10 examples of long exposure photography

Long exposure of Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas at nighttime and a water fountain in the foreground.
Photo by John Abrenilla

Long exposure excites a lot of photographers because it provides opportunity to play with the dynamics created by highly-contrasted light. Many enthusiasts who get their first SLR cameras aim to find the perfect location to shoot light trails of automobiles commuting into downtown. While executing long exposure shots takes a little practice, going beyond the clichéd traffic scenes takes some creative thinking.

These examples hopefully provide budding photographers some out-of-the-box applications of composing the perfect shots with the technique.

Outdoor water features in public spaces

Long exposure shot of the Walker Art Insitute's Spoon and Cherry sculpture with downtown Minneapolis as the backdrop.
Photo by Benjamin Pecka

Public spaces like parks and tourist attractions like the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden generally provide the extra lighting to setup dynamic nighttime scenes. These places also are generally located just outside of urban areas and provide picturesque views of the skyline. Distant backgrounds provide a visual depth cue that provides the viewer with a sense of space.

Long exposure shot of water running underneath a bridge in Minnehaha Falls Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photo by Benjamin Pecka

Long exposure of water during the daytime emphasizes motion and gives it a silky appearance. However, not paying attention to the weather and lighting conditions usually results in overexposed images. Plan for cloudy weather and shooting within the first few hours after sunrise and before sunset and find shaded locations.

Long exposures and astrophotography

Long exposure shot of houses and boating located on the shores of Lake Tahoe. The stars are seen at the top two-thirds of the photograph.
Photo by John Abrenilla

Places with low levels of light pollution provide opportunity to capture wide-field views of twinkling stars. Including environmental objects in the foreground provides viewers with the context and depth. Depending on the desired results, astrophotography takes extra planning but there are a number of tools available today that make the process easier.

Street scenes that emphasize motion

Long exposure of a crowd moving through the frame.
Photo by Benjamin Pecka

Employing long exposure on the street produces ghostly effects as pedestrians pass in and out of the frame. Maintaining distinct figures requires places with slow movement. The people in the above shot are gathered for an evening event and looking for seats so there is a combination of both. Fast movement provides indistinct figures that appear to be otherworldly. Experiment with shutter speeds to obtain the amount of movement desired in the photograph.

Creating motion with trails of light

Long exposure scene of rush hour traffic light trails coming into and traveling out of downtown Minneapolis.
Photo by Benjamin Pecka

Finding the perfect location for the cliché downtown highway traffic takes some scouting. If there is not anyone in the photopigs community familiar with your city, try asking in local Facebook and Flickr groups. Photographers aiming to capture the scene for their collection should also consider the time of day and year. The above shot of traffic flowing into downtown Minneapolis was taken when morning twilight occurred during rush hour, which meant that it needed to taken during the dead of winter.

Long exposure of traffic in Las Vegas.
Photo by John Abrenilla

Hotel rooms in large cities often provide great elevated views to shoot alternative perspectives of city traffic. Urban explorers find unique views by looking for observation decks on top of high-rise buildings, bridges, parking ramps and other tall structures. Keep on the lookout these spaces in your city.

Long exposure of a light rail train from a low perspective with a street scene in the background.
Photo by John Abrenilla

Modes of transportation outside of the automobile also present opportunities for creating light trails. Many cities offer public transportation like light rail that runs along easily accessible streets and reaches neighborhoods that provide a variety of backdrops. The streets also provide secure places to rest cameras when a tripod and shutter are not available. Place the camera on the surface, compose the frame and set the timer.

Memorialize traditional fireworks displays

Long exposure of a Fourth of July fireworks display grand finale in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photo by Benjamin Pecka

In the days of film, including multiple firework shots into one required knowing how to execute a double exposure. Today, the same effect is commonly created by merging individual images in Photoshop but it can also be completed with long exposure when fireworks explode in quick succession. Many cities hold multiple fireworks shows throughout the year.

Long exposure to capture lightning

Long exposure of the night sky with lightning streaking across.
Photo by Benjamin Pecka

Capturing lightning is tricky because timing become huge factors. Find a protective area out of the rain and discern the most active location in the sky. Set the camera’s shutter speed to at least one second and keep shooting until the desired results are achieved. Unfortunately, it is common to walk away with nothing. Lightning photography takes great patience and multiple attempts to capture most of the time.

Long exposure is sometimes tricky but experimenting with multiple shutter speeds for the same shot and studying the results helps photographers develop an intuitive sense of what works. Additionally, long exposure can be simulated in Photoshop when a long exposure is not viable.

While these examples provide multiple different ideas, there are certainly mainly applications not covered. What are some other uses of long exposure photography?

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