How to Get Cool Effects with Long Exposure Photography


What the heck is long exposure photography? I've heard this phrase forever now and I think it's about time we discussed it. For starters, long exposure photography can be defined like this: it's when you set your camera so the shutter stays open for a longer time than it normally would, resulting in more light being able to hit the camera's sensor, giving you motion blur, if that's what you want.

As you may already know, purposeful motion blur gives some very cool effects. What kind of effects, you ask. Well, have you ever see those awesome looking car taillight and headlight trails? Those trails definitely say, "Motion." How about long exposure ferris wheels or other rides at an amusement park? Those rides are full of lights and "movement" photos of them can really dazzle. Or maybe people walking by. That's right, set your camera down and take a picture of passers by on the sidewalk, boardwalk or whatever. Leave the shutter open for about three seconds and you get a funky looking shot that people will surely talk about. Cityscapes? When there's water in front of a city, you can totally smooth that water out by leaving the shutter open for a while. It'll look like glass. The water, that is. The same is true for waterfalls. I've done this a ton of times and every time I review my photos after using a tripod and photographing a waterfall with a three second exposure and a lens filter, I'm stunned by the results. I think my favorites are definitely the light trails and the waterfalls. I so love that kind of photography.

Typically, when taking long exposure photos, you'd place the camera on a tripod to keep it completely still and then photograph things that are moving. That's what gets you that motion blur. Did you know that you can also just as easily set the camera on something that's steadily moving so it appears that that object is stationary and everything else is moving? Picture keeping your camera steady on an escalator or a roller coaster car. It's actually those two things that are moving with everything in their environments staying still, but the effect will be in reverse. It'll seem like both the escalator and roller coaster are stationary with their environments moving.

Okay, so how does all this work? Well, in general terms, if you keep the camera's shutter open for longer (say, three or four seconds), more light will be let in and you'll get more blur. The shorter the shutter speed (say, one half to one second), less light will be let in and you'll get less blur. You'll get blur with both shots, but that blur will be substantially different.

If you're going to do some motion blur photography at night, you'll probably want to keep your shutter open for a longer time (slow shutter speed) to let more light in. There's not much light in the atmosphere to begin with, so you'll need all the help you can get. You'll just need to be sure to keep the camera steady with some sort of tripod or the equivalent so you don't get any camera shake. Trust me on this; don't try to hold the camera in your hands while taking long exposure shots. You'll never in a million years be able to keep the camera steady. Your pictures won't look good at all.

I would say the most important thing about taking these types of shots, after all the technical stuff has been taken care of, is your location. Setting your camera up on top of a bridge so you're looking down as cars are passing by is an incredible vantage point. Sitting behind a waterfall would be perfect. Setting your gear up on the corner of a busy street could possibly give you a good effect and maybe even set your tripod up on a subway platform. I've seen many long exposure shots of subways passing by. I've always loved those. Your biggest concern after getting situated is your timing. You're going to need to take a lot of shots because so many of them will be throw-aways. This isn't the easiest type of photography in the world and it's definitely not point and shoot. After the camera is set up, you'll need to wait for your moving subject. Just as it passes by, push the shutter button. If you don't like the result, try it again. Try it at different times and try it with different shutter time durations. There's going to be a lot of trial and error, so don't become discouraged. Half of this type of photography is living and learning and the other half is capturing some decent shots.

Okay, there's also a golden rule you need to follow here. If you're doing long exposure photography at night and there's a lot of light out there from street lights and the like, you'll need to make sure you set your aperture in accordance with your shutter speed. So, if you want a huge aperture, you can't have really long shutter speeds. I'd say that an f/7 aperture is appropriate for a three second shutter speed in the middle of Times Square at night. If you want to have a longer 30 second shutter speed, then you'll need to close your aperture to something like f/22. If you keep a large aperture and a long shutter speed, you'll over-expose your images. Yes, even at night. Of course, you can always moderate the two by adjusting your ISO, so don't forget about that.

Well, there you go. My two cents for the day. If you have anything to add or if you'd like to share your experiences, please let us know below. Thanks!