A Beginner's Guide to Long-Exposure Photography

Today I an going to jump right in and discuss getting started with long exposure photography using an ND filter. Before we begin, I want to note that I used a $30 10-stop ND filter for all the images you will see in this article. It should be demonstrated that you can achieve great long exposure shots, using an ND filter, without hitting your wallet hard. We will focus on two aspects of using a neutral density filter to achieve the following:

  1. Help correctly expose an outdoor scene under bright, sunny and harsh conditions. In turn, helping us to preserve our highlights.

  2. Using our filter(s) to create moody captures with moving elements such as water and clouds.

Let’s jump right in!

To begin, I’ll be discussing the filters themselves. Filters commonly come in 3, 6, and 10 stops. Purchasing filters as a set is a popular choice so taht you have a few more options, but you can also buy each stop separately. The darkest filter of the group will be 10 while 1 should be used to let slightly less light into the shot. 10 will achieve very drastic results while 1 will offer very subtle changes. All of them can contribute to creating a longer exposure time by allowing less light into your camera.

Look at the below shot from Lower Calf Creek Falls in Utah. I captured this image at noon when the lighting was as bright as it could be without a single cloud overhead!

lower calf creek image 1

This shot had to be taken at 1/250th of a second, and I was at f/11 with (of course) 100 ISO in this instance. You can see it was impossible to preserve the highlights and the water doesn’t portray any movement at all.

Now, let’s check out the next shot. My camera is in the same position, with the above shot and the below shot captured just a few seconds apart. The difference for the below shot is that I attached my 10-stop filter. This filter renders my exposure almost pitch black so I needed to decrease my shutter speed to 2 seconds to allow more light into the shot. My ISO and aperture settings remain untouched.

lower calf creek image 2

Now, you can see that the water is portraying movement and I was able to pick up some very nice contrast in the rocks. You will also notice that the water in the foreground has smoothed a bit too, eliminating some of the choppiness from my first shot.

The Lightroom settings on these photos are the same and were synced from one to another. The purpose in this example is to demonstrate the use of the filter as the only variable between the two shots. My final image in this process can be seen below where I brightened the exposure and added some subtle adjustments to color and clarity.

lower calf creek image 3>

The takeaway from my first example is that you can use ND filters to help balance extremely bright scenes while still preserving contrast and highlights.

This next series was captured during the winter time in Santa Cruz, California, while the sun was setting earlier in the year. This time, I did have clouds in the scene. Shooting on the California coast gives you a sense of dreaminess, and capturing a “great” sunset is to be expected. If I'm honest though, the sunset was just “okay” on this particular night.

However, with an ND filter attached to lengthen my exposure, I added some visual interest by creating silky water and wispy clouds. The natural bubbles in the water and on the sand were unappealing to me, and filters are a great way to get rid of those distractions. I also like the glossed-over look that was created on the sand.

Below, you can see all three of my shots together which were captured and edited similarly to the images in my first example. In order of appearance:

Image captured with no filter.

Santa Cruz shot 1

Image captured with a filter (with the same Lightroom settings copied).

Santa Cruz shot 2

And my final edit.

Santa Cruz shot 3

To capture the proper exposure without a filter, I had to shoot at 1/250th of a second. However, with my 10-stop filter on the lens, I was able to capture a 5-second exposure. This allowed my shutter to stay open without over-exposure and capture the smooth movement of the water as it glazed over the sand.

Before I finish up, I want to discuss a few additional tips and uses for ND filters that I encourage you to try. As previously stated, 10-stop filters will render your image very dark. Once the filter is attached to your lens, you will no longer be able to see the scene through your viewfinder. You can use live mode to adjust your exposure and immediately see the effect the settings will have. Of course, you can also compose, focus, and adjust your shot before using your filters. Just be sure to monitor your histogram as you capture the images. The histogram is a beneficial tool which helps to ensure your highlights aren’t blown out or underexposed.

My final tips for ND filters, especially when using the lower stopped filters, is to increase your depth of field. If you are shooting a brightly lit scene and want to blur your background, you’ll need to open your aperture. However, this will allow light in, causing the image to over-expose. An ND filter will darken the exposure enabling you to increase your aperture settings to create a better depth of field, further isolating your subject.

In conclusion, we can use our manual settings to create long exposure shots but only to a certain degree. The weather, lighting, and other factors will come into play and only allow for so many in-camera adjustments. Adding filters to your workflow is a low cost and effective way to improve your skill and to expand your creativity at the same time.



About Mike Ince

Mike Ince resides in the sun-filled desert of Mesa, Arizona. Arizona's dark skies provide plenty of opportunities for him to chase the stars amongst many other nighttime shots in the state. During the monsoon and winter seasons you will find him enjoying the weather and the many off-road trails in the area with a camera in hand. He also enjoys soaking up nature and traveling for a variety of landscape, macro, and wildlife photos.

Mike is currently writing a few eBooks and developing other photography projects that will provide valuable learning tools for aspiring photographers. Visit his website for updates and to subscribe to his blog for helpful tips.

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Mike Ince