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San Francisco
USA

Photography has always been a passion of mine.  I have loved taking pictures since I was a kid and had my first camera.  I started with film like almost all middle age to older photographers and have come full circle today as I continue to shoot both digital and medium format film.  Today I spend almost all of my free time away from home traveling the United States and Europe.  

I started as a wedding photographer (and sports photographer) but have transformed over time to dedicate my time to landscape photography.  I still occasionally do weddings for special clients, typically destination weddings, but 98% of my time today is spent traveling and photographing.  My main complaint is not having enough hours in the day to dedicate to editing and social media.  After my most recent Europe trip (36 days straight) I have over 2,000 pictures still hiding in my computer somewhere.  This trip is roughly outlined on my blog but with many more posts to come.  I have also spent several weeks exploring Iceland which is the newest hottest destination for photographers and those checking off their bucket list.  If you want more information on Iceland, contact me and I would be happy to share my experiences. 

Beyond my travels, I run a photography business in California - featuring my photography that is printed, framed, and displayed in galleries. My work has been internationally published and awarded and I pride myself on bringing landscape photography the way I see it to my clients. I am a 100% self taught photographer who travels the world seeking out the best photography locations and share my tips and travel reviews on my blog. 

Long Exposure Photography Tips

Photography Tips / Articles

Photography tips and articles helping photographers learn techniques for better pictures are plentiful on the web.  What makes this blog different is my photography tips are free and available.  I work to maintain one goal: to help photographers of all levels.  Wedding photographers should browse my tips for better portraits and contact me for individualized help as I have photographed multiple weddings including destination weddings, always seeking methods to make sure the bride is always happy. 

Long Exposure Photography Tips

Jared Lawson

Long Exposure Photography Tips


Landscape photography is a diverse field, the development of HDR, photostacking techniques and the advancement of Photoshop's abilities have created a new field of photography.  However, one key technique that cannot be simulated in Photoshop - the technique that must be accomplished in the field is the use of long exposure photography.  Photographers of all levels can learn how to use long exposure, read on through this article to learn the principals and techniques to master this technique.

An example of long exposure photography, this photo was shot at f/18 with a shutter speed of 30 seconds. Picture by Jared Lawson Photography

An example of long exposure photography, this photo was shot at f/18 with a shutter speed of 30 seconds. Picture by Jared Lawson Photography

"Can my camera do long exposure photography?" 

The answer is almost undoubtedly yes.  If your camera has the ability to turn on manual, or M, mode then you are on the right track.  The first step is to check your camera's abilities.  I recently purchased a point/shoot camera for my girlfriend to travel with - even today's basic point/shoot models have an M mode giving the ability to turn the shutter speed down to 30 seconds or more.  

If you aren't sure on the M mode, turn your camera to S mode and lower your shutter speed to the lowest (or longest) possible time allowed.  Ideally for long exposure you want to shoot for a range of 30 seconds - 1 minute.  If your camera only goes to 10 or 15 seconds, you can still work with this - but the longer the better.  

The best possible option your camera can offer is a BULB mode.  BULB mode allows you to hold the shutter open for as long as you need.  The camera's shutter will remain open until you tell it to close.  

Any DSLR on today's market has the ability to shoot long exposures, you may need to do a refresher in your manual to see where your mode is located within your settings.  I can't answer every single camera model because I primarily shoot with Nikon/Sony - but if you want more specific help - contact me.  

"When would I use long exposure?"

You can shoot long exposure on almost any scene...it works different effects for different scenes, depending on your desired outcome.  I prefer to shoot long exposure with the following:

Seascapes (example above)

Waterfalls (see my Iceland gallery)

Creeks (larger rivers do not photograph as well)

You can use long exposure for additional scenes - if you are a city person you can use this technique to blur the traffic lines to get the long red lines from two way traffic that you may have seen with iconic shots of the Golden Gate bridge.  

The general rule to follow with long exposure photography is this: You can be free to use long exposure for any scene that has movement in it, as long as the majority of the scene is stationary.  In other words, you want a large portion of your scene to be tack sharp (no movement, i.e. buildings/rocks) with a purposeful blur in select areas (i.e. traffic lines, waterfall, waves). 

This pier in Italy was shot with a 20 second exposure using the Lee Big Stopper filter, picture by Jared Lawson Photography

This pier in Italy was shot with a 20 second exposure using the Lee Big Stopper filter, picture by Jared Lawson Photography

The Steps to a Perfect Long Exposure Photo

[1] Start with a vision.  Don't be fooled, I can never remember a single picture where I walked up...set up for a long exposure on a whim and came away with a great shot.  You need a vision of your picture - how do you want it to look in the end?  Without a clear vision you will end with a lost image.  

[2] Ask yourself, where is the focus of my image?  Your image needs a focus, this lines up with Step #1, clearly mark your focus of the image -- this becomes the centerpiece to build your photo around. 

[3] Focus on your focus.  Seems odd, but the key here is to focus your lens on the focus of your image.  If you are an autofocus person - use it.  If you prefer manual, use your Live View mode and dial in your focus as tight as possible - you cannot fix a poorly focused image later.  Be 100% sure your focus is on point before moving ahead.  If you decide to compose a new shot -- start over with this step.  If you are working with a filter (will cover later in article), be sure to focus before putting on your filter.  I like doing this because I have noticed cameras will often struggle if trying to focus properly with a  dark 8-10 stop filter on the lens.  

[4] Turn your camera back to manual focus mode.  This is important -- AFTER you focus your shot, set your lens to manual focus.  This will minimize any focus issues as you shoot away.  I see this mistake occur far too often with newer photographers -- they focus in perfect, step back and click only to have their camera try and outsmart itself by refocusing.  You can override this mistake with one simple step. 

[5] Start with "S" mode and turn your shutter speed close to 30 seconds (or as close to this as you can).  Starting in Shutter Speed mode will automatically adjust your f/stop to coordinate.  This is not where I will stay, but it is a starting point you can use to see what your blur looks like at 30 seconds.  Is the water washed out?  Or the blur not long enough?  This is where you experiment and adjust your shutter speed to give you the desired blur.  30 seconds is a good starting point for all long exposure photographs.  The photo example above was shot at 30 seconds exposure.  Be sure to make a not of what f/stop your camera is using for the 30 seconds exposure.  

[6] Switch to "M" manual mode and dial in your settings.  At this point I prefer to switch over to Manual mode for the most control of my photo.  If you completed step 5 correctly you will have made note of your f/stop and can now tweak your settings to get the perfect image.  

[7] Adjust for lighting.  If your camera is not allowing you to shoot at a long enough exposure you have a few options to work with.  First, drop your ISO to the lowest possible setting.  (Lowest number).  This will allow your camera to slow your shutter speed.  Next, make sure your f/stop is working close to it's maximum.  Finally, if these are still not enough to give you enough time - you can either WAIT for less natural light (later in the day/evening) or invest in a filter to block out light.  If you are a daytime shooter invest in the LEE BIG STOPPER filter or a comparable 8-10 stop filter.  This should give you the desired blockage of light.  

[8] Control your highlights.  One of the biggest issues you will run into with long exposure is overexposed or highlighted areas of a photo.  The quick and easy fix for this is to use the black card technique.  In a pinch you can also use your hand to do the same principal.  Essentially, use the card to wave (literally) over the area of the photo that is overexposed.  The trick is to not hold the card stagnant in one area.  This requires some practice but will help control highlights. 

[9] Edit in photoshop.  My preferred technique is to shoot one single exposure using the black card technique, filters, and a combination of both.  I don't like spending 4 hours on stacking 5-6 images working with exposures.  However, every photo I take requires some level of photoshop editing.  Invest in either Photoshop, Lightroom or an equivalent to give your photo a touch of color and a sharpening boost.  And voila, thats it, Bob's your uncle.  

Follow these 9 steps and you are well on your way to a perfect long exposure picture! 

Camera Equipment Required

Long exposure photography requires a base amount of camera equipment - most photographers already have in their bag.  The main area of improvement is to understand your camera settings and how to switch between "S", "M" and "Bulb" modes and the advantage that each mode gives you as the photographer.  While working a long exposure the critical piece that must exist is camera stability.  This means your camera cannot move...AT ALL.  Meaning: get a good tripod.  Here is what I head into the field with in my camera bag for a long exposure planned shoot:

1. Camera Body (Nikon D800)

2. Landscape Lens (I shoot with my Nikon 14-24mm and my Nikon 85mm)

3. Tripod (I primarily use a Gitzo with a Really Right Stuff mount)

4. Shutter Release Cable

5. Lee Big Stopper (10 stop filter)

6. Singh-Ray Neutral ND Filter

7. Black Card (Free!)

You can start shooting long exposure without all of these pieces, you don't need the top lens or all available filters.  But you should know that if you are planning on shooting a waterfall or seascape before dusk (low light) you will need filters to help block the light to give you a longer exposure.  

That's it!  Take these photography tips and get out and practice your digital photography this weekend!  Find a local stream or waterfall and experiment with your camera settings!