Long exposure times were necessary in the early days of photography. In fact, moving people simply vanished in the very first photographs due to slow shutter speeds. In 1839, Louis Daguerre created the first known photograph of a human being, titled Boulevard du Temple. Although all the pedestrians in the photo did not show up in the final image, a single stationary shoeshiner who had stayed in place for the full duration of his exposure remained.
Today’s cameras, on the other hand, can capture even the fastest-moving objects. We now have cameras capable of a half of a billionth of a second exposures. Photographers of the 21st century have an almost infinite array of choices when it comes to shutter speed, so you might wonder when a long exposure is necessary. Below, we discuss the applications of long exposure times and dig into some of the trends we’ve noticed recently. Along the way, we touch base with some outstanding photographers and pick their brains for their best tricks and advice.
Classic Long Exposures: Fine Art Landscapes
Slow shutter speeds have an established place in the art world, especially when it comes to classic or traditional landscape photography. Through the decades, artists have tapped into the ethereal quality of slow shutter speeds to create serene, tranquil images that seem to transcend the rules of time and space.
Image by Yunus Malik. Gear: Nikon D7100 camera, Sigma 10-20mm lens. Settings: Focal length 10mm; shutter speed 30 sec; f13; ISO 100. Instagram
“Long exposure photography has its own lovers and market. I’ve noticed long exposures becoming a trend in fine art and black and white images.” He applies his knowledge of artistic trends to his own work, including his commercial photographs. “I’ve used long exposures on most of my natural landscape images. I think people love these images because they have effects like silky smooth water and moving clouds.”
Image by Francesco Libassi. Gear: Nikon D800E camera, Nikon 16-35 F4 lens. Settings: Focal length 35mm; shutter speed 361 sec; f8; ISO 100. Instagram
Offset Artist Francesco Libassi, a master of the method, agrees. “As far as themes go, I particularly love to shoot waterscapes and stormy clouds using long exposure techniques.” Simplicity is key for this kind of fine art landscape. “I can spend hours shooting a single rock in the sea and completely ignore a gorgeous sunset happening right next to me,” Libassi continues. “I think more intimate scenes are more likely to carry some sort of message and deliver that to the viewer.”
Image by Elroy Spelbos. Gear: Canon 5d mark II camera, Canon EF 16-35 f/4L IS USM lens. Settings:Focal length 18mm; shutter speed 136 sec; f11.
Elroy Spelbos has also tapped into the meditative quality of long exposure seascapes, and it’s paid off. “Actually, five of my ten best-selling images on Shutterstock are long exposures. I think these images are popular because they convey a feeling of stillness or serenity. I think the effect of a long exposure time on the sky (if there are clouds in the frame) and on water is appealing to people.”
Trendy Long Exposures: Light Trails and Urban Scenes
Taking classic, fine art landscapes as a jumping-off point, let’s take a look at how photographers can update the long exposure technique and apply it to stock photography in particular. Malik has drawn the same conclusion. “I’ve noticed that long exposures are becoming a trend in urban photography.” “For example, light trails on urban roads are popular.”
Image by Radek Standera. Gear: Nikon D3X camera, AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm lens. Settings: Focal length 48mm; shutter speed 60 sec; f16; ISO 100. Instagram
Photographer Radek Standera has a series of images featuring light trails on forest roads, and they’ve been a hit with image buyers. “When I joined Shutterstock several years ago, a long exposure shot of a driving car was one of the first shots I sold here,” he remembers. “I started to focus more on that theme, and today my shots of driving cars are among the bestselling ones.” In general, he says these images tend to perform better than his more traditional long exposure landscapes.
Image by Andrew Shiels. Gear: Fuji XT-2 camera, 18-55mm lens. Settings: Focal length 18mm; shutter speed 15 sec; f16; ISO 200. Instagram
Fellow photographer Andrew Shiels has observed similar results. “My most successful image is a long exposure piece,” he tells us. “The light trails create an exciting, almost supernatural sense of movement. When shooting long exposures at night, the contrast between the darkness and light carries great impact.” His favorite playground for slow shutter speeds is the city. “I enjoy shooting high up in the darkness of night, looking down onto a section of road.”
New Frontiers: People and Astrophotography
Libassi has noticed other long exposure photographers using models in their pictures, Wojciech Dziadosz thinks the future of long exposure photography might lie in the presence of human beings. “I think that a long exposure photograph with people can be a breakthrough,” he says. “I have seen long exposure landscapes and cities, but with a long exposure, people can be shown in a completely different context. These photos can convey, for example, the passage of time.” There’s also a practical reason for using slow shutter speeds for commercial photographs that include people. When captured in long exposure while moving, individual people are hard to identify, meaning that a model release might no longer be necessary.
Image by Wojciech Dziadosz. Gear: Nikon D800 camera, Tokina 12-24 lens. Settings: Focal length 22mm; shutter speed 4 sec; f13; ISO 50. Instagram
Image by Katrina Brown. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L lens. Settings:Focal length 25mm; exposure 45.7 sec; f7.1; ISO 1600.
Many photographers want to make great shots with stars only if the sky is completely clear, but you can also make extraordinary work with light clouds using long exposures. Clouds at slow shutter speeds will be smeared into interesting, soft strips that make the pictures more lively and dynamic.”
Image by Roxana Bashyrova. Gear: Nikon D750 camera, Samyang 14 mm/2.8 lens, Induro tripod. Settings: Exposure 25 sec; f3.2; ISO 1000.
Spelbos identifies this movement as a relatively recent one, noting, “What you see a lot these days are photos of a night sky with star tracks and photos of the Milky Way.” Libassi confirms the trend, adding, “Lately, I see many photographers combining long exposure photography with other techniques like astrophotography.”
Tips for Long Exposures
Image by Yunus Malik. Gear: Nikon D90 camera, Sigma 10-20mm lens. Settings: Focal length 10mm; shutter speed 30 sec; f18; ISO 100.
There’s a learning curve for photographers when it comes to long exposures, so take your time. This is not the kind of technique you can master in an afternoon. Libassi urges everyone who follows in his footsteps to “think of the final image as a gift.” He continues, “You might spend hours on location and go home with no usable images in the end, but what really counts is the experience—just being out in nature and enjoying the moment.” The real trick, Spelbos says, is to experiment and see what works for you. To help you on your journey, you’ll find some tips from the pros below:
1. Try an ND filter. Spelbos, Shiels, Standera, and Malik all suggested using them. “Without these filters, it will be impossible to use a long shutter speed during the day,” Spelbos advises. “There are photographers who use ND calculator apps to predict the shutter speeds necessary for whatever type of filter they are using. Maybe it’s a good idea to use these apps in the beginning to see what kind of shutter speeds are suited for your filter.”
2. Watch your ISO. “Avoid noise and hot pixels with the correct ISO setting,” Malik suggests. “Use the lowest possible ISO,” Standera adds. “And if your camera has the function of removing long exposure noise, make sure to turn it on.”
3. Shoot in RAW. This will help you to avoid color cast, Malik says.
4. Think about when a long exposure is appropriate. Be deliberate about when you use a slow shutter speed. “Use a long exposure only when you are sure it will raise the quality of the given moment when compared to the same scene taken with a short exposure time,” Standera instructs. When shooting bodies of water, light trails, or even the sky, understand why you’re using a longer exposure and how it will affect your final image.