The Basics of Long Exposure Photography

The Basics of Long Exposure Photography

Using long exposure to create start trails while photography the stars

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All photos are original to the author unless otherwise noted. 

This blog post may contain affiliate links.  I may earn a small commission for any purchases made through these links. Click here for the disclosure statement.

All photos are original to the author unless otherwise noted.

Long-exposure photography captures some amazing images. This type of photography involves leaving the shutter open for a longer period of time, which allows more light to enter the camera sensor, which results in a beautiful movement in an image. It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of it, but the results are definitely worth it! In this article, you will learn about the basics of long exposure photography, tips for taking amazing long exposure photos, and the best subjects for shooting long exposure photos. So let’s get started!

What is long exposure photography?

Long exposure photography is a technique that allows the camera to capture long periods of time in a single image by using a long shutter speed, typically 1/8 of a second or longer. Keeping the shutter open for a prolonged period, the photographer can capture stunning images that distort reality and aren’t possible to with our own eyes.

The resulting images often have a soft, ethereal quality, with blurred movement and ghost-like figures. Long exposure photography uses a wide range of subjects, including Light trails, waterfalls, and star trails. While long exposure photography requires patience and careful planning, the results are truly stunning. With a little practice, anyone can create breathtaking images that capture the beauty of the world around us.

Tips for taking amazing long-exposure Shots

Black and white merry-go-round
Photo by wenhung yang on Unsplash

Basic Camera settings for long exposure photography

Taking Long Exposure Photos with a DSLR or Mirrorless Camera

To create long-exposure photographs, you will need to set your camera to manual mode. This will allow you to control the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. For the best results, you will want to set your shutter speed as low as possible (1/8th of a second or slower) and your aperture as high as possible (f/16 or higher). You may also need to reduce the amount of light entering your camera by using a lower ISO setting (100 or lower).

Another key camera setting is delayed release, which helps avoid camera shake. Even if you’re using a tripod, there is a slight shake after pressing the shutter button; using delayed release ensures that the camera is stable when the shutter releases and your images are clear.

How To Do Long Exposure on iPhone

If you have an iPhone 6s or newer, you can use the Live Photos feature to create long exposures. Here are the instructions for an iPhone 12. Other models may have some slight variations.

  1. Open the Camera app and tap on the Live Photo button (the circular icon with a concentric circle on the top right).

  2. Tap on the shutter button to take a live photo.

  3. Open Photos app.

  4. On the top left, select the “Live” drop-down menu

Gear you need for long-exposure photography

Use a tripod to keep your camera steady and avoid blurry photos.

Use a remote shutter release or the self-timer to avoid shaking the camera when you press the shutter button.

Use a neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light entering the lens. ND filters will allow you to use slower shutter speeds without overexposing your image. 

Experiment with different shutter speeds to find the right one for your shot.

In order to find the right combination of shutter speed and aperture for long exposure photography, it’s best to experiment with a few different settings to see what gives you the desired effect. For example, if you want to create a soft, ethereal look in your photos, you might try a slower shutter speed and a wider aperture. Conversely, if you’re looking for more detail and clarity in your images, you might opt for a faster shutter speed and a smaller aperture. It’s important to note that these are just general guidelines; ultimately, it’s up to you to experiment and find the settings that work best for the specific photo you’re trying to capture.

The best Subjects For long-exposure photos 

The best places and subjects to shoot long-exposure photos are ones where there is a lot of motion and movement. This could be along a busy street, near a waterfall, or at a busy train station. Try photographing different subjects in different lighting conditions to see how the results vary. 

Some things to keep in mind when looking for a long-exposure photography subject:

  1. Long-exposure photography works for moving subjects or low-light environments.
  2. Also include stationary objects to create a sense of location
  3. Choose dim or low light environments. Long exposure will increase the brightness so a bright scene may end up overexposed.
  4. In order to reduce camera shake, it is important to choose a location that is not windy.

Examples of stunning long-exposure photos

Star Trails and Astrophotography

Using long exposure to create start trails while photography the stars
Photo by Tasos Mansour on Unsplash

Star trails are created when a long exposure photograph is taken of the night sky. The stars appear to move across the photo as they orbit around Earth. Astrophotography is the photography of the night sky including stars, the moon, and the milky way. Both of these subjects can be very challenging to photograph but produce some stunning results.

Moving Water

Long exposure shutter speed creates flowy water at Boulder Falls

Water is one of the most versatile subjects for long-exposure photography. Whether you are photographing a rushing waterfall, a tranquil river, or a glassy ocean, water can add interest and drama to your images.

Ferris Wheel

Light trails of a ferris wheel at night using long exposure photography
Photo by Ussama Azam on Unsplash

Ferris wheels can make for interesting long-exposure photography subjects. When photographed at night, the moving lights of the wheel can create interesting patterns and shapes in the sky. 

Roads with cars

Red light trails of cars as the cross a bridge at night
Photo by Traf on Unsplash

At night, the motion of moving car lights creates interesting patterns and streaks in the photograph. During the day, you can capture motion blur.


Bike rider in focus while crowd keeps moving and creates motion blur
Photo by zhang kaiyv

Capturing the ebb and flow of people creates interesting patterns and movements in a photograph. Photographing crowds can be a great way to capture the energy and excitement of a large crowd or event.


Vibrant colors and light trails of fireworks
Photo by Serge van Neck on Unsplash

Fireworks make a great long-exposure photography subject because they are always changing and the colors are so bright and vibrant. By using a long exposure, you can capture the trails of the fireworks as they burst into the sky, and create an amazing photo that captures the beauty and excitement of this yearly tradition. 


Panning photography of a motorcycle in focus while the background is out of focus to show movement
Photo by Kevin Olson on Unsplash

Panning is a technique that combines movement and a long exposure to create a sense of motion in a photograph. But instead of a blurry subject, the photographer tracks the subject with their camera while simultaneously pressing the shutter button. This will create a blurry background while the subject remains in focus.

Light Painting

An example of light painting using long exposure photography to capture the movement of light
Photo by Xuan Nguyen on Unsplash

Light painting is the process of using a light source to “paint” with light. This can be done by moving a light source around while taking a picture, or by drawing with a light source in front of the camera.

Any Low Light Setting

Lines, curves, and colors at Antelope Canyon

Less available light requires a longer shutter speed making any low light environment a good subject for long exposure. Whether its night photography, a dimly light room, caves and caverns, or shadows, if you need to increase the shutter speed to get a good exposure, its considered long exposure photography.

Author Bio

Author Bio Image

Delaney is a project manager by day and a travel and wildlife photographer by night who is using her skills for translating complex technical language into easy to understand concepts to make photography achievable at all skill levels. You have questions; she has answers.

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