Few places offer portrait photographers more creative opportunities than a bustling city street. The buildings, boulevards, and passersby downtown provide a dynamic backdrop, inspiring us to bring our ‘A’ game to each session. One creative technique that lends itself well to shooting against busy city backgrounds is capturing long exposure portraits, also known as shutter drag photos, which use a slower shutter speed to capture motion of moving objects. The best part is, you don’t need a lot of gear to master this technique, and you can capture amazing imagery using only natural light.

In this article, we’ll show you how to shoot and edit a long exposure portrait in natural light using some examples from our latest Engagement Photography 101 course, designed to guide you from communication to capture to create stunning engagement photography using the gear you already have.

Video: How to Shoot and Edit a Natural Light Long Exposure Portrait

You can download the exercise files and edit them alongside me. Aside from showing you how we captured this shot in Downtown LA, we cover the entire post-production of this image!

Disclaimer: We created this video/image before the announcement of the COVID-19 Pandemic, and we took safety precautions when working in the street, which includes choosing a low-traffic area (dead-end street) with high visibility and staying highly vigilante when stepping into the street. We do not encourage anyone to try recreating this shot in unsafe conditions. You can capture great long exposure portraits in any location with moving people, cars, water, etc. in the background. Please exercise caution when capturing photos in public spaces. 

Capturing the Image

We’re going to use the CAMP framework (Composition, Ambient Exposure, Modify or Add Light, Pose & Photograph) to outline the steps we took to compose, light, and capture the final image.

Step 1. Compose Your Shot

composing the shot for long exposure portrait in natural light engagement photography

Safety is key when shooting in the middle of the street, so it’s important to plan carefully when composing your shot in this type of environment. Again, I’m shooting in a cul de sac here, with only a parking lot behind me, which lowered the traffic and risk involved in capturing this shot. Still, before the couple even stepped into the frame, I walked to the middle of the street, decided on my composition, and set up the camera settings for the shot. I then walked back over to the couple and told them my plans for the shot before positioning them in the scene.

Raw composition long exposure portrait for natural light engagement photographry

As for the actual composition, the goal here was to use the double yellow line as a leading line to the couple, with the brightest area in the frame (the open sky) also centered above to draw more focus to the couple. I took advantage of the lens compression from the 105mm focal length to bring the distant buildings forward into the shot.

Step 2. Dial In Your Ambient Exposure for a Long Exposure Portrait

ambient setting for long exposure portrait in natural light engagement photography

We need to choose a shutter speed that makes sense based on the amount of movement in the scene. I usually start testing between 1/5th to 1/20th of second for this type of shot. The slower the motion of the moving objects, the slower your shutter speed will need to be, and vice versa. To capture motion with quickly moving cars, we can set a faster shutter speed. I found that 1/10th worked well as it captured enough motion from the cars and allowed my subjects to hold perfectly still for a reasonably short amount of time.

maximize dynamic range lightroom long exposure portrait natural light engagement photography

I also wanted to maximize dynamic range to preserve as much of the shadows as possible without clipping the highlights, which you can see in histogram in the upper righthand corner of the image above.

Because of the slow shutter speed used for capturing a long exposure portrait, you’ll need to use a tripod.  Even if you have a steady hand, a tripod is also necessary because we’re going to create a composite photo made up of multiple files and we need them to be aligned.

[Related Reading: 6 Creative Ways to Use Long Exposure in Your Photography]

Step 3. Add an ND Filter if Necessary

For long exposure portraits using natural light, you’re either going to control the light with your aperture, or you’ll need to use an ND filter (or some combination of the two). If you want to maintain a relatively shallow depth of field when shooting a long exposure portrait in daylight, then you’ll most likely need to add an ND filter to help dial in your exposure. Sometimes, even a narrow aperture (f/22, for example) probably won’t be enough to allow you to properly expose the image with a super slow shutter speed if it’s particularly bright out.

We were able to simply adjust our aperture to f/7.1 for this scene because of the amount of shade we were shooting in, which is fortunate because the ND filters I have don’t cover the Sigma 105mm f/1.4 lens I was using to capture the shot.

You can choose from a wide range of ND filters, from 3-10 stops (or get a variable ND filter), depending on what you need for your given situation. When an ND filter is needed, I prefer Tiffen Water White ND Filters. I like to use the square filter because it makes it easy for me to hold the filter over the front of my lens without having to purchase different sized filters to match specific lenses.

Step 4. Capture the Shot(s)

give cues for long exposure portraits natural light engagement photography

When it’s time to capture the shot, you’ll need to direct your subjects into position and give cues to pose them. In this situation, shooting a long exposure portrait in the middle of a downtown street, I directed the couple before they walked into the frame. I instructed them to wait for the light and then walk into the center of the crosswalk. Then, they could either hold hands or go in for a hug or kiss before exiting the crosswalk while they still had the right-of-way.

Really, any pose can work here, so long as the couple knows what to do and where to stand. It’s important to remind them to hold perfectly still whichever pose they strike so that they come out tack sharp in a long exposure portrait.

review long exposure portrait images with clients

After capturing a quick sequence of images, review the images with your clients to ensure they’re happy with the pose, etc. (from the safety of the sidewalk, of course). If you got it, great; otherwise, give it another shot. My point is this: don’t stand in the middle of the street going through your images on the back of the camera.

Capture Multiple Images for the Final Composite

As the name implies, a composite is made of multiple layers, so you’ll need to capture several shots for the final image. Perfectly capturing everything in a single frame is unlikely, especially when shooting on a busy city street.

Expect to master the art of capturing composites through trial and error. When photographing passing cars, for example, it can be tricky to get them in just the right area of the frame. Just know that it may take a few tries to get a solid collection of motion blur shots for your final composite.

Step 5. Capture a Plate Shot

Finally, before you end the session, take a plate shot that will allow you to easily edit out any unwanted elements/people/etc. that may have passed through the scene. You don’t need to include your subjects in the plate shot, but it doesn’t really matter if they’re in the frame or not.

[Related Reading: 10 Urban Photoshoot Ideas for Your Next Engagement Session]

Editing the Image

We’re going start our editing process in Lightroom and then export our images into Photoshop, using layers and masks to create our long exposure composite. To do this, we’re going to work in a simple 8-Step Framework.

Step 1. Process Your Images Inside Lightroom

edit in lightroom long exposure portrait natural light engagement photography 3

After you’ve culled your images for the final composite, process the images inside Lightroom. Select an image that allows you to dial in the skin tone on your subjects and start the editing process there. We’ve used the “Crush > HDR Natural (Environmental)” preset, which will be available soon from the Visual Flow library, but you can also edit your photos manually to get the look you want.

Crush settings for long exposure portrait natural light engagement photography
Basic settings for Visual Flow Crush preset as applied to our long exposure portrait. See the video for the full breakdown.

After applying the preset, I lifted the exposure & adjusted the white balance, making sure the skin tones looked the way I like them. I then added a radial burn from the Visual Flow Retouching Toolkit to draw more focus to the couple. My overall goal in this image was to create a poppy, almost HDR-like look, hence my use of the new Crush preset.

Step 2. Sync Your Settings

After you’ve selected your images for the final composite, you’ll need to sync your edits to ensure a consistent look across all of the files. You can sync your photos a couple of ways.

select previous to sync images in lightroom long exposure portrait

First, with your main image selected, press Ctrl/Cmd while you select the remaining images in your set; then, with all of your images selected, press the “Previous” button that is located just over the filmstrip in the lower righthand corner (see the image above). Your settings should then be synced across your selected images.

You can also follow the steps above, but instead of pressing the “Previous” button, press Ctrl/Cmd + Shift + S to open the Synchronize Settings window. From here be sure to select “Check All” and press Synchronize to copy the settings from your main image to the rest of the set.

[Related Reading: How to Incorporate Motion into Flash Photography, Part 2]

Step 3. Edit as Layers in Photoshop

send to photoshop as layers long exposure portrait

With our images synced, we need to select the full set of files to be used for the composite. After you’ve selected the images, right click and go to “Edit In -> Open As Layers in Photoshop.” It may take a couple moments to load the files, depending on the resolution.

Step 4. Auto-Align Layers for Long Exposure Portrait in Photoshop

auto align layers in photoshop long exposure portrait natural light engagement photography

Even if you use a tripod, you’ll probably notice subtle shifts in your images. Luckily, we can use Photoshop to align the images and get them as close as possible. First, you’ll need to select all of the layers. Next, select “Edit -> Auto-Align Layers” and then click okay.

After the images are aligned, completing our composite should be easy. We just need to paint in or out the features of each image that we want without having to manually make any complicated adjustments.

Step 5. Choose Your “Best” Layer

To create the best image possible, we need to find the layer that contains the best pose or expressions on our subjects. This is the layer that you’ll build your composite around. Once you’ve selected this layer, move it to the top of all of the layers.

Step 6. Add in the Motion Layers

composite long exposure portrait in photoshop

With our baseline set up, we can start adding in the motion layers that have elements that we like, moving them to the very top of the list as we work on them. We need to paint in individual elements we like in the frame, so add a mask to the layer that you’re working on.

editing mask in photoshop long exposure portrait
Hold alt+option and click on the mask to ensure painted areas for removing/revealing elements don’t have any missed spots

Using a low flow brush, we’ll continue moving additional layers to the top, adding a mask, and painting in elements from each that we want to fill the frame with a black brush. Remember, if you paint in a little too much or something you don’t want, you can easily swap your brush from black to white (by hitting X) and then “erasing” that portion again.

Step 7. Add Motion Blur to the Image

On occasion, you may find elements in your image, such as a car, that are stationary and ultimately distracting in this type of image. If it makes sense to put that object in motion, you can add motion blur using this simple technique.

First, duplicate your image and then go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur to open the Motion Blur dialog box.

step one motion blur long exposure portrait

When the Motion Blur dialog box opens, you can dial in your settings. The key here is to match the blur angle with the direction in which the object would be moving. For example, if I want to blur the van (pictured below), I would need to adjust the angle until the blur on the van looks believable. Otherwise, we’re just going to create an even bigger distraction.

motion blur angle and distance long exposure portrait

It’s important to get the distance of the blur right as well. After experimenting with different distances, I found that “60” seemed to match the motion blur of the other objects moving through the scene.

close up of motion blur box in photoshop long exposure portrait

Once you’ve dialed in the angle and distance of the motion blur, you’re going create an inverted mask for the layer (press alt/option and then click on the layer mask). This will block out the blurred effect, which you can then brush back in using a white brush. Be sure to carefully brush only over the areas that you want to add the motion blur to. Luckily, in this type of scene with so much motion, you don’t have to be pinpoint accurate.

blur motion added to long exposure portrait

The GIF above reveals the before and after adding the motion blur to the vehicles on the far left and far right of the scene.

Step 8. Save the Image Back to Lightroom

Finally, when you’re satisfied with the composite, you’ll need to save the composited file back into Lightroom and add any final touches. If you so desire, you can entirely reprocess the image to make it brighter, darker, warmer, or cooler. It’s your call!

Final Image – Before and After

long exposure portrait final image 03long exposure portrait final image 02


I hope you found these tips helpful for how to shoot and edit a natural light long exposure portrait. If you’re interested in learning more about how to photograph couples, don’t miss our Engagement Photography 101 workshop, which is available now with a special, limited-time launch discount.