Some love the technology behind it, others the effect it has on images—that’s why classic photo methods such as long exposure are an exciting topic, not only for photographers, but also for image users.

Photography is often understood as the art of capturing the right moment in time and space. But: how long is a moment? If you are looking for a definition of time, you can say that the majority of images are produced with a shutter speed of 1/60 to 1/500, depending on the lighting situation. The aim is to focus on a scene or subject. But what about the shutter speeds above or below this range?

In this article, we will deal with the range below 1/60—to be more precise, with the range above 1-2 seconds shutter speed: the time exposure.

Interestingly, this photographic technique is one of the oldest, if not the oldest. The reason for this is simple: In the early days of photography, the low sensitivity of the photographic material and the low light intensity of the lenses used at the time required a very long exposure time to capture the subjects. That’s how this one was taken:

Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 3. Arrondissement, Daguerrotypie. By Louis Daguerre [Public domain].

Here the photographer Louis Daguerre, in 1838, exposed the Boulevard du Temple in Paris for several minutes, thus achieving (intentionally or unintentionally) one of the special effects of this technique: the entire, otherwise very lively street appears deserted—except for the two people shown in the lower section. Reason for this: they obviously didn’t move much during the shot.

So what exactly is long exposure?

Although there is no exact definition, this type of photography technique is discussed when the shooting time is long enough to produce the typical result: the static capture of movements and changes within a subject. Although at first glance this sounds like a contradiction, using this technique, the photographer captures changes in the subject that occur continuously within the shutter speed. Not to be confused with the stroboscopic technique, incidentally, in which a timed multiple exposure of the sensor with the moving subject takes place within a certain period.

Long time exposure provides amazing and stunning images because the human eye simply cannot perceive these images in reality:

© Westend61 / MARTIN RIETZE

Here are a few more examples of successful long time exposures:

Pictures created with this technique appear almost surreal and very dynamic—that’s why they are guaranteed to be eye-catchers.

What do you need for this?

If these technical factors are taken into account, a long exposure is possible:

1. Small aperture: Small apertures (F11, F16, and even smaller) are generally used for long-term photography in order to reduce the amount of incident light on the sensor during exposure. The subject should be focused manually so that it does not change during shooting.

2. Tripod: Since the sensor of the camera will absorb light for a longer time, the use of a stable tripod is unavoidable. There are certainly newer cameras with internal stabilization mechanisms that allow you to take handheld pictures of up to one second, but since you often need to set even slower shutter speeds, it is necessary to position the camera in a stable position.

3. Remote release: In order to avoid vibrations during release, you should have a remote release option. Wireless releases work here, but so do cable-bound releases and smartphone apps that are connected to the camera via WiFi/Bluetooth. Another technical way to prevent as much movement as possible is (with DSLR cameras) to activate the mirror lock function or the mirror lockup function, which prevents the mirror from vibrating.

4. ND filter: Depending on the light situation, neutral density filters are also required. Such filters reduce the amount of incoming light by several stops so that time exposure images can even be taken during the day, for example. At night, the filters are no longer necessary in most cases due to the low amount of light.

5. Live histogram: Observing the live histogram during shooting has also proven to be very useful so the photographer can check that the image is not overexposed because of the long shooting time.

And finally, especially with DSLR cameras, a good piece of advice is to cover the optical viewfinder to prevent unwanted light entry.

Timing and motif selection

As with every picture, the photographer should first of all deal with the motif idea. As the gallery above shows, motifs that leave clear traces of light on the sensor due to the changes or movements are particularly suitable:

  • Traffic situations with protracted traces of light
  • Water surfaces
  • People in motion
  • Passing clouds
  • Starry sky
  • Light painting
  • Fireworks
  • Architectural photographs

Unlike a static shot, the photographer must also think about the many elements that will change or move during the capture time, but over which he has no real control. It is best to look on the spot and take test shots. This gives you a better overview and a more realistic feeling for the situation. Ultimately, the long exposure technique requires a lot of patience, a keen eye, and a forward-looking view from the photographer. In which direction will the clouds move? What lights will leave their trace on the sensor? How will people move? What will happen in the next few minutes?

The choice of shutter speed depends on the result of all these considerations. Here it is necessary to tap the photographer’s wealth of experience and, if necessary, take several shots with diverse settings. And: to bring along a lot of patience.

Editing

Once the images have been successfully captured, the final finishing touches are made in the digital darkroom: Due to the long exposure of the sensor, there will inevitably be “noise” on the images. In most cases, however, this can be largely removed by means of noise reduction software, so that in the end a qualitatively and technically good image is created. Additionally, you can also use masks to superimpose several images or elements of the same motif on top of each other.

A playground for creativity!

Long exposure technology opens up an almost limitless space for the photographer to develop his creativity. The images created this way are often used in advertising and art when it comes to transporting the viewer into dream worlds.

If you want to see more photos taken with this technique, click here.