We often hear or read about photographers using a long exposure technique, but what is it and how do we do it? Let us find out.

Please note that this article was originally published on my sister site – visualsofscotland.co.uk

Well, as the name suggests, a long exposure image is one whereby the photographer left the shutter open for a longer than normal time. For me, this is anything about a second – basically anything that would be near on impossible to hand hold the camera for.

This is achieved by either having a very small aperture and low ISO (see my previous article on manual mode and the exposure triangle) or by using an ND filter (see here for more on that) or a combination of all 3. It can also be achieved indoors, in a forest, at night time, during dusk, dawn or on particularly dull days.

In this article we are going to look at 6 times that you could use a long exposure to improve your landscape photography. So without further ado, let’s jump in.

1) Slow down rushing water. This is usually used for rivers, streams and waterfalls and gives your images a smoother, calmer feel. I love the slightly textured water that you get when you slow down your shutter speed. I don’t want to lose all texture however and will often try a few different shutter speeds before settling on one. Unfortunately there is no magic bullet – water runs at a different speed depending on the time of year, amount of rainfall, snow melt etc – so, as with most of these examples it will be a case of trial and error. In the example below, I wanted to slow the water down as the scene was so chaotic and I needed to introduce some calmness. I chose 13 seconds after a couple of tries which I felt provided a nice balance between the calmness I wanted whilst still retaining a semblance of the sheer force of the rapids.

A 13 second exposure brought some calmness to a chaotic scene

A 13 second exposure brought some calmness to a chaotic scene

2) Create smooth water. Shooting over lakes (or Lochs as we call them) is great. We can create beautiful reflections and get plenty of colour through the image. But, especially here in Scotland we don’t get too many calm days meaning those wonderful mirrored surfaces we crave are often not forthcoming. Enter the long exposure. Using a long exposure technique here smooths the water out allowing us to make the most of sunset and sunrise colours as well as creating smooth reflections. This can very often lead to a wonderfully dreamy effect. In the image below, I used a 15 second exposure. A 30 or 60 second exposure would also have worked well here.

The long exposure creates a feel of calmness that would have been missing in the small waves created by the evening breeze.

The long exposure creates a feel of calmness that would have been missing in the small waves created by the evening breeze.

3) Add drama to the sky. Often when I run my workshops in Scotland, I am asked to take my students to specific places, such as the Lone Tree at Milarochy Bay (Loch Lomond). This is a great location because the outlook faces West meaning we can get some amazing sunset colours. But, being Scotland, we cannot guarantee a sunset! However, by using a long exposure we can create some real drama and atmosphere in the sky. This long exposure was 240 seconds long.

Exposures this long at the end of the day carry some real risk because if you underexpose, you probably won’t have enough time to reshoot.

Exposures this long at the end of the day carry some real risk because if you underexpose, you probably won’t have enough time to reshoot.

4) Add movement/blue to the foreground. This is one of the more creative, and unusual, ways to use a long exposure to good effect in Landscape Photography and it is something I do quite a lot of when shooting objects such as castles in the landscapes. By including some of the foreground, we can create a natural vignette or bit of framing for the image. But, at the same time, it can also feel be distracting. By using a long exposure to blur any movement (created by wind, or aided by you) we can maintain the framing without the distractions. This works well with long grasses, plants, bushes and trees. The length of exposure will depend on how out of focus the item is (from the depth of field chosen) and the speed at which it is moving.

The blurry grasses in the foreground push your eye through the scene to the castle.

The blurry grasses in the foreground push your eye through the scene to the castle.

5) Astro or night time photography. Astrophotography is becoming very popular and mixing a bit of astro with landscape photography can be a rewarding, and challenging, experience. This is not a pure Milky Way shot due to the time of year it was taken, but I did want to make the most of the night sky including the two planets that in view and the ambient light from the nearby city and I got lucky with a few shooting stars. This was a 20 second exposure (16mm lens, 4 image panorama) to avoid any trailing from the stars.

Shooting at night requires a longer shutter speed than during the day

Shooting at night requires a longer shutter speed than during the day

6) Shooting in the rain. Now at first glance this may not seem the most obvious time to use a long exposure, but if you are shooting over water or on a hard surface (where you may see rain drop splashes), or during very heavy rain, then by using a long exposure you can equalise the scene out to have no rain showing in the image. In the image below, I was running a landscape workshop, and we had spent most of the day fighting the rain. I wanted to demonstrate this process so I used a 10 stop ND filter and a 60 second exposure. Just make sure that you hold a umbrella as close to the camera as possible (without getting it in shot) to avoid rain drops. This may well take a few goes to get it without raindrops on the front of the filter.

Despite heavy rain, a long exposure allows us to capture a calm, autumnal image.

Despite heavy rain, a long exposure allows us to capture a calm, autumnal image.

So next time you are out shooting and the weather is not favourable or you need to liven up your shot, put on that ND filter and try some long exposures. It really can make all the difference.

Thanks for reading.

Matt

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