) you’ll need a longer shutter speed. Exactly what you want!

    ND filters come in various formats, but the most common grades are three, six, and ten stops (measuring the number of stops of light the filter is cutting). These filters also come at several levels of quality; in this case, my recommendation is to invest in a good one made of glass. You can get ones that screw onto the lens or drop-in ones that require a filter holder.

  5. Extra batteries: Yes, extra camera batteries should always be in your bag.

    Pro photographers always carry spare batteries. This is especially true for shooting long exposures as the operation of the camera for longer than normal periods of time will drain them much faster.

Here is a list of some recommended items for long exposure photography.

How to Set Up Your Camera for a Long Exposure

The method is fairly straightforward.

All you need to do is find a good composition and then work your exposure triangle in a way that your shutter speed is long enough for your desired effect.

That means that typically you will be using the lowest possible native ISO your camera can be set to (don’t use L1), and your aperture will be stopped down to f/11 or above (a smaller opening).

(Video) How to make a Super Long Exposure Photo for Extraordinary Effects

Depending on the lens I’m using, I sometimes even get up to f/32.

For creative reasons or if those aperture numbers are not enough to get the right exposure length, you can then add the before-mentioned neutral density filter.

Some Examples of Long Exposure Techniques

1) Car Trails

Car trails are one of the most typical applications for long shutter speeds.

If you’re going to attempt this one, make sure your composition includes a long street from where you can spot a good portion of the image where the cars are going to be passing by.

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How fast the cars are moving will dictate how long of a shutter speed you’ll need so the trail can be shown across the whole frame of your composition. You can also take multiple shots and stack them together later using Photoshop (or any program that utilizes layers).

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Read more on shooting car trail lights here:Guide to Photographing Light Trails at Night.

2) Waterfalls and Smooth Water

This effect is also really cool when applied to cascades or bodies of water.

The shutter speed will create a silky-smooth look on seascapes and lakes, and will also convey a sense of motion over waterfalls. In the case of coastlines or within cities, it will also help to accentuate the effect of the reflection of the buildings over the water.

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Long Exposure Techniques for Creating Interesting Effects (8)

Darlene wrote an entire article on getting your best waterfall photos if you’re interested in more information on that subject.

(Video) SUPER long exposure photography tutorial: Daytime time-blending and Photoshop tips

3) Fast-Moving Clouds

I am a fan of this technique.

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Every time I see clouds moving fast I break out the tripod, grab a good ND filter, and shoot away. For this to work, it is better to use a wide-angle lens to include more sky and aim for an exposure time past the one- or two-minute mark.

A great foreground is always a plus, but your best friend, in this case, is the sky.

4) Making People Disappear

If you’re standing on a busy corner or anywhere that people come and go (like the metro station below), and you’d prefer to make a photo without people, a long shutter speed could rescue you.

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Since the image takes longer to register on the sensor and the light gathered goes very slowly, people moving around will generally not be recorded.

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Again, here you’ll need extremely long exposures, and depending on how fast or slow people are moving it could make them look like ghosts. The color of the clothing and relation to the kind of light they are under will also produce different results.

I use this long exposure technique often to make my subjects disappear. Where a long exposure isn’t possible, you can use Photoshop to make people disappear.

5) Star Trails

This is a fun one too. However, it requires some extra work.

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(Video) Creative photography tips: long exposures for cool effects
Long Exposure Techniques for Creating Interesting Effects (13)

If you aim your camera to the sky at night and shoot for at least 25 seconds, the stars will look like they’re moving. That’s nice, but just one photo is not enough to produce star trails.

The trick to this long exposure technique is to combine as many images as possiblethe more, the merrier.

I usually do 80 to 100 images for star trails. Merging them is not that difficult and can be done with a software called StarStaX.


Any of these long exposure techniques create fun and interesting effects.

Attaining a great long-exposure picture entails a lot of trial and error, so once you find your composition, stand by and play with different shutter speeds until you see the correct combination for the type of effect you’re looking for.

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As you can see, long exposure photography is fun and easy to achieve with the right tools.

The secret is to find an excellent composition and subject and have patience. The results are often very rewarding.

What about you? Have you ever tried this before? If you have, I’d love to see the outcome.

Please share some of your images with us in the comments below.

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Long Exposure Techniques for Creating Interesting Effects? ›

8 Tips for Shooting Long Exposure Photography
  • Use a tripod. ...
  • Use bulb mode for long exposures. ...
  • Look for images with motion. ...
  • Choose kinetic backgrounds for static subjects. ...
  • Learn the 500 rule. ...
  • Regulate the amount of light that enters the camera. ...
  • Try a few test shots. ...
  • Adjust long exposure images in post.
Jun 7, 2021

What is the 500 rule in photography? ›

The 500 Rule

It recommends that your shutter speed is equal to 500 ÷ Equivalent Focal Length. So, if your full-frame equivalent focal length is 20mm, the 500 rule would suggest that you use a shutter speed of 500 ÷ 20 = 25 seconds.

What is the effect of long exposure? ›

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.

What are the 3 things are needed to make a good exposure? ›

Let's take a quick look at each of the three values in the exposure triangle:
  • Aperture. ...
  • Shutter Speed. ...
  • ISO. ...
  • To produce a photograph or video you must use the exposure triangle in order to balance aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and as a result, control how long and how much light enters the camera sensor.

What photos look good with long exposure? ›

Long Exposure Photography: Water

Oceans, waterfalls, fountains, and rivers are all classic subjects for long exposures. Flowing water is a popular choice because it's so beautiful and predictable. Unlike many other moving subjects, like clouds, you can rely on the water looking more or less the same from day to day.

How long can you expose without star trails? ›

Even 20-seconds is actually a shorter exposure time than the 500 rule would allow, star trailing is visible in the image when viewed at 100%. In a lower pixel resolution camera, this effect is not as pronounced, and the 500 rule produces a better result.

Can you shoot stars with a 50mm? ›

Star stacking and separate foreground exposure. Shutter speeds should be limited to 10 seconds or less at 50mm on full frame, and as low as 3 seconds for very sharp pinpoint stars.

Why do photographers use long exposure? ›

Long-exposure, time-exposure, or slow-shutter photography involves using a long-duration shutter speed to sharply capture the stationary elements of images while blurring, smearing, or obscuring the moving elements.

Which medium uses long exposure? ›

Long exposures are most commonly used for capturing elements of night scenery, landscapes, and light trails.

How do you light long exposure? ›

Light trails, like long exposures, are ideally shot in Manual mode. Shutter speed – depending on the light in your scene, your shutter time will need to be at least 10 to 15 seconds, or longer if necessary. Make sure that your shutter speed is long enough to capture longish light trails.

What shutter speed is best for long exposure? ›

For a long exposure image, you're really only after one thing: a slow shutter speed. You'll start to get the long exposure look at around half a second for fast moving subjects, but generally, you'll want a shutter speed of between ten and thirty seconds.

How do you do a long exposure in the day? ›

You can use Manual Mode or Shutter Priority Mode to capture daytime long exposure photography. Use Shutter Priority Mode if you are happy with your camera selecting the aperture. If you want to control aperture, use Manual Mode.

How do you do long exposure clouds? ›

Long Exposure Clouds Tutorial - YouTube

What are the 7 principles of photography? ›

The seven principles of art and design in photography; balance, rhythm, pattern, emphasis, contrast, unity and movement, form the foundation of visual arts. Using the seven principles allows you to take greater control of your photographic practice. This will lead to better photos and more photographic opportunities.

What makes a good exposure? ›

So what is a good exposure in photography? A good exposure in photography is generally the right combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO that best reflects the subject you are trying to shoot. It helps to think of light and exposure in photography as you would filling bath tub with water.

What is the 500 or 600 rule in photography? ›

This rule states that the maximum exposure time of a camera with full frame sensor should not be greater than 600 divided by the focal length of the lens.

What is the best aperture for astrophotography? ›

A lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or lower is considered to be a fast lens, and is excellent for astrophotography.

What is the best ISO for astrophotography? ›

If you're just looking for the best ISO to use on your DSLR camera for astrophotography, start with ISO 1600. This is often the “sweet spot” for modern digital cameras, and it is my most used ISO setting for deep-sky and nightscape astrophotography.

What lens is best for Milky Way? ›

The Sony 20 mm f/1.8 is the best lens for shooting the Milky Way. The quality in low-light photography is stunning. It's fast and sharp even in the corners, with no deformations, aberrations, and other issues common in other Milky Way lenses.

Can you shoot Milky Way at f3 5? ›

Unfortunately my widest and fastest lens is the Panasonic 12-60 at f3. 5 and have to go to up to 60" and ISO 3200 to get a decent result, but then we I zoom I can see the stars trailing.
Help needed! Shooting with f3. 5 ?
Shutter speed8 sec
Capture dateFri, 25 Jul 2014 23:03:24 GMT
Aug 19, 2017

Can you shoot Milky Way with 50mm? ›

Nikon Z 6 with NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.8 S lens @ f/1.8, ISO 6400. Star stack of 20 exposures at 4 seconds each for sharp stars and low noise. By and large, ultra wide angle focal lengths like 14mm (on full frame) are the normal choice for photographing the Milky Way over a landscape.

Where should I focus in long exposure? ›

Follow the basics of night photography – place the camera on a tripod, use a wide-angle lens with the smallest aperture possible, and focus to infinity. Turn the camera's mode dial to Manual or Bulb shooting mode and use a slow shutter speed (5-30 seconds) for a longer exposure.

What is the longest exposure ever? ›

The record for the longest exposure image is thought to be held by German artist Michael Wesely, with an image tracking four years and eight months, according to the University of Hertfordshire. For 18-year-old model Rina Fukushi, Tokyo is home.

What lens is best for long exposure? ›

You can use any lens for taking long exposure photographs, although most photographers generally use wide angles lenses, which allow you to capture more of the scene. My favourite lens for long exposure photography is the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 II USM Lens. It's a great focal length to capture moving water and clouds.

How long is considered long exposure? ›

In photography, it's generally considered long exposure when the shutter speed is slower than 1/60th of a second.

Why are my long exposures blurry? ›

Inevitably, shooting long exposures introduces a greater likelihood of camera shake – the camera moving slightly whilst taking the shot, causing the subject to be blurred.

How do you do long exposure water? ›

Long Exposure Photography – The Best Settings for Moving Water: To create movement in the water you'll need to slow down your shutter speed. To do this easily, flick over to Aperture Priority mode, simply drop your ISO down really low, increase your aperture to f/22 or the highest your camera will allow.

How do you create light trails in photography? ›

Put camera settings together for the best light trail image.

Shooting on a higher ISO with longer shutter speeds and wider aperture settings will let enough light pass through your lens to create a visible light trail. Start with ISO 800, a shutter speed of five seconds or longer, and an f/8 aperture.

What is a Pixelstick? ›

The Pixelstick is an ultra-intelligent tool that allows you to paint with colored light for incredibly vibrant light painting shots. But that's not all – you can also load any image, design, animation, pattern or graphic that you desire, so that you can impose it on film, digital and instant photos!

How does the rule of 500 work? ›

You take the number 500 and divide by the focal length of your lens. For example, if you have a 20-mm wide angle lens, then 500 / 20 = 25. The 500 rule measures the maximum exposure time you can shoot before the stars become blurry or star trails appear.

Why can't you take a picture of the stars? ›

What is this? The reason you need a remote shutter release for taking pictures of the stars is two-fold. First, even with your camera on a tripod, the act of depressing the shutter button can cause small movements that result in image blur. The remote shutter release removes this problem.

What is the shutter speed rule? ›

As a rule of thumb, your shutter speed needs to be double (or more) than the lens focal length. So, for example, if using a 50mm lens, your shutter speed should be 1/100th sec or faster. If shooting with a 75mm lens, your shutter speed should be at least 1/150th sec.

How do you calculate maximum exposure time? ›

Basically, to determine the optimal length of exposure, you take 500 and divide it by the effective focal length of the lens (Exposure time = 500/[crop-factor × focal length]). Thus, the shorter the focal length the longer the shutter speed, and the better images you'll get.

How do I avoid star trails? ›

So What is the 500 Rule? The 500 Rule refers to camera settings to get a good exposure of the stars and Milky Way that helps you avoid “star trails.” If you set the shutter speed for any longer than dictated by the 500 rule, then the stars in your image will show up as star trails (rather than dots).

What is the best ISO for astrophotography? ›

If you're just looking for the best ISO to use on your DSLR camera for astrophotography, start with ISO 1600. This is often the “sweet spot” for modern digital cameras, and it is my most used ISO setting for deep-sky and nightscape astrophotography.

How do you shoot a night sky? ›

With your camera on a tripod and pointing upwards towards a clear patch of sky, try these settings for your first shot: an aperture of f/2.8, ISO 800, and a 25sec shutter speed. Zoom into the resulting image on the LCD screen to see if the stars are sharp, and nudge the focus dial if necessary.

Why can't we see the Milky Way in space? ›

Though it may not look like it to the casual observer, the Milky Way is full of dust and gas. This matter is known as as the interstellar medium, a disc that makes up a whopping 10-15% of the luminous/visible matter in our galaxy and fills the long spaces in between the stars.

What is the closest star to Earth? ›

Distance Information

Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our own, is still 40,208,000,000,000 km away. (Or about 268,770 AU.) When we talk about the distances to the stars, we no longer use the AU, or Astronomical Unit; commonly, the light year is used.

How do you take long exposure pictures of the stars? ›

In order to achieve longer exposures than 15-25 seconds during the night, you can lower the exposure and use a narrower aperture. For example, you can aim for an ISO of 400 and aperture of f/8 – adjust the shutter speed accordingly and you'll most likely have a nice star trail when you're done.

What is the Sunny 16 rule in photography? ›

The Sunny f16 rule states that, on sunny days, at an aperture of f/16, your shutter speed is the inverse of your ISO value. This means that if you are at, say, aperture f/16 and ISO 100, your shutter speed should be 1/100 seconds. This is one of the easiest photography rules to remember.

What is rule of thumb in photography? ›

Generally speaking, using the standard rule of thumb is to make the shutter speed equal to your focal length when hand-holding your camera. For example, if you are shooting with a 200mm lens then you want to keep your shutter speed at 1/200 sec or above to avoid any blur occurring from camera shake.

What is the 180 shutter rule? ›

The 180 Degree Shutter Rule Explained | #Shorts - YouTube

What is the 500 or 600 rule in photography? ›

This rule states that the maximum exposure time of a camera with full frame sensor should not be greater than 600 divided by the focal length of the lens.

What is the exposure formula? ›

In photography, this equation governs the fundamental relationship between the scene, the camera, and the captured image: Image brightness ∝ Scene illumination × Subject reflectivity × Lens aperture area × Shutter open time × ISO sensitivity .

What exposure does the Milky Way have? ›

A good starting point is to take 30-second exposures at ISO 1600, using an f-stop of F/2.8. By combining multiple images together (stacking), you can create images of the Milky Way with an even stronger signal (the amount of light collected) and reduced noise.


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