Because I Can – Long Exposures

posted in Because I Can!

Because I Can – Long Exposures

As with my previous “Because I Can” blog (link here), this post is inspired by the variety of possibilities and techniques within our photography. I aim to discuss something that I find fascinating. It is not meant to be a tutorial but simply a reflection on how we make our photography as engaging and fulfilling as possible.

When considering how we positively drive our own photography, it is important to have something to stretch our capacity to learn, think, create, and reflect. One technique that provides this for me is long exposures.

The longer exposure removes waves and draws attention to the rocks

What is it?

Long exposure photography is not complicated but does require a camera that has manual control. This is because it involves deliberately lengthening the exposure time (shutter speed) beyond normal realms. Whereas normal exposures might be 1/4000 – 1/60 sec, long exposures might be around 1 – 60 secs (or even longer).

The result of lengthening the exposure is that an otherwise normal scene gains an ethereal and surreal quality. The extent to which you extend the exposure determines how far from reality the image gets.

Porthminster Beach

Removing the waves and any clouds means that the image is just composition and colour

How does it work in camera?

To start considering how to create a long exposure we must first be aware of the exposure triangle. The amount light that passes through the lens and hits the sensor is determined by three factors: shutter speed (i.e., duration of time that light enters for), the diameter of the lens aperture, and the sensitivity of the sensor (ISO).

In order to lengthen the shutter time we need to reduce the light determined by the aperture and ISO. We can do this a few ways. First, you can reduce the sensitivity of the sensor by reducing the ISO to the camera’s lowest native setting. This is normally 100 but might be 64 or 200. Second, you can reduce the size of the lens aperture by increasing the f value. This is likely to be f11 to f16, however be careful because very small apertures reduce the quality of image.

The final option is to add filters to reduce the amount of light entering the lens. There are many types of filters but the simplest for this purpose is a neutral density (ND) filter. These vary from one or two stops all the way to Lee’s 15-stop Super Stopper.

Portrait of a landscape photographer

This image required a 6-stop ND filter and a 3-stop Grad filter to get the correct exposure

Why long exposures?

I like long exposures for two main reasons. First, I am certainly not in photography to produce photos that accurately document what I see. I like to create images that encourage a feeling or are just visually stimulating.

To achieve these goals, I have been drawn to minimal images that have a clear point of focus and elegant balance in their composition. When framing an image I spend more time trying to remove elements than anything else. Blurring moving parts simplifies the image further and draws attention to the focal point.

The long exposure also removes the image from any one point of time. Many people love photography because a shot represents a single unrepeatable moment. Long exposures do not show reality so the viewer has to interpret and fill the gaps. To me then, long exposures do not show a moment but a feeling.

Rum from Eigg

Removing the waves from this shot of Rum makes the image so much more peaceful

Second, I like the process because it is challenging. The fact that it is difficult means I have to engage my brain and concentrate. While the technical bit is not that hard, the composition is. I do not find it easy to pre-visualise the final image before you have blurred moving elements and processed them.

Ultimately, I like the challenge and I like the outcomes. Perfect!


There are many great long exposure photographers. A favourite of mine is Michael Levin and his book Zebrato.

For examples of long exposures check out these flickr members: Raúl Podadera SanzCorrey BrattonJulius Tjintjelaar, and Tomas Roslin.

For long exposure tutorials search youtube for “long exposure photography” and “using neutral density filters”.

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