Last Updated: March 5, 2014
Long exposures can be a great way to add real drama to your landscape and seascape photography. There are a whole host of different techniques possible, whether you are exposing for just a couple of seconds to add motion to a waterfall, or utilising much longer exposures in order to create surreal skies, dreamlike seas, or capturing the stars at night.
For those who are just getting started in this area, the following tips for long exposure photography are the fundamentals that you really need to get going.
Use a tripod or resting point
This is the most obvious tip of course, unless you have hands as steady as Robocop, it’s almost impossible to capture long exposures without using a tripod. The sturdier the tripod the better, this is particularly important if you have a heavy DSLR camera.
I currently shoot my landscapes with a Canon 5D and 17-40mm wide-angle lens, a relatively weighty combination, but these are kept perfectly still by the tripod I use, the Manfrotto 055 XPROB, this is a large and somewhat cumbersome unit, but it gets the job done in fine style. It’s always super-sturdy no matter what the wind speed.
There may be times, however, that you don’t have your tripod with you, and you want to take a long exposure, on these occasions you can sometimes improvise by using part of your local environment as a resting point, or makeshift tripod.
I took the shot above in Amalfi, Italy, just by resting my 5D on a concrete mooring post that was on the pier I was standing on. This was a 13-second exposure, I used the self-timer on my camera to make sure there was no movement when taking the shot, which brings us neatly onto our next tip.
Hands free shooting
In order to ensure that your camera remains perfectly still when taking your shot, it is best to use some kind of remote trigger to ensure this never happens. Even when I’m shooting regular landscapes that aren’t long exposures I always do this, just to ensure the image will be as sharp as possible.
There are a number of ways you can do this, you can use a cable release, a remote control (these are available for most major cameras), or if you don’t want to use these (or don’t have them with you) you can always use the self-timer on your camera, just set this to a few seconds, stand back, and let the camera do the work for you.
Using ND (neutral density) filters is the standard method of allowing long exposures when they wouldn’t otherwise be possible due to the brightness of the light you are shooting in.
ND filters come in different strengths that allow you to block out light in varying amounts of f-stops, ie you can get a 2 stop ND filter, 3 stop, 4 stop, all the way up to 10 stop.
But what do these numbers actually mean? Each stop basically halves the amount of light allowed into your camera, so the darker the filter, the longer the exposure you can execute.
So, for example, if your camera suggested a shutter speed of 1/8 sec for a particular shot, if you attached a 5-stop ND filter, you would then be able to reduce the shutter speed to 4 sec, if you attached a 10 stop filter, the exposure time would go right up to two minutes.
ND filters can be particularly useful for daytime shooting, when it is just too bright to capture longer exposures without using one.
Use a low ISO
It’s best to use a low ISO setting for a couple of important reasons, firstly a low ISO helps to slow your shutter speed even further, secondly, a low ISO will result in a image with low-noise levels, this is particularly important with long exposures.
Image by Euan Morrison
I normally shoot at either 50 or 100 ISO, not all cameras have an ISO range that goes down this low, in which case ISO 200 is a perfectly usable setting. Obviously the resulting noise levels will depend on the quality of your camera and sensor, but most digital cameras offer pretty good performance at low ISO settings.
When to shoot
Having a game plan for the type of long exposure image you want is also an important consideration. For example, if there are high winds that could be perfect for creating a really ethereal sky with dramatic clouds, as the clouds will move that much faster you will get a stronger and more dreamlike effect.
Image by Jonathan Combe
Or, you might want the opposite, say you wanted to shoot a seascape where the clouds look normal but the sea has a misty quality, a day where there is virtually no wind would be perfect. As with all types of photography, experimentation is the key, with a little trial and error you can get great results.