The Power of Long Exposures

June 5th 2023

It will come as no surprise to most people, who have been following my work for a while, that I love to do long exposure photography! I truly love what shooting with a slow shutter speed can add to most scenes with flowing or moving water. Sometimes, being able to smoothen water surface on a river or a lake can definitely help you to reduce the amount of distracting elements from your composition and make it stronger. In most cases, the use of a Neutral Density (ND) filter will be required. I am not talking about an Instagram filter here…but an optical filter that screws on the lens! Those are really awesome and can definitely improve your photography! Read further to learn more about this fun aspect of photography! In other cases, all you have to do is close the aperture of your lens by a few stops in order to cut some light off and obtain your desired shutter speed. One important thing to keep in mind is most long exposure photography will require the use of a good sturdy tripod. You definitely don't want to use a flimsy cheap tripod because it'll only make things worse...if your camera shakes while doing long exposure photography, the end result will be an undesirable blurry mess.

Force of Nature





FINDING THE RIGHT EXPOSURE TIME

I have been doing long exposure images for as far as I can remember…finding the right shutter speed truly is important! When I first started with long exposures, all I wanted to do was shoot minutes long exposures during day time which required a 10 stop Neutral Density filter. An exposure of 2 minutes can definitely make any lake or river look really smooth but also lacking some details. After testing and of course gaining some experience, I realized that I didn’t need to expose for a few minutes to get great results! Now, I rarely expose for much more than a couple of seconds. And in most situations, my sweet spot will be around half a second to one second. The amount of detail that we are able to keep at those shutter speeds is just so perfect for my taste. It can even help you to create beautiful leading lines into your compositions.

See how different shutter speeds can have a big impact on the look of flowing water! I highly recommend you do multiple tests in order to achieve optimal results! You certainly won't be disappointed!

Perfect
And here is the image I ended up choosing! For this situation, I just think this looks better than any of the above three images... Exposure time: 0.6 second with a 2 stop ND.





WHEN EXPOSING FOR A FEW MINUTES WORKS


I do have to admit that every once in a while, I still love to do some 2 or even 4 minute long exposures…let me tell you when exposing for a few minutes works better for me and should as well for you! Let’s say you are near the ocean or a lake trying to photograph a scene but the water is barely moving but not still…this will always result in very small ripples that are utterly annoying! They make the composition way too busy! In those situations, you should definitely consider using the appropriate ND filter and expose for a few minutes. The result will be a much smoother water surface making it look way less distracting. I do love to photograph minimalist images…in those types of situations, shooting long exposures of a few minutes will definitely work amazingly well at making the water surface look as if it was frozen! If you happen to be shooting in the middle of a day, you’ll probably end up needing a filter that cuts up to 10 stops of light or even more.

Twilight Zone
I normally like to expose for short period of time in order to keep a decent amount of details from water...but in some cases, water just doesn't give enough interest and can even become a distraction. See a few more examples below...

Here's a good example...the light was so pretty but the water surface was just so annoying!
Lost
I mounted my 10 stop ND filter and exposed for 4 minutes! The end result is, in my books, so much better for this type of situation! The water now looks frozen!
Once again a great scene but the ocean was just too calm...I would have kept the waves if they were 10 to 15 feet high as they would have added such drama to it but simply not the case here…
On One's Own
See how a ND filter once again helped to create a much smoother scene with way less distractions! The sky also looks quite dramatic with the added movement here! Exposure time; 60 seconds.




USING LONG EXPOSURES IN YOUR ADVANTAGE


The two images below are from Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies. This place truly is gorgeous for either sunrises or sunsets! The small cabin is part of the Emerald Lake Lodge and definitely is an iconic spot to photograph! But there is often one problem when trying to photograph this scene…two beautiful Mallard Ducks decided to make this little spot their home. They definitely are cute but whenever you try to shoot this scene, those little two are always there to bust your perfect Emerald Lake Lodge reflection! They are so agitated that they create small ripples all over the place. One way to deal with this problem is to use a ND filter and expose for a longer period of time! This will definitely make the water surface way smoother and you’ll get most of this reflection back! You should consider exposure times of 10 or more seconds for this…

Once again, pay attention to the water surface...two Mallard Ducks were looking for their fresh meal of the evening which also resulted in lots of ripples. Not desired here!
Mellow
I used my 10 stop ND filter to be able to expose for a much longer period of time which helped me to get the results I wanted here, a smooth water surface with a cool reflection! Exposure time: 13 seconds.



Here’s another occasion when using long exposure to your advantage can be really fun! In touristy areas, well you are obviously going to see other people…it basically is impossible to photograph iconic places like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Canals of Venise in Italy without having someone in your frame…unless you expose for a few minutes with a ND filter. If you have a 10 stop ND filter in your bag, now is a good opportunity to use it and get rid of those people in your image! The fact that people rarely stand still in front of a building or monument for much longer than a minute, exposing for a few minutes will definitely give your camera’s sensor enough time to fully record them in the actual shot. Give it a try and see for yourself!



MAKE BORING SKIES LOOK INTERESTING


Long exposures can definitely help you make boring skies look interesting, like seriously more interesting by a mile! Sometimes, Mother Nature just won’t give you a proper cloud display…or other times, you can end up having very few clouds. If those said clouds are travelling in the right direction, they could potentially create some seriously beautiful leading lines. They could even be pointing towards your main subject. First, you will need to do some testing in order to see in which direction the clouds are moving. And then second, do a few images to find out how long you will need to expose in order to find the appropriate amount of movement in the sky. Exposing for a too short or too long amount of time can both make the image not look good at all…but if you nail it, you’ll be really happy with the end result!

It definitely is a beautiful scene but the sky is just meh...something needs to be done to add some drama!
Warmhearted
The sky now looks more interesting! My 10 stop ND filter allowed me to expose for 2 minutes instead of 1/125 of a second...did you also noticed how smooth the ocean is?




MY AUTO FOCUS DOESN’T WORK?


You are probably going to ask yourself why my autofocus doesn’t work? Depending on which camera system you are using and how old it is, your camera might have a lot of difficulties to successfully focus. The fact that ND filters are just like sunglasses, they basically cut light which will also affect your camera’s autofocus performances. In order for your camera to achieve a perfect focus, focusing with no filter attached to your lens might be required… On my side, I always manually focus my lens each and every time I shoot landscape photography and without a ND filter when I am doing long exposure images. Once the focus is done correctly, I re install the filter on the lens making sure I don’t move the focus ring or the zoom ring. It requires a bit more time but it ensures I obtain great results every single time.

Fragment
This image from Diamond Beach looks so amazing thanks to the fact I was using a 2 stop ND filter. I just wanted to block a small amount of light here to be able to capture the motion of water going back to the ocean. This helped in creating some really lovely leading lines! Exposure time: 1,3 second.




WHAT TO KNOW WHEN BUYING NEUTRAL DENSITY FILTERS


There is one thing to keep in mind when buying Neutral Density filters…do not buy the cheapest option out there! If they are cheap, there’s a reason for it! We pay big money to buy the best possible lenses to mount on our camera, there is no reason why we would want a cheap quality optical filter that will basically reduce the image quality. You should go for a well known brand and you should also buy from a trusted supplier. There are so many sellers on eBay for example that sell counterfeit filters. I am not saying all of them are selling counterfeit filters….but I did have a few bad experiences! Buy from your local camera store!

Light of the Seven
Exposing for the right amount of time can definitely help add some beautiful leading lines to your composition. Exposure time: 0,8 second.




WHICH FILTERS DO I USE?


Know here’s the big question you probably would like to know, which filters do I use? Because I mostly use an ultra wide angle lens that has a bulbous front element, I am also required to use a very special filter kit. Not too many options are available on the market for these types of lenses but I found a system which I really love. I am using a Fotodiox Wonderpana XL system and the filters have a 186mm diameter. The Fotodiox ND filters are circular. I tend to prefer those as they really seal well around the filter holder which also helps prevent any light leaks which would definitely ruin some really long exposure images. For more information about Fotodiox Wonderpana filters, click here!

Fotodiox also makes Graduated ND filters which you can see here mounted to my ultra wide angle Canon lens. Those are great to help in balancing exposure correctly between the sky and the scene in highly contrasted scenes. Here, I was using a Graduated ND filter just because I love optical filters!
Here you can see a behind the scene shot of one memorable sunset in Northern Ireland! My Canon 5DSr was mounted vertically on my tripod and I was using my Fotodiox Wonderpana XL 3 stop ND filter on my 11-24mm f4.0.

Fotodiox is an amazingly creative company with awesome products! I have been proudly using their filters, the Wonderpana and the Wonderpana XL systems, for quite a while! They were of the first on the market to create filter solutions for ultra wide angle lenses with the bulbous front element. I love how their systems are designed, the build quality of both their filters and mounting systems are great and the way they perform is second to none! I have no intention of looking elsewhere for filters because I am really satisfied with the sharpness and color neutrality of their filters. And speaking of those two important optical features, if you buy a cheap filter, you'll understand what I mean! I have purchased filters from other brands that had so much color cast that the images were basically unusable... And what you just read in this paragraph is my most honest opinion about Fotodiox Wonderpana filters. I am not getting paid to say these comments!

Each filter has its own soft pouch... a really nice touch!
They make filter holders for most popular Ultra Wide Angle lenses available on the market.





IN CONCLUSION…


In conclusion, there really isn’t any magical recipe in order to obtain optimal results every time. Practice, practice and practice is the key to success!! I highly recommend that you don’t satisfy yourself with a single frame…it might look correct at 1/4 of a second but could look great at 1/2 a second! You should definitely do multiple tests with different shutter speeds and different Neutral Density filters mounted to your lens. Every scenario will require slightly different settings!

Long exposures are a lot of fun! You should start doing some right away and you'll understand why I do so many! With a bit of practice, you’ll end up creating something really amazing when it would have been otherwise impossible to do so!

The Three Towers
Court of the Patriarch in Zion National Park at sunrise! Shot at 11mm, 0.4 second, f9.0 and ISO 100 Fotodiox Wonderpana XL 3 stop ND filter.