Complete Guide To Long Exposure Photography – 2016 Edition

Table Of Contents

An extensive and complete daytime long exposure photography tutorial by Joel Tjintjelaar.

Long exposure photography is a genre in photography that is often associated with fine-art photography, due to the surreal and other worldly effects long exposure photography can add to your photos, and thereby moving away from objective reality as we can see it. Of course besides that, notable fine art long exposure photographers like Michael Kenna, Michael Levin, Alexey Titarenko and Cole Thompson have been utilizing long exposure photography techniques in their work, which contributed largely to the association of long exposure photography with fine-art photography as well. Long exposure photography is also my favourite genre that I like to use in most of my work, mostly because of the surreal effect and also because it’s part of my personal philosophy on creating art by moving away from reality as many steps as possible to get closer to the individual essence of the artist.

A video tutorial version of this guide that includes an 80 page eBook with new and updated information has been released on April 12, 2017, in the store.
Parts of this comprehensive long exposure photography tutorial have been published earlier on my website in 2009 for the first time and was one of the very first, if not the first, publicly accessible and free tutorials on the Internet on long exposure photography. This initial version has had a firm update in the 2014 version of this long exposure photography tutorial. This second 2014 edition version had been updated and extended with new and more complete information and personal experiences. At the same time the same content had been made available in an even more extended version within the book From Basics to Fine-art – B&W photography – Architectural Photography and Beyond (released May 2014) that I wrote together with architect and fine-art photographer Julia Anna Gospodarou. This 2016 edition contains several and necessary updates but most of all, the information in this updated long exposure tutorial, is restructured in such a way that it is easier to read and to understand. The book continues to have more information than what’s presented in this tutorial and which is commonly available on the Internet: it also includes a new approach to fine-art long exposure photography that I’ve called 5MF8. It’s the approach I always use in order to create the ethereal looking long exposure effects that you will see in many of my photos. If you want to know more about that self-developed method to fine-art long exposure photography then I would recommend to buy the book for the full text or scroll down to see the outline on 5MF8. I will write “this book” or “this section” many times in this tutorial, referring to the original book version of this article in “From Basics to Fine-art”.

This long exposure photography tutorial is targeted at several levels: beginners will find a complete guide and an extensive step by step explanation what long exposure photography is, what you need and how to do it yourself. The more experienced long exposure photographer may find information in this tutorial that isn’t available anywhere else, simply because I’m writing out of my own extensive experience as a long exposure photographer with a no holds barred attitude. If you’re already familiar with long exposure photography and just need a refresher course or just compact and handy information, you may want to scroll down the page, to the section with the recently released Long Exposure Photography Quick Reference Card with optimal settings. The first long exposure quick reference card of its kind, which is actually an infographic and more than just a table with exposure times, and contains all relevant and important information on long exposure photography on just one printable page. Scroll down the page to go directly to the quick reference card and download the high resolution version, or have a look at this article.

Daytime Long Exposure Photography Versus Nighttime Long Exposure Photography

In this long exposure photography tutorial I will go over the basics of daytime long exposure photography, the camera gear that you need and how to set up a long exposure shot so you can start shooting right away. I will also discuss how differences in exposure time can result in another look and feel when shooting architecture for example. Of course I will provide you with some long exposure photography tips and tricks as well. I’m emphasizing the fact that I’m talking about daytime long exposure photography here, as opposed to nighttime long exposure photography. For nighttime long exposure photography the same rules apply as to daytime long exposure photography, except that with nighttime long exposure photography you don’t need the ND filters that you would need for daytime long exposure photography, or at best ND filters with a lower density than with daytime long exposure photography. As a result, nighttime long exposure photography requires a different way of calculating the exposure time you need, to create the effects typical for long exposure photography. In the remainder of this article I will not use the phrase daytime long exposure photography anymore but will refer to it as simply long exposure photography when I’m talking about ND filters and calculating exposure times specifically. The effects in nighttime long exposure photography however are the same as with daytime long exposure photography but there are effects like the movement of the moon and the stars that you don’t have with daytime long exposure photography. In the near future I will extend this article with an additional part on nighttime long exposure photography.

The main target group of this tutorial are daytime long exposure photographers since the majority of long exposure photographers seek to create the long exposure effects during daytime. Keep in mind that a photographer like Michael Kenna for example is a typical nighttime long exposure photographer using extreme long exposure times of hours with an analog camera to reveal the movement of the moon and stars.

What Is Long Exposure Photography And Why Long Exposure Photography

An attempt to a definition of long exposure photography for the sake of clarity

There is no generally accepted definition on what Long Exposure photography is but for the sake of clarity and for this article I want to use the definition and explanation in this article.

Long exposure photography is taking photographs by using longer exposure times than needed to obtain a correctly exposed photograph, either during daytime with the use of filters or else during the night with or without the use of filters, with the deliberate intent to create an effect on any moving object that is typical for long exposure photographs. Namely: the effect that prolonged or passing time has on any moving subject when this specific effect has been captured in one still frame. Effects like blurred skies with streaks of clouds, smoothed out water like if it was frozen, blurred ghostlike people, star trails, moon trails and light trails, using an exposure time that is deliberately prolonged to achieve this effect.

It’s not the duration of the exposure that qualifies it as a long exposure photograph, but the intention of capturing moving objects with longer exposure times than necessary that makes it a long exposure photograph. Any definition trying to define long exposure photography by using a specific time duration that it needs to adhere to, to call it long exposure photography, is not correct and misses the essence of long exposure photography.

If for example a filter is used during very bright day light in order to reduce the intensity of the light because the limits of shutter speeds options of the camera have been exceeded and an even shorter exposure is needed, then this is not regarded long exposure photography. For example, most cameras will have a minimum shutter speed of 1/4000s. If the photo is still overexposed at this minimum speed, because the correct exposure time was 1/6000s, then the only solution is either to decrease the aperture, or to add an ND filter with 3 stops. Decreasing the aperture won’t be the preferred solution if you shoot portraits or if you prefer to shoot around the sweet spot of the lens so the best thing to do is to add a 3 stops ND filter and reduce the exposure time to 1/750s.

Why Long exposure photography?

This is a question people often ask me, especially those who don’t have any experience with it themselves. And there’s not just one answer but in my case it has everything to do with creating a mysterious, surreal atmosphere. About visualizing the invisible. An extended exposure can reveal to the eye what was visible to the mind’s eye only. And last but not least: to move away from reality another step. My approach towards fine-art photography is to always try to move away from reality as many steps as possible to create an aesthetic look. More on that in the blogposts on this website that are about fine-art photography. 

That’s why I love long exposure photography: I want to reveal what my mind’s eye sees and to move away from reality. Apart from this, and this is another incentive for me to shoot long exposure photographs: even though results are to some extent predictable, based on my experience as a long exposure photographer and the technical settings of a shot, the final result will always remain a surprise. And sometimes, it’s not what you’ve expected but more often things will become visible that I couldn’t have anticipated beforehand, even with my years of long exposure photography experience. And again, it’s part of my artistic philosophy to move away from reality as many steps as possible.

Typical Long Exposure Photography Genres

As noted in the definition, long exposure techniques can be utilized on any moving object with the deliberate intention to create typical long exposure effects.

Typical genres for long exposure photography are:

  • Landscapes – blur the moving clouds, or waving grass
  • Seascapes  – soften the water and making it smooth
  • Architecture – to blur skies with soft streaks of clouds and to make crowds on the street disappear
  • People – to make ghostlike appearances of crowds with people

These are the most popular genres in which long exposure photography is being utilized but it doesn’t have to be limited to this. If you know another, creative way, to utilize long exposure photography techniques to enhance the meaning and look of your photograph, then by all means experiment with it. I’ve included in the small gallery below a few of my own long exposure photographs, representing the typical long exposure photography genres with a short explanation per photograph what the effects were of the prolonged long exposure times.

Zeeland Bridge 2017 – Shot With Phase One IQ3 Achromatic 100MP © Joel Tjintjelaar

A typical of example of long exposure in seascapes. Perhaps the most used and most popular genre in long exposure photography, because it’s easy to obtain acceptable results at the very first try, especially with longer exposure times. The effect of time passing by is clearly visible in the water that has been softened and blurred and looked as if it is ice. The effect of long exposure is also visible in the clouds. The clouds look soft, blurry with less detail and contrast compared to a regular exposure. The clouds shapes are also less recognizable: the longer the exposure the more the original shape of the clouds will change. The exposure time of this image, a long exposure of the Zeeland Bridge, is around 4 minutes. If you would use a shorter exposure time like less than 15 seconds then the water would still look blurry but less soft and smooth and with far more texture.  There would also be a visible sense of direction of the water movement, unlike with longer exposures like a 4-minute exposure where there would be no sense of direction or movement. On top of that the clouds would have more detail when using shorter long exposure times.

Frozen Music II 2011 © Joel Tjintjelaar

Frozen Music II is part of an award winning series at the 2011 International Photography Awards competition and represents an architectural object with unusual shapes, shot using an extended long exposure time of 3 minutes. This is also a typical example of an architectural long exposure photograph, taking full advantage of the cloud movement with long exposure techniques, where I tilted the camera and pointed it straight upwards to the sky in a perpendicular position to the horizon. Due to this specific angle of the focal plane of the camera and the velocity of the clouds, and of course the prolonged exposure time, this resulted in a dynamic looking, softer streaks of clouds. If the clouds were moving slower and/or the exposure time was much shorter, such as a minute, then the streaks of clouds would look shorter, less transparent and would have more contrast and look sharper and ‘thicker’. Photograph taken just before the sun would set. Technical info: f/16 | ISO 100 | 3 minutes exposure time | 10 stops ND filter.

Zenith 2010 © Joel Tjintjelaar

Zenith is an example of a long exposure landscape photograph. When utilizing long exposure techniques in landscapes then the main objective is to blur the clouds and give it a surreal look and feel, like you can see in this image. Long exposure effects on other moving subjects like grass and trees waving in the wind, are usually unintentional. If you like an impressionistic look and feel to your landscape photographs then you might like the effect of long exposure photography on trees and grass as well: they will become unsharp and blurry if there’s a lot of wind. But the main objective of long exposure on landscapes is to blur the clouds and give it a sense of direction. The clouds will appear as streaks of clouds or will have blurred, soft shapes. The longer the exposure the more unrecognizable the original shape of the clouds will be. But this depends for a great deal on the velocity of the clouds, the chosen exposure time and the angle of the camera. If clouds are very static and don’t move much then even a 5 minute exposure time will only result in a slight blur and sense of direction of the clouds. If clouds move fast then clouds will appear as soft streaks of clouds when the camera is directed straight forward towards the horizon without tilting it. If the camera is tilted and pointed to the sky, like in long exposure architectural photography, then the sky will look more like sharp streaks of clouds. The more perpendicular the camera’s plane of focus is to the horizon or sky, the more sharp the streaks of clouds will appear. In this photo the camera has been pointed straight forward to the bench and the dark storm clouds, I took the photograph in the short interval in between rain showers, were moving fast. Technical info: f/16 | ISO 100 | 2 minutes 15 seconds exposure time | 10 stops ND filter

Visual Acoustics XI – Pantheon, Rome 2014  © Joel Tjintjelaar

This photograph is an example of a combination of architectural long exposure and motion blur of people. As you can see the motion blur of people, or ghosting effect, is more dominant than the effect of the long exposure on the clouds. This is a 6 minutes long exposure photograph, shot with a 16 stops ND