28 December 2023 Valeriano Milo


Photographic technique

Have you ever wondered how to take a picture like this? I’m sure you have seen hundreds of similar photos on the web, where water has a silky effect, and clouds are blurred. Or pictures of urban landscapes where cars are maybe not even visible, but leave fantastic light trails.

Well! These photographs are taken using the long exposure technique. It all sounds very complicated but… you will be pleased to discover that it is not at all! Let’s see together what you need and how this technique works.

Let’s start with the definition: long exposure is a photographic technique that consists in letting the camera’s sensor collect light for a long period of time. In other words, you have to set a shutter speed beyond one second (actually much longer usually, it depends on what you are photographing and what the basic idea of the shot is). In this way, while your camera is shooting, to return to the examples given at the beginning of this article, clouds, cars, water will move and produce a striking visual effect.

So you may be asking yourself: what EQUIPMENT do I need? The answer to this question is actually quite simple.

  • A camera that allows you to set the shooting mode to Manual, as you will need to set the camera with a long shutter speed (any modern mirrorless will do that).
  • A tripod, which is essential, considering that with long shutter speeds you cannot shoot hand-held.
  • A ND filter (neutral density filter), to be screwed onto the lens. The filter reduces the light hitting the sensor, it’s like putting sunglasses on your camera. As less light enters, the camera will need to shoot for a longer time to collect the light needed for a correct exposure. The ND filter may not even be needed if you are shooting in the evening, or if there is already little ambient light.

No need to take out a mortgage, with a few hundred euros you can get results like the one below. This shot was taken with a Fuji x-t1, a quite old camera (in the second hand market it costs very little, I don’t think over 300-350€), a wide angle lens for about 300€, and a 30€ ND filter.

Let’s now move on to the TECHNIQUE, which with a modern mirrorless camera is really quite simple.

  1. Screw the ND filter onto the lens. You can choose among filters with different intensities; depending on which filter you use you will choose the various shooting parameters.
  2. Mount the camera on the tripod and make sure it is absolutely stable (even a gust of wind can ruin a photo in this case).
  3. Set the camera in manual mode.
  4. Set the ISO value as low as you can (usually 100 iso), so that the photo is as clean as possible and at the same time you can use a longer shutter speed.
  5. Set a closed aperture, between f/8 and f/13, don’t go beyond that, as closing the aperture too much can reduce the quality of the photo, due to the phenomenon of diffraction.
  6. Choose the right shutter speed. Modern mirrorless cameras allow you to preview the exposure of the photo, so you don’t have to do any special calculations. Thanks to the ND filter, closed aperture and low ISO value, you will be able to set a long shutter speed.
  7. Focus and……

And now… can you press the shutter release? The answer to this question is: NO! There is one last trick to take first.

Set the self-timer on your camera so that your camera will start shooting a few seconds after you press the shutter button, thus avoiding a vibration that could ruin the shot.

Easy right?

This is clearly the way I do it, you might want to do some things differently, I have only explained the basics. You might want to look into other topics, such as Bulb mode, for instance, but in the meantime these few steps will already allow you yo get very good results.

Since I have been talking about light trails since the beginning of this article, I’ll leave you with one last photo!

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