10 easy steps to improve your long exposure shots

Easy steps to improve your long exposure photography.

First off, what is long exposure photography…

Long exposure photography is when you take a photo over a prolonged period of time.  

To me, it is an image that you cant take handheld if you want it to be sharp and by shooting a long exposure you will create intentional blur within the image and also let enough light into the camera to get a good exposure. Typically it is associated with water or clouds, or even to remove people from images. 

The long exposure effect is created during the day by using what is called a Neutral Density (ND) filter that gets attached to the front of the lens. 

Although there is no set time for what makes a long exposure, I feel around the 1-second mark and longer would be something worth considering seems about right.
Similar effects can be done at night without the aid of filters, this can include urban/cityscapes and astrophotography as shown in the examples below.

Long exposures at sunrise

Clouds moving during midday sun

Making sure the foreground stay still

2 minute long exposures at sunset

Night time exposures in the city

Photographing the stars at night

1. Research your locations. 

With a bit of forward planning, it will be easier to choose your subject to photograph.

Try to get into a habit of using Google My Maps to pin possible locations and maybe try to colour code them for things such as best shot at low/high tide or sunrise/sunset lighthouses, shipwrecks or whatever else you like to photograph.
Look online for places to visit. You can use a search engine such as Google to type in the area you live in and long exposure and you will see what is nearby, the same applies to social media and dedicated long exposure groups.
Try talking to other photographers at camera clubs or on social media, most will be willing to help with location  and subject ideas
Try to assess if you think it is going to be busy with people, are you going to be able to set up your tripod and not get your exposure interrupted with people knocking into you or the camera or with you blocking access to somewhere.
Have a think about what is going to happen with the location you have chosen as you could be stood there for a while, is the tide going to have completely covered your foreground interest in the shot, or perhaps that boat that was still is now bobbing about as the waves lap up at it.

One of my Google My maps

2. Ensure you have enough time.

When you have decided on a location ensure you have got enough time to park the car, pay for parking, grab all your gear, walk to your spot and get setup. 

I tend to try and get to the spot for photographing 40 minutes before sunrise, this gives me plenty of time to see what the conditions are doing, find my composition and perhaps look out for another and then get myself fully setup.

If you are photographing on the coast, make sure you know what the tides are doing, the last thing you want to happen is you get cut off by the tides. Make sure you have enough time to get safely back to your car.

3. Have a set routine for getting yourself all set up for taking your shot, that way you won’t miss anything out.

Don’t just stick your tripod down and shoot from that spot, wander around the location and find your 1st shot.

Once you have found your shot set up your tripod and push it down into the sand to stop it sinking mid-shot.

Set up your camera and place the filter adapter ring on if using the slot in filters.

Frame the shot up, check your exposure, set your focus, take a few test shots without any filters to ensure the composition works.

Add the filter holder and check the polariser is set correctly if using one.

Add your Grad filter in if you plan to use one.

Take another test shot to see how the shot looks.

Work out what ND filter you want to use and an ND calculated app to work out your exposure.

Insert the ND filter into the holder, set your exposure, cover the viewfinder and try to prevent any stray light from getting in between filters and lens then shoot.

While you are shooting the longer exposures have a look around for other compositions that might be nearby.

4. Use manual focus and turn off image stabilisation

Autofocus is normally going to struggle when shooting long exposures, whether they are at night or with the use of ND filters, there is just not enough varying contrast in an image for the cameras system to be able to work as efficiently as normal. 

If shooting at night, illuminate the subject with a torch to aid with setting the focus using your live view along with manual focus, if shooting with ND filters, set your focus manually before adding any filters and you will find once the focus is set you will have tack sharp images.
Turn off the image stabilisation, this is often called VR/OS/IS/VC depending on the camera/lens make. You may need to turn it off on both the camera and lens.

5. Use a wired or wireless shutter remote

Using a wired or wireless remote is fairly essential for a few reasons, most importantly you will most likely need it to shoot longer than 30 seconds if you have to move the camera into bulb mode. 

Using the remote will also help to eliminate any camera shake you will get from pressing the shutter button, if you don’t have a remote, you can get away with just using the 2-second delay. But if you are shooting a sequence of images for a star trail this can create an issue with gaps between shots. It also means you have to time your shot if shooting long exposures and need the frame to start at a specific point, such as when the wave has completely filled the frame. 

6. Keep your filters clean

Your ND filters are muck magnets when shooting near the sea. You will get sea spray and water droplets all over the front filters, so pay special attention to how clean they are, as you will quickly end up with a shot covered in marks. Keeping a lens cloth in your pocket at all times is very handy.

If shooting in the rain, keep an umbrella handy. Long exposure nightscapes in the rain can look amazing with all of the reflections, holding an umbrella above you and the camera will keep all those water drops off the filters or front element on your lens, it will also help protect your camera.

7. Visit the same places  a few times

It can pay off to revisit the same location a few times over a few different days. Conditions will always be different to the previous visit and doing this it will allow you to know when the best times are to shoot for things such as the tides, light direction, wind direction for clouds blowing, help to improve compositions and also when you will find the areas less busy so you can focus on making your own work.

From each visit you make you will normally see something different and learn something new.

8. Wear suitable clothing

Always wear appropriate clothing. At 5 am on the coast in January when its blowing 30mph wind you will soon become uncomfortable and your mind will not be on the image-making, you will be wanting to go back to the car. Wear multiple layers to trap the air between them as opposed to one thick layer.

Make sure you look after waterproof gear and reproof it every now and again.

If you are out shooting seascapes a lot, invest in a decent pair of wellington boots with a moulded sole and a liner, these will be as comfy as hiking boots and will mean you can get in the water for nicer compositions and you don’t have to worry about soaking wet feet.

9. Keep your camera bag and filter pouch organised

Knowing where all your equipment is in your bag makes things a lot easier. 

When shooting in the dark, it is far better to reach into your camera bag and just know where things are than to stick on a torch and ruin your eyes night vision for the next 10-15 mins.

The same thing applies when shooting at sunrise. When the sun is just right and the cloud is a beautiful pink colour, the last thing you want to be doing is spending precious time trying to find that spare battery or memory card.

If you are using filters, store your filters in a pouch such as the Lowepro Filter pouch 100 to keep your filters safe and in some form of order. 

For example, start with your ND filters and keep them in strength order such as 6, 10, 13 and then do the same for your soft and then the hard grads.

Again, when the sun is starting to appear or disappearing, knowing where that filter is in low light can speed up your workflow and just make things a lot easier.

10. Attend a workshop on shooting Long exposures

Yes, this one is a shameless plug. But if you have a thousand questions or are just unsure about filters, attend a workshop. This can be very cost-effective, you will be able to borrow filters and get tuition on using them.

The best thing about this is that for a small cost you can see what filters it is you like using to create specific effects, thus saving you money on purchases of equipment you may not ever use.

I find most people learn far quicker from physically doing a task rather than reading about it. 

So book onto a session on the coast for a Long exposure class, landscape day or even a Night sky workshop that I also run

I really hope this has been a helpful read for those that made it this far and as always if you are stuck with something filter wise, feel free to ask me, I am always happy to help.

If you are local to me and wanted to try a specific filter before buying and I have it in my kitbag I am always happy to loan it out for a few days, so please just ask. 

Plus remember you can always get 10% off any Formatt Hitech filters using my code DIBSM10