How to Photograph Long Exposures to Create Dreamy Images

Many new photographers may not know how to photograph long exposures, or even what that means to their photography. Thanks to the development of camera accessories and filters, capturing long exposures is becoming a very popular medium of photography for enthusiast photographers.

Long exposure photography is a technique used by many landscape, cityscape and seascape photographers. Have you ever seen a picture of the city where clouds show motion, the car lights have been made streaky or the seawater is rendered blurry? Well this will usually be the result of using a filter to achieve a long exposure that captures the movement of the subject.
Before we look at how to photograph long exposures, it is first worth considering the meaning of a long exposure, and the different types of photography you can apply the method to.

A long exposure is “a timed exposure of a long duration where the shutter is open for a speed of several seconds where the purpose and aim of long exposures is to sharply capture and minimize movement of static objects within the frame whilst blurring the elements with motion.”

Samples of long exposure photography

There are a variety of different styles of photography where using long exposure photography techniques can result in great images. Some examples of popular subjects include landscapes, cityscapes, seascapes, astrophotography (such as creating star trails), street scenes, and even abstract scenes.

Applying the technique of long exposure photography to landscape scenes can be a great way to create drama in skies or foregrounds with moving clouds or foliage.
Shooting water with long exposures can also benefit your images. Capturing moving water can bring an ethereal look and feel to seascapes as waves break or crash. Using a long exposure, you can capture the swell of the ocean or motion of tides for dreamy-looking images.

How to achieve long exposures

When considering how to photograph long exposures, you will initially need to think about the kit that you will require, how to set this up and the steps to capturing your image.

Kit required

A tripod is an essential piece of equipment to enable your camera to remain still during the image capture time when the shutter is open.
Next, you will need a cable release, or wireless remote so you can start and stop the long exposure. Please note this is only required if you need to extend your exposure time beyond 30 seconds. If you shoot below 30 seconds your cameras self-timer will be sufficient to trigger and close the shutter.
A filter holder is another essential item that is required to achieve long exposures. These are used to hold the filters in place that will be used to slow the exposure time down.
With regard to using filters, neutral density (ND) filters are recommended to minimize the light entering your camera.

Set Up

Once you have found a composition you like, you will need to place your camera on the tripod, attach your cable release and affix your filter holder. Next, focus the camera manually (using the MF button on the side of your camera) before putting the filter in place.

Steps to photographing long exposures

Once your kit is set up, here are some simple steps on how to photograph long exposures using the equipment mentioned above to achieve sharper images.

1. Bulb mode

Arrange your camera so that you are shooting in bulb mode. This allows you to keep the shutter button open for longer. It will stay open as long as you hold it open.

2. Set your aperture and ISO

I recommend setting a small aperture of over f/8 to f/22. The larger the f/number the longer the exposure you can achieve and a low ISO of 100.

3. Exposure times

Depending on the strength of the ND filter you are using, your exposure time will change. Based on an initial exposure time of ½ second using a 6-stop filter, you will need to shoot for 30 seconds or 8 minutes using a 10-stop filter.
Press the self-remote timer and lock the shutter open or if you are using the cameras self-timer press the shutter button gently on the camera. When you are ready to close the shutter unlock the cable release.

4. Extra tips

If you are using a DSLR, it is also a good idea to use your mirror lock-up so that the mirror going up and down during your exposure doesn’t cause camera shake. Also, be sure to cover the back of the viewfinder to prevent light from entering and potentially ruining your pictures during the exposure. Many cameras have a little rubber cap that comes attached to the camera strap, to cover your viewfinder. That will stop any light leaking through.