A Secret to Capture Solid Long Exposure Photos

Apr 20, 2021

There's no such thing as perfect, and in fact, I think imperfection paves the road towards improvement. As a photographer, I'm always looking to improve my skills. Critical reflection of my images plays an important role in my journey to enhance my skills. As a result of this practice, I often capture images then see the need for tweaks or the opportunity to be more mindful when out in the field.

I highly recommend you adopt a mindset focused on the critical reflection of your pictures, which will help you become a better photographer. My practice of critical reflection led me to notice an area that could be improved within the image below, and I thought I'd share my learning with you and a secret to capturing a solid long exposure photograph.

ISO 31, 26mm, f10, 30seconds

There are many things that I like about the above image, but the strongest element to my liking is the long exposure technique I used to capture the photo. Long exposure in landscape photography often infuses an ethereal mood and is an eye-catching landscape photography technique. However, this technique does not come without its challenges.

Upon close examination of this image, zoomed in at one hundred percent, one can notice motion blur in the tops of the trees. My shutter speed was not fast enough to still the movement created by the wind at this location. 

Is motion blur a mistake in a long exposure?

Well, it depends. Motion blur in water and clouds is aesthetically pleasing and is inherent in the art of long exposure photography. However, motion blur in trees, grasses and other landscape elements should most often be avoided in long exposure photos. 

Does the motion blur in this image within the trees ruin the appearance?

Well, that also depends. In my opinion, this image is still artistically beautiful and a perfectly acceptable image to share on social media and even print at a small size. However, I would not print this image at a large size because as I increase the print size, the motion blur becomes more evident and pronounced.  

On a technique level, however, this image could have been executed better. 

So the question remains, "What does a landscape photographer do when the goal is a long exposure, but the shutter speed is not fast enough to freeze motion where it's not wanted?"

You have two choices:

  • First, accept that not all images will be, nor do they have to be technically "correct." 
  • Second, if you aim to capture a more technically accurate image, capture an exposure with a faster shutter speed that will freeze movement in the elements where motion should be frozen. Immediately following that exposure, capture a long exposure which will showcase movement in elements like clouds and water. Later, in post-processing, this faster and slower exposure can be stacked and aligned on top of each other. Careful blending of elements will infuse the long exposure with the shorter exposure resulting in the elimination of motion blur from unwanted areas within your image. This will give you the best results when using the technique of long exposure. 

If you are not familiar with stacking images and blending exposures in post-processing, still capture the differing shutter speed exposures. As you develop your skills, you can go back to old photos and edit them, but you need to have captured that data and those exposures. 

Never be afraid to experiment and try different shutter speeds when immersed in a landscape scene. Shutter speed is a beautiful way to infuse creativity into your landscape photography.