Long Exposure Photography Tips

A useful technique in night photography is the long exposure.

The effects that can be captured with a long exposure are stunning and have an ethereal quality.

The most important tool that you will need is a sturdy tripod, along with a DSLR camera that allows for long exposures.


Photographing the Ferris Wheel

The Ferris wheel at night
Long exposure photo of the Ferris wheel

To photograph a Ferris wheel at night, move close and use a wide-angle lens to get as much detail as possible. Place your camera on a tripod and frame the image.

Because we want all the elements to be sharp, choose a small aperture between f/11-f/32. Set your camera to either Manual or TV (Shutter Priority) mode and select a shutter speed according to the speed of the lighted Ferris wheel, and the style you are after (anywhere between 1-30 seconds).

You should take the image using the camera’s self timer or a cable release so that you avoid touching and jiggling the camera. The image captured will be full of light trails against a black sky, yet the center beams that hold the wheel will be sharp.


Making Star Trails

Star Trail image taken during the Okie-Tex Star Party in the Black Mesa area of Oklahoma

A long exposure on a starry night can produce beautiful light trails created by the stars and the rotation of the earth.

The best way to frame the image is to include an element of interest such as an old tree in the foreground. Place your camera on a tripod and focus the lens to infinity. You’ll want to use a cable release to eliminate camera shake of any kind, as it will RUIN your photo.

Set the camera to B “Bulb” shooting mode and set your aperture between f/2.8 – f/4 for optimal results. Depress the remote to open the shutter. You should keep your ISO at 100 to keep the digital noise at a minimum. To complete the photo after your desired elapsed time, depress the remote again, and release the shutter. These exposures can be 15 minutes to several hours long.


Stunning Light Trails

Long exposure image of traffic lights

Traffic head light and tail light trails give a stunning effect and are a great way to get acquainted with long exposure times.

Select a busy road that has lots of traffic at night. Use a sturdy tripod and position the camera so that it has an overview of the area. Use a small aperture of f/16 or smaller for a greater depth of field, making most of the image in focus.

The longer the exposure, the more lines will appear and the longer they will look.


Blurry Sea Waters

A long exposure of ocean water between sea rocks at the beach

To capture that dramatic look of the ocean and the sky, you should utilize the fantastic light of “the golden hour,” the last hour before the sun sets.

Follow the basics of night photography – place the camera on a tripod, use a wide-angle lens with the smallest aperture possible, and focus to infinity. Turn the camera’s mode dial to Manual or Bulb shooting mode and use a slow shutter speed (5-30 seconds) for a longer exposure. The longer the exposure, the mistier the water appears.

Use your camera’s self-timer or a cable release to take the photo with absolutely no blurring. Don’t use flash because it could ruin the effect in the image.


Determining Exposure

Long exposure photography of Big Ben

The exposure of your night time image will vary depending on certain factors. If there is a lot of ambient light, then the shutter speed will be shorter. If you are shooting somewhere very dark, then the shutter speed will need to be longer.

To capture the effects of light trails you need a shutter speed of at least 1/15th of a second, which means you must use a tripod. The image of the Houses of Parliament required a 6 second shutter speed, which is slow enough to capture the traffic trails. The f/8 aperture allowed the building to be sharp.

The more you practice, the more you will become tuned to the exposure you need for the effect you want.


Recommended Settings

The main thing to keep in mind while deciding on the correct exposure is how to capture both the shadows as well as the highlights.

If you are successful in obtaining the right shadows, you will be able to produce an excellent night scene that will win you compliments. When taking long exposures, the key is to keep the shutter open only long enough for the desired effect. If you keep the shutter open too long, you’ll lose the details in whatever light source is illuminating your subject, and you might even lose the ability to identify what the subject is.

When trying to create a light trail, the shutter should be open for at least 1 second, and therefore requires a tripod. Use shutter priority mode and start with 1 second shutter speed and see what the result is; if the trail is too short, add 2 seconds, and then keep adding 2 seconds until you get the lighting effect that you want (the beauty of digital photography is that you’ll know immediately). If you have too much blurring, then your shutter was open too long, and you need to dial it back down maybe a full second.


Recommended Equipment

In addition to your digital camera, you need a sturdy tripod to take good night photographs. This will ensure you stabilize your camera firmly, thereby avoiding blurriness in your pictures.

We recommend the AmazonBasics 60-inch Portable Tripod as an excellent entry-level option for taking long exposure captures.



Taking long exposure images at night can be perfected with practice and by learning to recognize the lighting conditions and how to adjust the camera to meet those conditions.

Depending on what you have to work with, your shutter speed can be anything from 1/60th of a second to several minutes.

What makes long exposure images unique is that each image is unique, since light trails move in unusual ways, and with practice, you should have a collection of photos that are truly one of a kind.

Attila Kun

Attila is the founder and editor-in-chief of Exposure Guide. He is an avid photographer, graphic designer, bedroom DJ and devoted Mac addict. Attila got his first DSLR camera, a Canon 10D, back in 2003 and he has been hooked on photography ever since.