4 Stunning Effects That Long Exposure Can Have (With Practical Tips!)

Long exposure can create stunning images easily, however it is an advanced skill in photography.  Before learning this technique, you should have at least some basic knowledge of the exposure triangle.  In this post, I am going to share 4 effects that you can achieve by using long exposure, together with a practical step by step tutorial.

As people always say, “Good tools are the prerequisite for the successful execution of a job”, getting suitable equipment for long exposure photography is essential.  Here is a list of what you may need:

  • Tripod – To maintain stability of your camera so that you have a sharp image.
  • Timer – To time your exposure time. If you are using more than 30 seconds (which is the longest automatic exposure time for most of the cameras), you will need a timer to time how long you have exposed.
  • ND filter – To reduce light entering into your camera. I have just published a guide on how to choose the best ND filter.
  • Shutter cable – To release the shutter. This is not a must-have equipment but highly recommended.
  • Non-slippery Shoes – To prevent slipping on the wet rocks while shooting water falls.

Cloud Movement

When you stare at the sky for a while, you may notice that the clouds are moving very slowly.  To capture the moving clouds, you will need an exposure time of at least 30 seconds.

Cloud Movement
Photo by Kevin Choi

1 to 2 minutes will do the best job of capturing the cloud movement.  To achieve such a long exposure time, a good quality ND filter is a must.
Besides, try not to aim for more than 2 minutes because hot pixels may start to appear and that can lower your image quality.

How to Do the Shot

  1. Set up your tripod on a solid location and compose your image.
  2. Switch to A-mode and set target aperture, f/5.6-8 is recommended, and ISO.
  3. Meter and focus the shoot and take a test shoot to see if there is any over or under-exposure.  If everything looks fine, mark down the exposure time.
  4. Set to M-mode and manual focus.  Keep aperture and ISO unchanged but change the shutter to bulb.
  5. Put on the ND filter and calculate the required exposure time.  For a 6-stop filter, multiply the original exposure time by 64.  Multiply 1000 if you are using a 10-stop filter.  Remember to aim for 1 to 2 minutes exposure time.
  6. Release the shutter and wait for the result.

Water Falls and Waves Movement

The second effect that a long exposure can do well is a smooth water fall or waves. Apply the similar concept as capturing the cloud movement, however you will need a much shorter exposure time for this. 2 to 10 seconds is the best exposure time through my experience.

Water Falls
Photo by Kevin Choi

If you shoot on a cloudy day, you may have a shutter speed that is slow enough to get the job done. However, try not to stop down the aperture to smaller than f/16 otherwise your image will be blurred by the diffraction effect.

How to Do the Shot

  1. Follow step 1 to step 4 on the cloud movement tutorial.
  2. Put on a ND filter. 3-stop or 6-stop filter is recommended for shooting water falls.
  3. Calculate the required shutter speed.  For a 3-stop filter, you have to multiply normal shutter speed by 8, while 64 for a 6-stop filter.
  4. Release the shutter.

Light Rays in the City

If you are living in a big city, like me in Hong Kong, you may get a chance to capture different kinds of light rays. Vehicles’ head light would produce a perfect shot. Among all kinds of cars, my favorite is the light ray from the double-deck buses or trams.

City Light Rays
Photo by Kevin Choi

Different from the first two cases, you will just need a naked lens for this kind of photos. As you are shooting the head light of cars and you don’t shoot them in daytime.  Simply stop down your aperture and you can reach the exposure time long enough to capture those light.

How to Do the Shot

  1. Study the traffic. You gotta to know where the cars come from and where they are going.  Not only does it help to capture a great shot, but also capture in a safe location.
  2. Set up your tripod and camera.  You have to be careful not to stay too close to the road because high-speed vehicles create negative pressure that might accidentally drag you to the road.
  3. Use A-mode to meter the corresponding shutter speed for your shoot.  Set an aperture of f/5.6 to 8 because it will give you the sharpest image.
  4. Take a test shoot with the background only.  Make sure there is no over or under-exposure.  If everything is fine, set it to M-mode and fix the corresponding shutter speed as well.
  5. Wait until your target vehicle comes and release shutter.


Panning is the technique that uses a slow shutter speed to trace a subject. It can be a racing car or bicycle, a group of birds, a running horse, etc.  Among all these 4 tactics, panning is the most difficult to master.  In other words, it is not surprising for beginners to get blurred images, out of focus images or the subject can’t even be seen.

Photo by John Barbiaux
Photo by John Barbiaux

When doing panning, different subject have difference target shutter speed.  For example, 1/200 to 1/100 second is relatively slow to shoot flying birds; 1/50 to 1/30 is a good range to pan formula one or horse racing. When you are shooting a new topic, you may need to spend some time to figure out the range of shutter speed that you might need.
By the way, a tripod is not a must on panning.  Handheld shooting gives you more mobility as you don’t have to carry the heavy tripod all day long.

How to Do the Shot

  1. Set it to S-mode, continuous focus mode, 3D tracking and also spot metering.
  2. Set the target shutter speed.
  3. Focus on the subject.
  4. Hold down the shutter while tracing the subject in the viewfinder.
  5. Repeat the above until you capture the image you want. For panning flying birds, I just get 1 or 2 sharp image per 100 shoots. Be patient and just try again.

So, guys, I hope you enjoy my short tutorial and find it useful. These skills may not easy to master, but once you could manage them, you will find that taking stunning photos are easier than you think. Happy shooting!

About the author:

Kevin Choi is a freelance photographer who has a love for landscape and wildlife, the founder of CaptureTheMoment, and has been carrying Nikon with him since 2008.  He never stops dreaming, so as you would too.


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