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Tips & Tricks

6 Creative Ways To Use Long Exposures In Your Photography

By Christopher Lin on September 27th 2018

A big misconception in the photography industry is that creativity is something that you’re simply born with and something that can’t be taught. The truth is that while creativity comes more naturally to some than others, it’s just like a muscle that can be trained and developed.

The goal for photographers who want to be more creative should be to master all of the creative tools available to them with education and practice so that they become instinctual.  The same way Michael Jordan practiced free throws with a basketball or Yo Yo Ma practiced scales on his cello, great photographers need to learn and practice their creative techniques.

One such creative technique to master is the shutter drag, otherwise known as long exposure photography. This photography technique is defined by its use of a slower shutter speed to expose for dark scenes or capture motion of moving objects.

Below are 6 creative ways to use long exposure in your photography.

1. Create Silky Smooth Water

One of the most exciting aspects of taking creative images involves capturing  scenes in ways that our eyes couldn’t otherwise see. For example, in the images above and below, you can see that using a long exposure has allowed us to make splashing waves appear to have a smooth, almost cloud-like surface. The effect adds a sense of tranquility to the scene.

Basic (oversimplified) steps:

  1. Set your camera on a tripod
  2. Slow the shutter speed to 1/10 or slower
  3. Adjust the aperture according to taste
  4. Add a neutral density filter (if necessary)
  5. Wait for the right light or moment
  6. Capture the image without moving the camera

For more information on how these particular images were created, check out the video below from our Photography 101 course.

Advanced Tip:  Introduce subjects and apply this technique to your portraits, as seen below.  This does get a little bit more complicated, though, because you need to find that shutter speed sweet spot of blurring the water while ensuring that your subjects are still tack sharp.

2. Capture Light Streaks via Camera Movement

There are a number of techniques you can use to capture light streaks by moving the camera itself. These images can be done in-camera or combined in post and presented as a composite.

Camera Twist Photography Technique

The camera twist incorporates camera motion with direct flash. This technique works especially well on the dance floor during wedding receptions.

See the video below for a quick, one-minute overview of how to use this technique.

Whip Pan Photography Technique

The whip pan illustrates how powerful your understanding of lighting can be. Once you understand how to shape it and use it creatively, you can create amazing images in almost any scene. The whip pan, with its manipulation of stationary lights, lends itself to creating amazing night portraits.

Basic (oversimplified) steps:

  1. Find the right composition that includes lights in the background
  2. Place the camera on a tripod
  3. Slow the shutter speed to 1″-2″ (or to desired ambient light)
  4. Set up off-camera flash as either a front or backlight to freeze the subjects
  5. Quickly pan camera left and right (or right to left) while the shutter is open

For Premium Members, see this Whip Pan Tutorial from Lighting 201.

3. Capture Light Streaks via Moving Lights

In contrast to the previous technique, this one requires that the lights move while the camera remains still. Light sources can vary, from string lights and sparklers to headlights on passing cars.

In the image below (from our CreativeLive course on Incredible Engagement Photography), you can see how we twirled string lights to create a unique circular element that complements the scene.

 

Basic (oversimplified) steps:

  1. Place the camera on a tripod
  2. Slow the shutter speed to 1/10 or below (or to desired ambient light)
  3. Twirl string lights as backlight while capturing the image

You can also see this technique applied to Los Angeles traffic from one of our recent engagement sessions (see image below). If traffic is light, which in L.A. is quite unusual, you can capture multiple exposures and blend them together in Photoshop to create a unique composite that will impress your clients!

For Premium Members, see this case study from Lighting 101 for the full tutorial.

4. Capture Subjects Under the Milky Way

This perfect union of nightscape and portrait photography pushes the boundaries for long exposure photography. Getting the perfect exposure while shooting at night can prove challenging, but not impossible; you should expect  to push your camera’s low light performance to the limit (which includes using a higher ISO than is recommended for standard portrait photography).

Basic (oversimplified) steps:

  1. Place the camera on a tripod
  2. Slow the shutter speed to (varies greatly depending on ambient light)
  3. Adjust aperture and ISO
    • Here is a rough starting point to help practice:
      • On a zoom lens: ISO = 6400, aperture = f/2.8, shutter speed = 15 seconds
      • On a prime lens: ISO = 3200, aperture = f/1.4, shutter speed = 8 seconds
  4. Use flash to freeze the subject(s)
  5. Capture the image
  6. Capture an additional  image without a subject in the frame for a “plate shot” (any movements made by the subject while the shutter is open can cause “ghosting”)
  7. Create composite in post if necessary

For a complete overview of how to photograph and edit photos of the Milky Way, see our full workshop.

5. Isolate Your Subjects With People Blur

Waves and lights on cars are not the only things you can use to convey a sense of motion in long exposure shots. This technique seemingly freezes time only for your intended subjects while the rest of the world rushes by.

Basic (oversimplified) steps:

  1. Place the camera on a tripod
  2. Slow the shutter speed to 1/10 or below (or to desired ambient light)\
  3. Take plate shot with frozen subjects at a faster shutter speed and adjusted aperture and ISO if creating a composite
  4. Adjust aperture and ISO to taste
    • Add a neutral density filter (if necessary)
    • Capture multiple images for “plate shot” (and to have options for blending blurry passers-by)
  5. Set up off-camera flash as backlight (optional)
  6. Pose subjects
  7. Capture the image
  8. Create composite in post if necessary

6. Capture Motion By Panning

This technique is nearly opposite the previous technique that we covered. This time, the subject is on the move. Panning the camera from left to right (or vice versa) gives your image the feeling of motion and speed.

You will often see these types of images used in ads for cars, auto racing, or sports. Photos that feature this technique tend to place you into the action. While a fast shutter speed would work fine to freeze the passing subject as well as its environment, slowing the exposure and tracking the subject to convey its movement creates a far more interesting image.

Basic (oversimplified) steps:

  1. Find a position that is perpendicular to the moving subject (to create predictable left or right pan)
  2. Slow the shutter speed to 1/60-1/30 (or to another setting to produce your desired amount of blur)
  3. Adjust aperture and ISO to taste
  4. Stabilize the camera with a tripod or solid holding technique (see the video below)
  5. Match the subject’s pace as you pan and capture images

For a more in-depth look at ways to stabilize your camera in a handheld position, see the video below from Photography 101.

Conclusion

Regardless of which technique you choose to use, mastering long exposure photography will add a creative bundle of skills to your photography repertoire. There is no singular genre reserved for using these techniques. Across the board, from a couples engagement session in the city to a landscape portrait on the beach, several genres converge and benefit from the application of these techniques.

What are some other long exposure techniques you can share with us?

Co-Founder of SLR Lounge and Photographer with Lin and Jirsa Photography, I’m based in Southern California but you can find me traveling the world. Click here to connect on Google +

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Pye Jirsa

    What a great little summary of our slow shutter content, great write up Chris! 

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