5 Essentials for Long-Exposure Landscape Photography

5 Essentials for Long-Exposure Landscape Photography

Doing long exposures is the most fundamental trick up a landscape photographer's sleeve. But for effective use of its visual effects, there are a few essential steps that one must follow. 

For a more secure workflow in shooting long exposure landscapes, there are some crucial steps that one should follow for a better outcome. Keeping these five things in mind will help you come up with better output the next time you go shooting. 

1. Always Use a Tripod That Will Carry Your Camera With Ease

This is the most basic for any form of photography that uses long exposures. Any long-exposure image taken with a flimsy tripod, especially when there are significant environmental factors such as strong winds, water currents, or vibration of whatever you’re standing on, will be ruined by the slightest shake.

Modern travel tripods perfectly match the payload of mirrorless camera bodies

It’s important to note, however, that a sturdy tripod doesn’t always mean a huge one and most definitely not an expensive one. Back in the glory days of ginormous DSLR cameras, it was almost a necessity to have a relatively big tripod because of the payload that is the heavy camera body and a significantly bulky lens makes. Nowadays, with the emergence of mirrorless cameras or even the smaller DSLR bodies, the standard for a sturdy tripod has become less in size.

2. Allow the Movement to Fill a Significant Space

Of course, never shoot long-exposure images if there isn’t anything moving that’s taking a significant space or fraction of your frame. At the very least, a moving element and its path should take about a third of your entire frame for it to have enough emphasis. Unless, of course, you’re shooting with a minimalist visual design, in which case, your moving object might be the only significant object in the frame.

The rendered texture is everything in such situations

It’s also possible that your moving element for a minimalist landscape photograph may be the ground element itself. Even in that case, the ground element would of course take significant space even if it would mean that the space it was taking up would appear empty.

Exposed for a minute to smooth the surface of the water

3. Match Your Exposure Time With the Movement of Your Moving Element

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you know the exact speed at which your element is moving. Instead, match your exposure time to allow for the object to cross the frame within your set exposure time. For instance, if you’re shooting long exposures in the city and you want the cars to outline the road and for the light trails to be significantly solid, you have to estimate the amount of time it would take for that many cars to pass and consequently adjust your exposure settings around that specific exposure time.

A 45-second exposure to capture a significant amount of light trails

On the other hand, if you’re shooting fast-moving objects like crashing waves on a beach, your exposure time or shutter speed will be much faster than if you’re shooting for still waters. Exposing way beyond the number of seconds that it takes for waves to crash and create swirls would simply smoothen and flatten the texture of the water, and thus, your intended effect would not be achieved. To do this in daytime would mean having the right combination of filters to allow you to set your exposure time to your desired length. Generally, shooting for textures of crashing waves goes well with a 3-stop ND filter or a 6-stop ND filter depending on the intensity of sunlight.

4. Infuse Contrast With a Still Visual Element

Contextual contrast is essential in shooting long exposures. While the movement is your main ingredient for your visual design, this movement should be complemented by a still element to emphasize that movement. Otherwise, it would be easy to assume that the photo was blurred entirely due to a flaw and not artistic intent. However, there are certain instances where that is acceptable and aesthetically appealing, such as in abstract long-exposure landscape photographs.

The contrast of the moving clouds against the still, rough mountains

Long-exposure landscapes, just like any other kind of photography, require a meticulously made composition. This means that both your moving and still elements should be strategically placed in the frame and taking up aesthetically significant spaces. Otherwise, no matter how spectacular that moment could be, your subject or significant visual elements may be perceived as unintended clutter in the corners of the frame. The most novice mistake you can make in shooting any genre of photography is to get overwhelmed by seemingly spectacular factors in your shot enough to forget about proper exposure and composition. Doing so would invalidate your subject or location, no matter how fascinating it could have been.

5. Allow the Motion of Your Moving Element Dictate Your Visual Path

In working with complex compositions, such as those that deal with many layers, your moving element should lead the eyes of your viewers through those different layers. Think of it as using contrast to emphasize the presence of multiple layers in the frame. As you may already know, much of landscape photography deals with the grandiosity and the use of multiple layers in a frame would support that theme.

Notice the implied S-shaped visual path leading to the volcano

On the other hand, in simpler compositions, such as those with visual paths that only move from side to side or front to back, your moving elements take an even bigger and more significant role. In the theories of visual design, it is often said that a beautiful composition is deemed pleasing to the eyes when it satisfies a certain craving for order. Out in the field, whatever you may be shooting, you’re dealing with a heavily crowded space instead of an empty canvas. Being able to isolate certain chunks of those elements into a unified and aesthetically cohesive composition, emphasizing certain patterns, and the use of juxtaposition of interesting elements satisfies that craving in the minds of your viewers for order in the relatively random world.

The use of long exposures in landscape photography is almost automatic. Some even think that any landscape photograph should be shot in long exposure. That may not be true, but obviously, long-exposure techniques and the visual effects that they render spice up the visual design of the image. But, to come up with visually impactful photographs, the images should not always rely on that single moving element. Like any other photograph, every other detail, no matter the size, shape, or color is significant. How they complement your main object of interest or how they clash with it in your viewer’s perception can make or break your shot, no matter how beautiful the movement is.

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3 Comments

Timothy Gasper's picture

Ok good. I always carry an empty sandbag with me. About 8x8 inches. I fill it with whatever I find and place it on the camera for further steadiness. As for...."ginormous cameras".....a Nikon D810 doesn't come close to the Fuji GX680 I usually use. But good input sir.

good tips (especially #5) and good illustrations. thank you.

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