Mastering Long Exposure Photography: Practical Tips
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 9 min read


  1. Get the right equipment
  2. Find the perfect location
  3. Set up your camera
  4. Adjust your camera settings
  5. Use a long exposure calculator
  6. Experiment with different exposure times
  7. Edit your long exposure photos
  8. Practice regularly
  9. Study other long exposure photographs
  10. Participate in photo challenges

If you've ever been captivated by those magical photos capturing the flow of stars across the sky or the silky smooth movement of a waterfall, you're already familiar with the stunning effects of long exposure photography. Now, it's your turn to create such mesmerizing visuals. We're here to help you on this journey of mastering long exposure photography. Let's get started with some practical tips.

Get the right equipment

For mastering long exposure photography, you first need to gear up with the right tools. This doesn't mean you need the most expensive camera or the fanciest gadgets. You can certainly start with a basic setup and gradually expand as you refine your skills.

Camera: Any DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual controls would do the job. The key is being able to manually adjust shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings. Brands like Nikon, Canon, or Sony are popular choices among photographers.

Tripod: As you'll be dealing with long shutter speeds, a sturdy tripod is a must to avoid any camera shake. You don't want a slight breeze to blur your masterpiece, do you? Look for tripods that are stable and easy to set up. Brands like Manfrotto and Vanguard offer great options.

Neutral Density (ND) Filters: These are like sunglasses for your camera, reducing the amount of light entering the lens. ND filters allow you to use longer shutter speeds even in bright conditions, making them invaluable for daytime long exposure photography. Hoya and Tiffen are well-known for their quality ND filters.

Remote Shutter Release: This device allows you to trigger the shutter without physically touching the camera — minimizing camera shake even further. It's particularly helpful for ultra-long exposures where you might need to hold the shutter open for several minutes.

With the right tools in your hands, you're already on your way to mastering long exposure photography. But remember, while equipment is important, it's your vision and creativity that will truly bring your photos to life.

Find the perfect location

Location plays a vital role in long exposure photography. The perfect spot can make a difference between a good shot and a breathtaking one. But how do you find these magical places? Here are a few pointers.

Scout for movement: Long exposure photography is all about capturing the beauty of motion over time. Look for places where there's movement to capture — a bustling city street, a flowing river, a windy field, or a starry night sky. These places provide the dynamic elements that make long exposure photos captivating.

Consider the light: Mastering long exposure photography involves understanding and working with light. The location you choose should have interesting light conditions. Sunrise and sunset, often referred to as 'golden hours,' provide incredibly warm and soft light, which can add a magical touch to your photos.

Look for contrasting elements: Locations with a mix of static and moving elements can create fascinating contrasts in long exposure shots. For instance, a lighthouse standing still against a backdrop of moving clouds or a bridge overlooking a fast-moving river.

Think about safety: While chasing the perfect shot, don't forget to prioritize safety. Avoid locations with difficult terrains, especially at night, or those with high traffic. Always respect local rules and regulations.

Remember, the perfect location for long exposure photography isn't always the most exotic or far-flung. It could be a bustling intersection in your city or the creek behind your house. It's all about seeing the beauty in motion and capturing it in a frame.

Set up your camera

Now that you've found the perfect location, it's time to set up your camera. And don't worry, even if you're not a tech wizard, these steps are simple enough for anyone to follow.

Mount your camera on a tripod: Long exposure photography requires absolute stillness. Any shake or movement can blur your shot. So, set up a sturdy tripod and mount your camera on it. Make sure everything is stable before you proceed.

Attach a remote shutter release: Even the slight vibration from pressing the shutter button can ruin a long exposure shot. To avoid this, use a remote shutter release. It allows you to take photos without touching the camera.

Switch to manual mode: Mastering long exposure photography means taking control over your camera settings. Switch your camera to manual mode. This will allow you to adjust the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings as needed.

Turn off image stabilization: If your lens or camera has image stabilization, turn it off. While it's useful for handheld shots, it can introduce unnecessary vibrations when you're using a tripod.

Setting up your camera correctly is a vital step in mastering long exposure photography. It might seem a bit technical at first, but with practice, these steps will become second nature.

Adjust your camera settings

Once your camera setup is sturdy and ready, the next step to mastering long exposure photography involves diving into your camera settings. Don't worry, it's not as intimidating as it sounds. Let's break it down.

Set your ISO low: In long exposure photography, your best friend is going to be a low ISO setting, preferably around 100 or 200. This reduces the amount of noise in your photos, resulting in crisper and clearer images.

Choose a smaller aperture: To get the entire scene in focus, you'll need a smaller aperture, usually in the range of f/8 to f/16. These numbers may seem confusing, but remember, the larger the number, the smaller the aperture, and the greater the depth of field.

Experiment with shutter speed: There's no hard and fast rule when it comes to shutter speed in long exposure photography. This is where you get to play around a bit. Start with a slower speed like 30 seconds and then adjust as necessary.

Use manual focus: Auto focus can be unreliable in low light conditions. Instead, switch to manual focus. Zoom in on the most important part of your scene and adjust the focus ring until the image is sharp.

By understanding and adjusting these settings, you're well on your way to mastering long exposure photography. Remember, photography is as much an art as it is a science, so don't be afraid to experiment!

Use a long exposure calculator

After adjusting your camera settings, you might wonder, "How do I know the exact shutter speed for the perfect long exposure shot?" Well, you don't have to guess. A long exposure calculator can come to your rescue.

What's a long exposure calculator? It's a tool that calculates the correct shutter speed based on your ISO, aperture, and the reading from your camera's light meter.

Here's how to use it:

  1. Take a test shot: Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode and take a test shot. Note down the shutter speed the camera suggests.
  2. Set your camera to Manual mode: Switch your camera to Manual mode and input the shutter speed and aperture from the test shot.
  3. Use the calculator: Input the shutter speed, aperture, and desired ND filter strength into the calculator. It will give you the new shutter speed to use.

Voila! You now have the correct shutter speed for your long exposure shot. Using a long exposure calculator is a simple and effective step to mastering long exposure photography.

Remember, photography is all about capturing light, and this tool helps you do just that. It's not about blindly following numbers, but understanding how light works and using tools to get the best shot you can.

Experiment with different exposure times

Mastering long exposure photography isn't just about getting the numbers right—it's also about playing around with different exposure times to see what effects you can create.

For instance, a 30-second exposure might blur the movement of water into a misty haze, creating a dreamy, ethereal effect. On the other hand, a 2-minute exposure could turn passing cars into streaks of light, adding a dynamic, kinetic element to your photos.

Here are some starting points:

  • 1-30 seconds: This range is great for showing movement in clouds and water. It can also capture star trails in the night sky.
  • 30 seconds to 5 minutes: Use this range to create light trails from traffic or to photograph fireworks.
  • 5 minutes and above: This range is for more extreme effects, like turning a bustling city street into an empty, ghost-like scene.

Remember, these are just starting points. The fun in mastering long exposure photography lies in experimenting. So, don't be afraid to try different exposure times and see what works best for you. After all, it's through trial and error that we improve and grow as photographers.

Edit your long exposure photos

Once you've taken your shot, the journey of mastering long exposure photography isn't over. In fact, it's just begun! The magic often happens in the editing phase. This is where you can enhance the effects of long exposure, correct any flaws, and truly make the image your own.

Software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop can be your best friends here. They offer a myriad of tools to tweak your photos to perfection. Here's a simple editing process to get you started:

  1. Import your photo: Start by importing your photo into your preferred editing software. Make sure to shoot in RAW format for the best editing flexibility!
  2. Adjust the exposure: If your photo is too dark or too bright, adjust the exposure until it looks just right.
  3. Play with contrast and clarity: Boosting the contrast can make the difference between light and dark areas more pronounced, while adjusting the clarity can add or reduce detail in your image.
  4. Modify the color balance: Long exposure can sometimes result in color casts. Adjust the color balance to make the colors appear more natural.
  5. Sharpen and reduce noise: Finally, sharpen your image to bring out the details, and use noise reduction to eliminate any graininess.

The key to editing is subtlety. You want to enhance what's already there, not create something that wasn't. Remember, the best part about mastering long exposure photography is that it gives you the ability to capture the world in a unique way—so let your unique vision shine through in your edits!

Practice regularly

Just as with any skill, mastering long exposure photography requires regular practice. It's not just about understanding the concept; it's about getting out there and actually doing it. The more you practice, the more you'll understand how different settings impact your photos, and the better your images will become.

So, what's the best way to practice? It's simple—shoot regularly. Take your camera with you everywhere. Try capturing different scenes: a bustling city at night, a serene waterfall in the day, or the stars twinkling in the night sky. The world is full of opportunities for long exposure photography!

But remember, it's not just about quantity—it's about quality too. Don't just aimlessly click away. Instead, try to learn something new with each shot. What worked? What didn't? What would you do differently next time? Every photo you take is a chance to learn and improve.

Finally, be patient. Mastering long exposure photography doesn't happen overnight. There might be times when your images don't turn out how you want them to, but don't get discouraged. Keep practicing, keep learning, and keep shooting. Remember, every great photographer was once a beginner too!

Study other long exposure photographs

Another effective method in mastering long exposure photography is to study the works of others. This doesn't mean merely glancing at them but truly analyzing them. Ask yourself, what makes these photos striking? Is it the composition, the lighting, the subject, or is it something else?

Take note of their use of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. These are the building blocks of photography and understanding how they interact in successful photos can provide you with a wealth of knowledge. Do they use a slower shutter speed to capture the movement of water or clouds? Or have they used a wide aperture to make a cityscape pop against a blurred background?

One of the best things about studying other photographs is that it can help you see the world from different perspectives. This can open up a whole new world of possibilities for your own photography.

But remember, while it's important to learn from others, it's just as important to develop your own style. Use what you learn as inspiration, but don't be afraid to experiment and come up with your own unique twist on long exposure photography. After all, photography is an art, and art is a form of self-expression.

Participate in Photo Challenges

Here's a fun idea: why not participate in photo challenges? They can be a great tool for mastering long exposure photography. Photo challenges can push you out of your comfort zone and encourage you to try new techniques. They can also provide a platform for you to showcase your work and get feedback from others.

There are plenty of photo challenges happening all the time. Some are online, some are in person, and some even offer prizes. But the real prize is the knowledge and experience you gain along the way. Every challenge you take on is another opportunity to hone your skills.

Participating in a challenge can also help you to stay motivated. It's easy to get stuck in a rut with your photography, or to lose motivation if you're not seeing the results you want. But a challenge gives you a clear goal to work towards and a deadline to meet. So, you'll be more likely to pick up your camera and start experimenting.

So, are you ready to take on a new challenge? Remember, the goal isn't to win. The goal is to improve your skills and continue on your journey to mastering long exposure photography. Happy shooting!

If you want to expand your skills in long exposure photography and learn more about photographing in low light conditions, check out Caleb Stein's workshop, 'Intro to Photographing at Night.' This workshop will provide you with the techniques and tips you need to capture stunning nighttime scenes and further hone your craft.