So you think you know long exposure? Take our challenges to find out

Nikon Team Photo Finish12 Dec 20237 min read
Scott Antcliffe photos for Nikon magazine article

First up in our Photo Finish challenge is long exposure photography. Keen to level up your manual game? These beginner, enthusiast and advanced challenges will get you experimenting in no time…

Long exposure conjures images of smooth water, sublime urban landscapes and stunning night skies. It is the art of encompassing movement instead of freezing a moment in time. This technique isn’t for the faint of heart, as switching over to manual settings on your camera can be intimidating and take time to master. Ready to learn more about your camera? Let’s dive in.

 

What is long exposure?

Long exposure allows us to create captivating motion in photography and see things that we cannot spy with the naked eye. This technique means we can capture car light trails, a crisp image of the Milky Way and sleek waterfalls. It works by using a slower shutter speed (and often a steady tripod).

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What is shutter speed?

Shutter speed is exactly what it sounds like – how fast the shutter closes. It is a camera setting that determines how long the camera shutter remains open to expose the sensor and allow in light. A slower shutter speed means a longer exposure to light – perfect for introducing motion blur.

 

Typical shutter speeds for well-lit everyday photos are around 1/60 or 1/125 of a second. To capture motion blur in long exposure, we use a slower shutter speed, starting from half or quarter of a second. Think of it like this – the shutter is the eye lid of the camera. The longer we have our eyes open, the more information we take in.

 

For more ethereal and dreamy atmospheres, use a slow shutter speed to soften all the motion. A shorter exposure time gives the image motion while maintaining detail, so it’s perfect for nailing that silky water effect.

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How to take long exposure photography 

There aren’t any rules to long exposure, but here are a few tips:

 

First, don’t forget to arrive at your chosen location early. It sounds obvious, but timing is key to getting what you want in your long exposure, from the direction of clouds to the change in tides. Now it’s time to set up the tripod (to prevent shake) and get the composition just right.

 

Once you are happy with the frame, set your camera to manual mode. Adjust your shutter speed to one that fits the light situation and your intention. Depending on which Photo Finish challenge you pick below, the shutter speed will vary.

 

Alongside shutter speed, aperture and ISO are also important. These three pillars determine the brightness, blur and your camera’s sensitivity to light. The best way to nail what you want in your work is to practise – play around in manual mode and exposure control and learn what works best for you.

 

Finally, take a test shot and double check the exposure. You can check this using the histogram and the focus. At last, you’re all set! We know the what and the how of long exposure, so now it’s time to pick your Photo Finish challenge below. 

Assets for Nikon magazine for John Bogna's A guide to filters
Beginner long exposure challenges 
 
Urban motion blur 

A great place to start is the urban landscape. Where there’s light and movement, there’s opportunity to experiment, slow down your shutter speed and play with motion blur. Trial and error are key here, but you can really elevate your urban night photography by shooting streets busy with cars and create beautiful car light trails. Start with 1/30 shutter speed and gradually slow down to 1/15 or 1/10.

 

Flowing waterfalls and clouds 

Smooth waterfalls always look dreamy. For best results, lower your ISO while increasing your aperture (preferably the highest) to keep your shutter open long enough, bring your shutter speed down to between one and five seconds and shoot.

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Stills: Mikko Lagerstedt
Enthusiast long exposure challenges

 

Master daytime exposure

Daytime long exposure is another level. Mastering the balance of shutter speed, ISO and aperture is a challenge when there is so much light, especially if the light is harsh, as even at f/22 and ISO 100 the image will likely be overexposed. To help you avoid this, add a Natural Density filter to your kitbag – the filter reduces the intensity of light and colour wavelength entering the camera, meaning you can have more control over shutter speed and aperture. Shoot your normal everyday and busy urban streets to up your daytime exposure experience.

 

Read more: The essential guide to filters: what to use for snow, water and effects

 

Capture the Milky Way

Challenge yourself to shooting the starry skies. Head to an area where you can see the stars and moon – around four days before or after a new moon is best as the moon will be at its darkest (a full moon will cast far too much light and will mask the stars). However, if you want to make the moon the star of the show, dusk is usually better than later at night, when the moon is lower in the sky and larger looking.

 

Set up your tripod, make sure you’re shooting in RAW so you are free to edit all the colours in post-production, and then check your frame and composition. A good starting point is taking 30-second exposures, using f/2.8 aperture and ISO 1600. For even better results, combine multiple images of the stars together (a technique called focus stacking; read more about it here).

 

Read more: Expose the drama of the night sky with Mikko Lagerstedt and the Nikon Z 8  

Photographs by Goran Strand for Nikon magazine,
Advanced long exposure settings 
 
Light painting 

Unlike most long exposure photography, light painting involves capturing the path of a moving light source. Select the manual mode using a low ISO of around 100 to 200, a narrow aperture of around f/11 and shutter speed between ten and 30 seconds. Once this is set up, shine a torch or a light source in front of the scene you intend to shoot – whether that’s in your garden or indoors – and begin waving your light source while you start shooting. Experiment with your settings until you get the results you desire. 

 

Drone photography 

Take your light painting further by using a drone with lights and paint beautiful circles and lines in the night sky. This will require a lot of trial and error and involve patience as you will have to make sure the exposure and the time it takes for the drone to make a circle are exactly the same length. Want to achieve the below? Read Olivier Wong’s guide to shooting with drones here.

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Stills: Olivier Wong
The best lenses for long exposure

Ready to have a go? We recommend these wide-angle lenses:

 

 

Svöðufoss waterfall image by Scott Antcliffe. For an advanced guide to photographing winter landscapes click here.

 

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