My love/hate relationship with long exposure photography

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with long exposure photography. When done correctly it can deliver photos that you simply can’t create using standard exposure times, but when done poorly it can look a little tacky. When shooting seascapes, waterfalls or the night sky, long exposures are not only essential but very effective – and with a little post-processing you can create some truly stunning images.

We’ve all done it: set up our tripods next to a road, connect our shutter cables and wait for traffic to pass to take the shot. When you’re new to photography, it’s a great way to get used to bulb exposures because the effect is visible almost instantly – but I think that’s where vehicle bulb exposures have to stop.

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I realize this is a controversial opinion, maybe even makes me bored, but there’s just something about these taillights that I’m just not a big fan of. It might seem effective when done well, and the composition and placement have been really thought out, but setting up your camera on the side of any old road and hoping for the best isn’t enough (in my opinion ) to take breathtaking photos.

Another reason I don’t like these long driving exposures is that they all seem to be edited in exactly the same way: very polished, high-contrast, blue shadows with a very moody feel. This carbon copy approach to image creation takes away all creativity, leaving you with a soulless image.

(Image credit: Tom Chen on Unsplash)

Long exposure photography has its place, however, and can create some really great shots. When shooting seascapes or waterfalls, long exposures are a great way to capture a more artistic version of what you see in front. Rather than freezing moving parts of the image (like waves, river, or clouds), it will add a tranquil, dreamlike dimension to your photos.

Another great use for long exposures is to capture a city scene with no people. Outside of the Covid closures, it’s very rare that you can take a photo in a busy urban area with no cars or people inside. You could spend time in post-processing, tediously cloning everything you don’t want in the image, but using one of the best ND filters (opens in a new tab) and a long exposure, you can almost completely eliminate moving vehicles and people from your image, leaving you with a very Instagram-worthy shot.

Using a long exposure to capture star trails requires a lot of patience, a decent tripod and a cable release to minimize camera shake (Image credit: Hu Chen on Unsplash)

For astrophotography, long exposures are a must, especially if you want to capture a star trail. They allow you to capture the stars in all their twinkling glory, although you should be aware of the phase of the moon as even a waning crescent moon will provide too much light and make your stars less visible.

So basically my hatred is not directed at long exposures, per se, but at long exposure light trails. I think they’re a great way to learn long exposures and balance shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, but beyond that I’m just not interested. If you really want to put long exposures into practice, try photographing the night sky, take a trip to your local beach or park in a busy part of town and see the crowds disappear for yourself.

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