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Have you ever wondered how to take a picture where moving objects are artistically blurred while stationary objects are sharply in focus? These are called long exposures and we can teach you how to capture these photographs. Learning long exposure opens up an entirely new realm of creative photography that you can even try out at home, so let’s get to the long and short of it!

Long Exposure Explained

A long exposure can be defined as one taken in low-light conditions using a shutter speed between 1 and 30 seconds. You may have seen such photos without knowing it and asked yourself “how do they do that?” Some common examples include pictures of waterfalls, lightning bolts, moving car lights, fireworks, and more. These may require special filters for your lens to reduce the amount of daylight entering the camera. We’ll discuss the basics here and define a technique you can easily practice. Let’s keep things simple by using candles as a source of low light and avoid the complexity of filters.

Equipment and Setting

Long Exposure Photography Equipment and Setting

The above image shows the minimum required equipment for long exposure photography:

  • Camera with a manual mode setting – enables multi-second shutter speeds
  • Tripod – holds the camera still for the elapsed time of the photograph
  • Remote shutter release – to take the picture without wiggling the camera (seen in the bottom right hand corner)

For our example, we set the stage with these additional items:

  • Candles to act as a dim light source
  • White feather that will be the object in motion
  • Black cloth background which of course is our stationary object

Camera Configuration and Long Exposure Technique

Long Exposure Photography Camera Settings

Setting up your camera for a long exposure can be tricky. But don’t worry we’ll help make it easy! First, we’ll list our configuration and second, we’ll explain the selections and technique.

Let’s walk through the pertinent configurations from the image above (moving from the top left to the bottom right)

  1. M – manual mode
  2. 15” – 15 second shutter speed
  3. f/4.2 – f stop of 4.2
  4. Matrix metering (icon varies on different cameras)
  5. WB K – white balance using degrees Kelvin
  6. ISO 100 – low ISO value

Exposure of a photograph is based on three settings: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Using manual mode lets us have full control over each of these. Your shutter speed will vary – this is the key thing to adjust for getting the exposure just right. Practice makes perfect, so don’t worry if it takes several tries before the picture looks good.

The next three settings are easy.  Set the aperture wide open (lowest f-stop) to let in the most amount of light. Set the ISO as low as possible for the sharpest detail. Matrix metering makes the most sense in cases of long exposure, so you can consider that a constant as well.

Last but not least, getting the white balance just right also takes practice. We recommend a two-phase approach, using either live view (a real-time view showing the effect of white balance) or image review (taking a picture and seeing how the white balance came out on-screen). First, try automatic white balance as this may look fine and is very simple to use. If the auto setting does not create a great image, the second approach is setting a specific value. Configuring white balance using degrees Kelvin is an advanced option that gives you precise control. For low light exposures, we recommend values less than 5000 degrees Kelvin.

Long Exposure Photography Flight of a Feather

Long Exposure Photography Feather Landing

To compose our example, we imagined what it looks like to see a feather falling. When closely watching a feather drift to the ground, it can seem to happen in slow-motion. Recreating this effect is a fun demonstration of long exposure. The feather began in the resting position for the first four seconds of our 15 second exposure, giving the crisp appearance that it had landed.  It was then lifted through the air by slowly pulling up an attached piece of clear fishing line. The image looks as though the feather floated down, when in actuality it was lifted up. Special effects in action!

Long Exposure Photography: Do Try this at Home!

Why not try out this fun and artistic approach at home? You’ve learned the equipment, camera settings, and basic technique for creating a long exposure photograph. Point a flashlight at your favorite plant or stone. Shine a laser pointer in the mirror or catch your cat chasing it around the floor. Let your creativity shine in a unique way with a new idea for long exposure. Practice this approach and then learn how to apply it on the town or in nature with similar lighting conditions. Show off your new photos to your friends and enjoy them asking “how did YOU do that?”