Stuff's Guide to Photography: how to shoot long exposures

All kinds of photo-magic can be achieved by simply switching to a slow shutter speed.

Blur? Blur is bad, right? Not always. Just as you can make nice pictures by blurring the backgrounds with a bit of bokeh, another classic trick every snapper should know is the long exposure: by deliberately picking a slower shutter speed, you can capture smears of motion and dreamy patterns of light that make your picture tell a story. It's a piece of cake to do - just set up your camera and start mucking about.

Set up and steady

If you’re not an expert on manual settings, fear not. Simply set your camera’s mode dial to Shutter Priority, which will be marked ‘S’ or ‘Tv’. This auto-adjusts all the settings apart from the shutter speed, freeing you up to experiment with speeds - try anything from one second to thirty seconds fro long exposures. On some phones, like the Nokia Lumia 920 and 1020, you can set the exposure to several seconds.

Your next step is to keep the camera from moving, because if the camera moves while the shutter’s open, your picture will be blurrier than Keith Richards’ memories of the 1970s. So, use a tripod if you’ve got one, or a solid resting place like a table or a wall if you haven’t. Set the shutter to self-timer, so you’re not touching the camera when it takes the picture.

READ MORE: how to take better photos of tiny people

Try writing your name

Once you’re set up, try a basic bit of ‘light painting’: wait until dark, grab a torch and set your exposure time to anything from 10-30 seconds. When the self-timer goes off, use the torch to draw in the air, just like writing your name with a sparkler. Once you’ve drawn the obligatory crude willy or two (or seven), find some coloured lights and start trying different combinations of colour, movement and exposure.

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Capture some clichés

Now that you’ve mastered the basic principle, head out and look for some moving lights. There are some pictures that everyone has a go at, once they start playing with long exposures - streams of traffic at night and fairgrounds are the main culprits - so start by replicating these classics, then have a look around and think about how you can change them. Move to some traffic lights, for example, and you can get both the stationary cars and the light-streaks of them moving. You can get some dazzling results from fireworks, too - anywhere you see moving lights, get your camera steady and try a few shots, increasing the exposure time with each shot.

READ MORE: how to shoot amazing panoramas

use it in the day

Long exposures aren’t just for the night. You can use them to magically remove people from a busy scene - try snapping a busy square during the day with a long exposure, and the fact that most people are moving around will reduce them to blurry ghosts, while buildings remain sharp - very handy if you're in a tourist spot where people keep walking into your shot. It’s also a great way to convey movement - crowds, moving water and more can be blurred into patterns of frenetic activity by leaving the shutter open a bit longer than usual. Try a long exposure of a waterfall, a beach or a river and you'll get a dreamlike haze of moving water that you'll recognise from a thousand desktop backgrounds.

READ MORE: the meaning of bokeh, and why it's a good thing

go clean

(Image credit: Shane Gorski)

Once you've achieved control of the blur using long exposures, the next step is to use them for crisp, clean photos. This isn't possible for anything that's moving, but try it on buildings, landscapes and close-up objects, and you'll find it changes the way things are lit in your picture - often for the better.  

READ MOREbrowse the full Stuff Guide to Photography here

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