The Basics of Long Exposure Photography

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The Basics of Long Exposure Photography

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. 

Using long exposure to create start trails while photography the stars

Long-exposure photography captures some fantastic images. This type of photography involves leaving the shutter open for an extended period, 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 worth it! This article will teach you the basics of long-exposure photography, tips for taking amazing photos, and the best subjects for shooting long-exposure images. So let’s get started!

What is long-exposure photography?

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

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 see 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 stunning. With a bit of practice, anyone can create breathtaking images that capture the beauty of the world around us.

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What are the best Camera settings for long-exposure photography?

Taking Long Exposure Photos with a DSLR or Mirrorless Camera

When it comes to long-exposure photography, there are a few settings you’ll want to consider to get the best results:

  1. Camera mode: You’ll want to shoot in Manual mode for complete control over the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, also known as the exposure triangle.
  2. Shutter speed: This is the most important setting for long-exposure photography. Generally, you’ll want to keep your shutter open for 1/10 of a second to several seconds, which works well in most cases, such as moving water or people.  But depending on the effect you are looking for, leaving the shutter open for several minutes may be necessary.
  3. Aperture: You’ll want to use a narrow aperture (high f-stop number) in order to achieve a deep depth of field. This will keep your entire scene in focus.
  4. ISO: Use the lowest ISO setting possible to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor and minimize image noise.
  5. Delayed Release:  Adding two or ten seconds of delayed shutter release helps avoid camera shake. Even if you’re using a tripod, there is a slight shake after pressing the shutter button; delayed release ensures the camera is stable when the shutter releases and your images are clear.

Overall, the best settings for long-exposure photography will depend on the lighting conditions, the subject matter, and the effect you want to achieve. Play around with different settings and experiment until you find what works best for your particular situation.

iPhone Long Exposure

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 the Live Photo button (the circular icon on the top right).

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

  3. Open the Photos app.

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

Gear you need for long-exposure photography


A tripod provides a stable platform for the camera, reducing camera shake or movement caused by the photographer’s hand. This stability ensures that the camera remains focused and aligned throughout the duration of the exposure.

Remote Shutter Release

remote shutter release is an essential tool in long exposure photography because it reduces camera shake caused by physically pressing the camera’s shutter button. Even the slightest movement can result in a blurry image, especially when using slow shutter speeds. With a remote shutter release, the photographer can trigger the camera without touching it directly, ensuring the camera remains stable and steady throughout the exposure. 

Neutral Density (ND) Filter

ND (Neutral Density) filters help control the amount of light that enters the camera, allowing for longer exposure times without overexposing the image. This is particularly useful in situations where the ambient light is too harsh, such as daylight or bright indoor lighting. ND filters work by reducing the intensity of all wavelengths of light equally, providing a more balanced exposure. This helps achieve creative effects, such as smoothing water or creating streaks of light from moving traffic or stars in the night sky. ND filters are available in various strengths, measured in stops, which determine the degree of light blockage. They can be used alone or in combination to achieve the desired effect. 

The best Subjects For long-exposure photos 

The best places and subjects to shoot long-exposure photos are ones with a lot of motion and movement. For example, you can find movement 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. To reduce camera shake, choosing a location that is not windy is essential.

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 occur when a long exposure photograph of the night sky is taken. 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. 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 constantly change, and the colors are bright and vibrant. Using a long exposure, you can capture the trails of the fireworks as they burst into the sky and create a fantastic 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 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

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Delaney is a Business Analyst 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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