A Beginner's Guide to Long Exposure Photography

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So, you’ve had some time behind the lens and feel pretty comfortable taking standard photos – landscapes, portraits, and the like.

Now you want to step it up a bit and tackle something that gives you more of a challenge and helps you produce images that are eye-catching at the same time.

A natural progression from standard still photography is long exposures.

After all, it’s essentially the same process that’s required, and you really don’t need much additional gear.

Let’s have a look at what you need to do as a beginner long exposure photographer.

The Gear

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Really, the only piece of kit you need beyond a camera with manual controls, a lens, a camera remote, and tripod in order to take long exposure photos is a neutral density (ND) filter.

An ND filter has one job – reduce the amount of light that enters your lens.

By doing so, an ND filter forces the camera to use a longer shutter speed to get a well-exposed image, resulting in photos like the one above that show motion effects in a landscape over time. Learn more about ND filters in this comprehensive guide.

There are a million ND filters out there, though, which makes the process of choosing which one is right for you a tall task.

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You should approach the purchase of filters in the same way you approach buying lenses.

In that regard, you typically get what you pay for, with good filters (like good lenses) typically costing more money.

However, you will get much better results with a high-quality ND filter – just like you will get better results with a high-quality lens – so the expenditure of extra money is usually worth it.

Besides, why spend extra money on a great lens and then ruin it by putting a bargain-basement filter in front of it?

 ND Starter Filter Kit

There are ways to get a great filter and not spend a ton of money, though.

Take, for example, the ND Starter Filter Kit by Formatt-Hitech that’s shown above.

These guys have a solid reputation for making some of the best filters out there, and the ones included in this kit are no exception.

The kit includes two must-have filters – a 3-stop solid ND filter for taking photos of beautifully blurry water and clouds, and a 3-stop soft edge graduated ND filter that’s ideal for equalizing the dynamic range in landscape photos.

Also included in the kit is an aluminum filter holder and an adapter ring that allows you to mount the filter to your lens.

In other words, it’s a complete kit for beginners that will allow you to get started in long exposures with beautiful photos as a result.

Learn more about photography accessories from Formatt-Hitech.

Subject Matter

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Of course, getting the gear is just the first step in creating long exposures. You also need to find appropriate subject matter.

In this case, you need to photograph a scene that has movement – clouds passing by, a river or waterfall, or people or cars moving through the field of view.

Regardless of the subject you chose, an ND filter allows you to blur that movement to get the gorgeous motion effects you see in the images above and below.

When composing the shot, you want to be able to highlight that motion by placing it prominently in the frame.

But you also don’t want to forget to include other elements in the shot that enhance the feeling of motion.

By that I mean that including things like boulders in a stream or buildings in front of moving clouds helps amplify the implied motion.

That’s not to mention that you need to think about typical compositional rules as well, such as including foreground interest, being wary of distracting backgrounds, and using the rule of thirds to create more balanced compositions.

Learn more about selecting subjects for long exposures in the video above by DigitalRev TV.

Calculating Shutter Speeds

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By far, the most labor intensive aspect of creating a long exposure is in figuring out the shutter speed you need to use with your ND filter on your lens.

Depending on the conditions, you might need just a couple of seconds of exposure, or you might need well beyond 30 seconds.

That means you need to figure out what shutter speed to use by doing a bit of math:

  • Get a baseline exposure time for the image without your ND filter attached. Do this by using aperture priority mode and setting the desired aperture.
  • Let’s assume the camera selects a 1-second shutter speed based on the aperture you choose. Then, mount the filter to your lens and keep the aperture the same.
  • If you’re using a 3-stop ND filter, you’d need to double the shutter speed three times, which in this case would make it an 8-second exposure.
  • Use your camera remote to fire the shutter, and you should have the long exposure effect you’re going for!

Granted, making these calculations can get a little laborious, so you can use one of many excellent apps for calculating long exposures, like the Long Exposure Calculator for iOS devices and the Exposure Calculator for Android devices.

Wrapping It Up

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Making the leap into long exposure photography isn’t something that should cause you too much stress.

As I noted above, it’s really just a matter of using an ND filter and being able to calculate (or use an app to calculate) the correct exposure time.

I’ve linked to various resources throughout this article that offer more in-depth discussions of various topics, so be sure to explore those to get detailed information about creating long exposures.

In the meantime, it all starts with getting the right gear, so grab a high-quality ND filter kit, download a long exposure calculator, and go find a beautiful scene to capture in your first long exposure!

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