How to Setup Your Camera for Long Exposure Photography

Long exposure photography can seem frustrating to learn for the beginner, but the payoff and affects you can create mean this is one area every photography enthusiast should take some time to learn.

1. Stabilization

So important it has to be point one. Before even setting up your camera, you will need to make sure your camera is set-up with as little movement as possible, this means getting a tripod with a head to attach to the camera. Now these range from £20 eBay jobbies up to over £1,000, but unless you’re Bill Gates a typical £100-£150 tripod with ball head like the Manfrotto 294 is affordable yet both lightweight and stable. It has 3 leg sections with easy to use flick lock which feel robust as the unit is made from aluminium, and the main thing is it feels solid, meaning you feel confident leaving your expensive DSLR attached to it.

So why is stabilization so important? Well the clue is in the title. Long exposure means setting shutter speeds to a higher than normal time, although there isn’t a defined time setting as to what constitutes long exposure as opposed to short exposure shots (or even medium if you want to get more detailed), typically we are talking about photo’s that are anything more than 10 seconds or so. Most typical shots of waterfalls or lakes where running water is blended to give the creamy, cloud like effect for example have exposure times of over a minute, whereas images of star trails in the night sky will have exposure times starting from 5 minutes.

“(A)t the end of the day there’s no harm in taking duds, that’s what the delete button is for.”

Because of the long shutter speeds, the camera will record everything in that time frame that is set, so anything that comes into frame in the designated time will likely be captured, including any movement from the camera which will cause blur. Typically, for professionals the slightest movement can affect an image so much that most will use a remote trigger to take shots as even pressing the shutter on the top of your camera will move the camera slightly, enough to unwittingly blur a shot.

2. Set-up your camera

This is where practice makes perfect. You will never get a perfect shot first, or even second or third time, it’s a course of trial and error.

Wherever possible, shoot at the lowest ISO possible. This typically means you have the clearest image as possible with the littlest noise, especially important for high quality images.

Use manual focus and set the focus to infinity on your lens. In dark conditions especially, the autofocus will generally tend to struggle to find a focus point and will ‘hunt’, meaning the autofocus will keep zooming in and out to try and find a subject to focus on, but will find it difficult to.

Use a high aperture. This brings the maximum amount of area into focus and compliments the previous point, obviously as you are manually focusing you want a high area as possible to be clear in the resulting image.

Shoot in RAW format. This helps mainly in post processing with things like white balance and making small corrections.

Turn off your image stabilizer. Believe it or not your IS may work against you here, as it will try autocorrect any small movement, which is obviously not what you want. It’s confusing as the IS may also blur a part of the photo you want to be sharp if there is even the tiniest infraction, so basically your cameras IS is to long exposure what water is to a Gremlin.

Shoot in bulb mode. This lets you determine the shutter speed simply by holding down the shutter button for however long you want the exposure to be. This is perfect for shooting things like fireworks, whereby you don’t know how long a particular one will be in the air for, but you still want to experiment with shooting them with long exposure techniques.

3. Minimize movement

As mentioned before, it’s best to shoot in a way where your press of the shutter doesn’t shake the camera in any way, however little. This can be done with a remote shutter release which are as cheap as chips, Canon’s official RC-6 wireless remote for example can be picked up for less than £30.

Of course there is another simpler way around this, just use the self-timer on your camera after steadying it on either a tripod or flat surface. Typically the 2 second timer is plenty to press the shutter and remove any unwanted movement but most cameras have a 10 second timer too, just in case you move slower than Jodie Marsh doing long division.

4. Practice, practice, make changes, then practice some more

Like anything in photography, but the best way to learn anything is through trial and error and learning through your mistakes. If a shot is too dark and underexposed, compensate the exposure using the settings by increasing it gradually and seeing the effects. If a shot is too light, do the opposite.

Play around and experiment, it’s the only way to learn, at the end of the day there’s no harm in taking duds, that’s what the delete button is for, (unless you’re shooting film, then you can show off your pitch black fails to your heart’s content.)

Long exposure effects:

Light trails

Probably the most popular reason to use long exposure and with good reason. A fun way to spend a preferably dark evening with your mates by drawing random shapes like love hearts and creating messages of undying love (if you are of a female persuasion), or lewd insults and images of various body parts (if you’re male).

This is where a wireless remote comes in handy, especially if you’re alone or a Billy-no-mates and want to capture some writing with lights, you don’t want to use the 2 second self-timer and then have to run like Usain Bolt just to get into position to be in frame for the shot Also popular in showing lights from moving cars especially in top down shots of city skylines, light trials are a great way to show bustling cities and movement.

Star trails

Same theory as the light trails, but by taking a long exposure which is typically at least 5 minutes you can catch the light trails created by the stars and the earth’s movement around them. And then even more mind blowing is that because stars are so many millions of light years away, some of these stars that we see and photograph are actually already burned out and no longer exist, yet we can still capture them as it takes so long for the light/ image to reach us. Big Bang Theory eat your heart out.

You normally want to head to somewhere with little light pollution and high up, and include some other background objects so in mountainous areas or green areas away from the city is perfect. Using a wide aperture will also lead to brighter trails as it lets more light into the lens.


No Windows desktop would be complete without at least having one wallpaper with that creamy, cloud like effect in a river whereby the water looks like fog running and drifting through the rocks. This effect is perfect for giving a more tranquil and peaceful scene for example in waterfalls, as opposed to the water crashing between the rocks.

It’s not just for water that long exposure can help though, any landscape image can be made to feel a bit softer and easier on the eye by using the technique, with the dramatic contrast of dark and light colours adding a dramatic effect to even the most ordinary seeming backdrops.

This is where natural density filters come in handy, which come in three, four, six, nine and ten stops which can extend the time period of a long exposure shot, especially helpful in dusk or dawn shots where there is fading light, the filters can help capture scenes here perfectly.

Finally, there is no hard and fast rules to what you can and can’t do, the best thing about photography is that you can instantly review and see exactly what you have just shot, therefore the best advice that can be given is to go out and shoot your heart’s content, experiment, and have fun!