The long-exposure technique is the secret sauce for many professional landscape photographers. With a well-executed long-exposure approach, a normally static and bland landscape scene comes alive. Surf on a beach transforms into a swirling, cloud-like mass, while grasses flowing in the wind morph into a single, beautiful entity.
Obviously, not every great landscape shot uses a long exposure – but if you can add this technique to your arsenal, you’ll be virtually unstoppable. That’s why, in this article, I share everything you need to know for well-exposed, well-composed, stunning long-exposure landscape photography.
Specifically, I outline an 8-step plan for outstanding results, which covers equipment selection, camera setting adjustments, composition, and more. If you follow my approach, I guarantee that you’ll be capturing beautiful, well-planned, unique images in no time at all.
Let’s get started.
Step 1: Choose your location wisely
Before you head out for a long-exposure landscape photoshoot, you’ll need to decide on the type of shot you want to tackle and the environment you’d like to shoot in. Do you want to capture a grassy plain? A tranquil seascape? A busy highway? Write out a list of locations, and consider the benefits and drawbacks of each one.
Long-exposure photography is all about capturing and translating movement, so when you’re first thinking about potential subjects, consider the movement you want to accentuate, such as rolling waves, swaying grass, flowing clouds, or speeding cars. Ask yourself: Is this something I can highlight in a photo?
Take a moment to envision how the scene will look. Identify the parts of the scene that will be stationary and the parts that’ll be fluid. Once you’ve selected the perfect photography location, continue with the next step:
Step 2: Be patient and wait for the right moment
To capture a long-exposure landscape photo, you need one of two things:
- Very dim lighting (e.g., during golden hour or twilight)
- A filter that reduces the light coming through the lens
You see, long exposures, on a fundamental level, require a lengthy shutter speed – in the area of 1s, 5s, 30s, or even 10 minutes.
And if you leave the shutter open for a long time, it’ll essentially guarantee an overexposed image, unless the amount of light hitting the camera sensor is dramatically reduced.
The solution? Plan your shoot for very early in the morning and very late in the evening. The darker it is outside, the longer you’ll be able to leave your shutter open without risking overexposure, and the more motion you’ll be able to capture in your image.
If you’re unable to shoot early or late in the day, you’ll need to invest in a good neutral-density filter – preferably one that can reduce the light by 10 stops or more. (ND filters do come with a major advantage over the low-light approach to long-exposure photography described above: They allow you to shoot long exposures at unexpected times of the day, so your images will look more unique.)
Additionally, if your long-exposure shot relies on temperamental moving elements, make sure you wait for the right conditions. For instance, if you’re planning to create a long exposure with cotton-candy clouds, you’ll need to head out when plenty of clouds are present on the horizon. And if you’re planning to capture a long exposure with swirling grasses, you’ll need to shoot when there’s plenty of wind. Make sense?
Step 3: Select the perfect camera and lens
That said, if you want to make large prints of your landscape shots, it pays to use a camera with a high-resolution sensor (anything above 20 megapixels is generally fine). And if you prefer to avoid HDR bracketing, a larger sensor with a high dynamic range will come in handy.
As with standard landscape photography, long-exposure landscape snapping comes with no hard and fast lens rules. You can choose to shoot with a wide-angle lens, a super-telephoto lens, or anything in between – but traditionally, long exposures are done using wide or ultra-wide lenses. These broaden the view, add a sense of depth, and help the viewer feel like they could simply step out into the composition.
That’s why I recommend a wide-angle model, such as a 16-35mm lens, a 14-24mm lens, or a 16mm, 24mm, or 35mm prime.
I personally use a 24mm f/2.8 lens for most of my landscape shots. It’s not incredibly wide, but I find that it gives me a decently expansive perspective, a good middle ground, and very little of the distortion traditionally associated with super-wide glass.
Step 4: Bring the right accessories
You’ve chosen your camera and lens, but you’re not quite ready to embark on your photoshoot! You’ll also need to pack a few key landscape photography accessories.
First, if you’re photographing in bright light, you’ll need to carry that neutral density filter. The brighter the light, the stronger the required filter, so make sure you choose your filters carefully! (Depending on your setup, you may be able to stack multiple filters, which can be helpful if you own several weaker units.)
Second, make sure you have a sturdy tripod. Exposures of several seconds – which are absolutely critical in long-exposure photography – will lead to serious camera shake without a stable base. Even the slightest amount of movement can cause blurriness, and that will only be amplified with longer shutter times. Invest in a good tripod and ensure nothing will blow or bump into your setup while shooting. (If you have a camera strap, I’d recommend removing it or wrapping it around the lens.)
Finally, I’d encourage you to purchase a remote shutter release. (You can generally grab them for a few dollars on Amazon.) These releases connect to your camera and allow you to fire shots without actually pressing the shutter button, which keeps camera vibrations to an absolute minimum.
However, if you don’t want to invest in a shutter release, you can use your camera’s self-timer (though it’ll make it more difficult to handle shot timing if, for instance, you want to capture a shot when a wave is at its peak).
Step 5: Dial in the correct camera settings
As you already know, your shot will require a lengthy shutter speed, so choose that first. Figure out whether you want to capture a 1-second, a 10-second, or 30-second exposure, then dial it into your camera. (Different shutter speed lengths will produce different types of movement, so some experimentation may be in order!)
Next, you’ll need to focus on preventing overexposure. You’ll generally want to stop down your aperture as far as possible without risking diffraction. (A good starting point is f/8.) You’ll also want to drop your ISO to its lowest setting, which is generally ISO 100 but can vary from camera to camera.
(Fortunately, these settings come with some bonus advantages! A low ISO will keep the noise and artifacts in your shot to a minimum, while a narrow aperture will give you a nice, deep depth of field.)
Once you’ve chosen your shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, check your camera’s exposure meter. If the image is now underexposed, go ahead and widen your aperture, raise your ISO, or even lengthen the shutter speed further – but if your image is overexposed, you’ll need to shorten the shutter speed or add an ND filter.
Make sure you shoot in RAW; that way, your camera will capture as much data as possible and allow you to make non-destructive edits to your files later on. Shooting in RAW also negates the need to fiddle with white balance while shooting, since that can be adjusted in post-production.
Step 6: Focus on your composition
Once you’ve chosen the right equipment and settings, it’s time to compose your landscape shot. (If you added an ND filter during the previous step, you’ll want to take it off, as it’s tough to compose when the viewfinder is dark!)
Ask yourself: What do I want to capture? What do I want to highlight? Then adjust your composition accordingly!
And think carefully about your camera angle. By moving the camera lower, for instance, you can accentuate foreground subjects, which will add both interest and three-dimensionality.
Step 7: Envision movement and take the photo
Capturing well-composed movement can require a bit of foresight, especially if you’re working with a (relatively) short shutter speed, such as 1s. A crashing wave, for instance, will need to be photographed at the perfect time to ensure the water creates blur as it moves up (or down) the sand; you’ll need to anticipate the wave, then fire your shutter when it’s in position.
If you’re dealing with regular movement, I’d encourage you to simply sit and observe your subject for a few minutes before taking a photo. You’ll soon be able to predict movement before it happens!
And don’t be afraid to take lots of shots. Perfectly capturing movement can take some trial and error. It’s okay to fail. Remember, a single good shot will make the whole outing worth it!
One note: If you’re dealing with a high dynamic range scene, you may want to capture several photos using a bracketing technique. I’d recommend capturing one shot – with the perfect shutter speed – that exposes for the foreground. Then adjust the shutter speed so the sky is well-exposed. That way, you can blend the images together in post-production and achieve a beautiful result!
Speaking of which:
Step 8: Enhance the image’s beauty in post-production
Once you’ve taken your long-exposure landscape photo, I’d encourage you to spend some time in the editing room.
It’s true: A good long-exposure landscape will already be eye-catching, but a bit of editing can dramatically enhance the beauty you’ve captured in-camera.
Try boosting the colors, adjusting the white balance, and subtly enhancing the contrast. More advanced edits include dodging and burning to produce three-dimensionality, adding a vignette to help direct the viewer’s eye, and selectively darkening and brightening portions of the image.
If you shot at a low ISO (which I highly recommend!), you probably won’t need to do any noise reduction. I do encourage you to add a bit of sharpening, but make sure it’s only applied to the sharp portions of the shot; otherwise, the softer parts of the image, such as moving clouds or water, will start to look unpleasant.
Once you’ve done that, save the image as a JPEG, and share it as desired!
Long-exposure landscape photography: final words
That’s it, folks: The 8 steps to get you capturing great long-exposure landscape shots.
Follow my approach carefully, and you’re bound to produce some amazing images!
Now over to you:
What subjects do you plan to photograph? Share your thoughts in the comments below!