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Four Awesome Tips To Stop You Wasting Your Time With Long Exposure Photos

Four Awesome Tips To Stop You Wasting Your Time With Long Exposure Photos

When your shutter is open for five minutes or longer while you take long exposure photos, what do you do during that time? Today I’ll share four things I do that have helped me become a better photographer and much more productive.

What Is Long Exposure Photography?

If you're not sure, long exposure photography is when you deliberately keep your shutter open for an extended period of time. Very often it’s 30 seconds or more and can even go up towards 10 minutes depending on the light. Why would you do that? So you can get unique patterns of moving things such as flowing clouds or running water. It also allows you to get that milky, sometimes ghostly effect on water like in the photo below.

However, with so much light getting in through the open shutter you need to put a filter over your lens and use a tripod to keep the camera still.

I use Lee Filters 10-Stop Big Stopper, and many of my friends use the NiSi Nano IRND 10-Stop Filter. Both work extremely well. Keep in mind you will also need to get a holder kit for whichever system you use.

And if you want to keep the shutter open for longer than 30 seconds you’ll also need a camera that allows you to do so. Most current DSLRs have this function, as do many mirrorless systems. On Canon cameras such as the 5D mark iv and 7D mark ii, it is written as "B" on the settings dial.  

When do you use Long Exposure photography? Usually when you want to make flowing things such as clouds or water more interesting. For example, in the photo of the rocks above, I put a 10-stop filter over my Canon 16-35mm lens and kept the shutter open for about 3:40 seconds.This gave the clouds those beautiful, long streaks.

And in the photo of the running falls in the forest below, I used my lens and kept the shutter open for 3:55 seconds, because it was so dark in there.

However, in this fast way paced world that sometimes seems to go bang bang bang bang bang the idea of one single photo taking more than five minutes seems crazy to some people.

“What do you do in that time?” many friends ask me. So today I want to share with you four things that I do while I wait for the shutter to close during a long exposure photo.

(Re)Connect With Nature

Long exposure photography tends to lend itself to landscape photography, in particular, so when you’re out in nature taking photos it’s a wonderful opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and just spend some time alone reconnecting with the environment around you.

When you have five minutes free, what better way than to simply close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the ocean, or the trees, or the birds, or the movement of the forest around you?

It might sound airy fairy but I absolutely love this time I have to myself. With a wife and family and full-time job, it’s one of the very few opportunities I have to just be alone. And as I live in a rural area in the far south of Japan, I tend to go to areas completely uninhabited. I treasure those moments where I can just sit still and take a few deep breaths. It’s very healing.

When I took the photo below, I just sat on a rock and felt the power of the water rushing around me.

Build Your Social Media Profile

If you’re not in the mood for relaxation or getting in touch with your inner Buddha, the downtime spent waiting for your shutter to close can be spent on social media.

Let’s face it, as photographers we all want to build our profiles. Nearly all of us are active on one or more social media platforms, so when you’ve got a few minutes to spare, why not engage more with your followers?

One great way is to do live videos on Facebook or Instagram. You can explain what you’re doing and even ask your followers what they’d like you to do. That’s what I did when I was taking photos of this tree below.

I asked my followers what they thought of the composition and asked if they'd change anything or do anything differently.

A few people asked me to take some photos from different vantage points and different perspectives. So I took a couple such as the one below and then immediately showed my followers the results.

It was a great way to get feedback and to build more personal relationships with them. I have found that building good relationships with people, who can see that you're a real person, has been more helpful than almost anything else in generating print sales from social media.

More Focus On Your Composition

Another great thing about long exposure photography is that it lets you really focus on getting your composition right, the first time. I mean, when you have to sit around and wait for five minutes for a single exposure you don’t want to check the photo after and see some glaring errors that could have been avoided first up.

When you know that a mistake could potentially cost you 10 minutes of your precious time, you really want to get your composition right. This is especially so when you are shooting in low light and 10 minutes could be the difference between a great shot, or a big fat heap of junk.

For example, in the photo below I moved around for about 15 minutes until I set my tripod and camera up just in front of these two rocks. I had to take my shoes and socks off and wade into the water but I really want to those two rocks in the left and right bottom corner. I felt they added good balance and nice symmetry.

When you might only have the opportunity to shoot to three to four photos in total because of fading light, for example, you really do focus on getting your composition right. Long exposure photography helps you really take in the scene around you and focus on every single part of the frame.

Study The Area Around You

Finally, if you don't like meditating or you don't do social media then you can spend your time walking around the area and scoping out different things to shoot.

Very often people go to one spot to take a shot and when they’ve got the shot they wanted they pack up and leave almost immediately. Why? If you take some time to walk around and look at different things and think about unique or original subjects you can almost always find many, many more things to shoot.

One thing that might preclude you from doing so is that you’re too busy snap snap snapping away in your original spot. That's not the case when your shutter is open for five minutes or more. You have plenty of time to go around and look for lots of different things to shoot.

I’ve often taken 10-15 shots from a single location when my original intention was two to three. Simply because I used the free time I had and got adventurous.

So there you have it. Long exposure photography not only gives you great looking photos but it also gives you some much needed time to do many other things. So next time you’re out in nature with filters over your lenses and time to spare, keep these things in mind.

What do you do when you’re out by yourself shooting long exposure landscapes or seascapes? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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stare off into space, stare into your phone, stare into your camera or stare at things around you.

still waiting on the "four awesome tips" in the title to show up.

The eyes are the window to the soul...I wonder what the abyss’ eyes look like? I’ve never stared into the abyss while taking long expo photos, but I do spend an inordinate amount of time staring into the distance. Particularly at horizons wondering what might be beyond them......

Your positivity is truly infectious :)

"To stop you wasting your time with long exposure photos" What does that even mean?

Exactly as it suggests. Use the time you’re sitting around to be more productive. When you’ve got an 8 minute exposure you’re waiting for, use that 8 minutes well. Don’t just sit around and twiddle your thumbs. Take the opportunity to use that time to do things such as the 4 suggestions above, or whatever else you can think of :)

That's definitely not the right wording for the title if that is what you're wanting to come across. The title doesn't make sense.

I agree, tittle sounds misleading.

Beautiful Photos! Just one question: was it really that still, as the trees are pin sharp and the clouds have moved. Just asking....

Thank you. There was probably about 30 minutes difference between the two shots. Waiting for the first to finish, then scouting a spot for the second and setting up and dialling in the settings etc. It wasn’t one immediately after the other. And that tree remains remarkably still even during the cold, winter westerlies that blow through here in the evenings :)

Which tips am I supposed to be in awe of? Does someone not know the meaning of awe?

The main reason to stop is because the results look so awful and unnatural