Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Leanne Cole, an incredible photographer from Melbourne, Australia. See more of her work here, and we hope to see more education from her in the future. Please welcome Leanne to Photofocus.

If you look on social media you will find hundreds, thousands of images that are classed as long exposures. Instagram alone has almost 3.5 million images that use the hashtag #longexposure which helps to show how popular it is. There are many reasons why it is as well.

What is a Long Exposure?

In simple terms, it can be any image that you cannot hand hold the camera for. If you need to use a tripod, or perhaps put the camera on a hard surface because you can’t get a sharp image otherwise, then you will be doing a long exposure. It can be a couple of seconds to several minutes.

There are two types of photography that are commonly referred to when talking about them, one is night photography and the other is images created with ND filters.

Night Photography

Taking photographs at night is magical. Your camera picks up so many more lights and sees far more than you can. This is especially true if you do images that are a minute or two long. It isn’t hard photography, but you do need to use a tripod and if you don’t do images of at least a few seconds, you will not get great photos. Look at how your phone takes a night image and compare it with your camera.

ND Filters

Using ND filters is the most common type of long exposure photography. The correct name for them is Neutral Density filters. They are, usually, glass filters that have a coating on, or in, them that makes them neutral, and the thickness of that determines the density of the filter. The coating is referred to as neutral because it should not cast any colour on your image.

Most people refer to them as stops, for example, 10 stops, the most common filter that people buy. They come in other stops and the number of stops is determined by the density, or how thick the neutral coating is. The smaller the number of stops, the less coating they have and the less time you will get. The higher the number of stops means the coating is darker and you need to give them more time.

You will find the good quality ones are square, and the most common size is 100mm. As they are made of glass it means they are easy to break, though if you look after them you will have them for years. If you are serious about doing this type of photography it is well worth spending the money on good filters. They are expensive, but you won’t regret buying quality.

When to Use ND Filters

ND filters are used when there is movement in the scene you want to capture. The longer exposure will either show that movement or make some things disappear. Three subjects that are perfect for long exposure photography are water, clouds, and people.


Water is one of the most common subjects that people use the filters for. The movement of the water is blurred as the image is taken over several seconds or minutes. Whenever you see images of water that looks smooth or silky you can almost always bet that it was taken using a filter.

The filters are effective on water that moves, so the ocean is very popular and makes it look flat. You can also do exposures of a second or two and you will see the movement of the water. Waterfalls are fantastic for long exposures and after you take lots of photos using ND filters it becomes hard to like them any other way.


Capturing clouds as they move through the sky is another subject that many photographers love to capture. The clouds can help create mood in an image and helps give scenes a timeless feel.

Using architecture as the main subject and then doing a long exposure so the clouds go behind is very popular.  You will find many photographers doing it and then converting the images into black and white. The long exposure keeps the focus on the building, while the clouds roll by. The similar thing happens with cityscapes.


It is like magic, people just disappear from the area you are photographing. It isn’t absolute, but most of the time everyone will disappear if they are moving while you are taking the image. Unfortunately, if someone stops and stands still you will get them.

There are situations where it doesn’t work, such as many people moving then you will find where they are in the image it appears almost dirty. If people are walking towards you then you could get some ghostly effects by them. It is good to try and take images so that people are moving from one side to another.

You can also use the filters to do images of just a few seconds so you can capture the movement of the people, but they are blurred so they appear like an army of ghosts walking through your images.


Most people who start doing long exposure photography soon become addicted seeing the world in a completely different way. It soon becomes their main technique for photos and everywhere they go their filters go with them.


With millions of photographers out there using ND filters to get these images, it is obviously rising in its popularity. It is easy to understand why long exposure photography has become popular. The images have a timeless feel to them. They have a magical look and perhaps because they show a world that you cannot normally see, they are fascinating.