Creative Long Exposure Nature Photography

Long exposure ice beach

Creative Long Exposure Photography

From silky waterfalls to star trails, long exposure photography captures the world in a way we don’t normally see. These slow shutter photos are popular and capture the viewer’s imagination, so it is worth studying long exposure photography to add some unique perspectives to your portfolio.

Blue ice at Jökulsarlon beach
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When is long?

It sounds like a nonsense question, but when is an exposure defined as “long” or “short”? 1/1000th sec seems very fast, but if you are photographing the wings of a bee, 1/1000th sec would be a long exposure. 1/10,000th sec would be a suitable exposure. Milky way exposures are around 20 seconds, but I would consider this to be a short exposure.

My point is that the photographer has kept the exposure as short as possible to avoid star trails. I think it makes things much simpler if we define a long exposure on the final result or the intended communication.

If we compare a milky way photograph with a star-trail photo, the photographer is communicating scale and distance in the Milky way scene and the sense of the rotation of the Earth in the star trail photo.

Goðafoss waterfall, Iceland
Goðafoss – waterfall of the Gods
ice beach long exposure
Ice beach long exposure

Waterfalls

Flowing water looks great with a long exposure.  Waterfalls don’t need a very long exposure to look great. It is thought that the human eye sees things at around 15th sec. Tell that to people who don’t like the Milky water effect. 

If you set your shutter speed to 1/15 you will capture very close to how the human eye sees the waterfall. I recommend shutter speeds from 1/15 – 1/2 sec to photograph most waterfalls.

These exposure speeds need a tripod, but sometimes a mono-pod could work. Some people dislike the silky water effect, but the best way to make a nice waterfall look ugly is to capture it with a fast shutter. There are exceptions. This photo of Skogafoss waterfall rainbow captured a portion of the falls with a fast shutter.

Skogafoss waterfall Rainbow 1/1275 sec

This vertical photo of Skogafoss waterfall used a 13 second exposure. This is because I used my Magic Cloth to give extra exposure to the nearby rocks. The waterfall itself would have only had about one second exposure time. This is still more than enough exposure time and the waterfall has been rendered as totally smooth.

Skogafoss waterfall South Iceland.

If you are going to turn the water silky, I would recommend having something solid with good detail to contrast with the sense of movement.

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Beach photography

Long exposures can work very well on a beach. Receding waves paint white lines. Half to two second exposures are recommended for beach work. If your shutter speed is too long, the sea looks like a sea of milk and there are no definitive lines. Sometimes, you can get the white lines without a long exposure. Beach exposures can vary depending on the texture and slope of the beach.

Velvet Beach

Magic Cloth

The picture above was taken with a long exposure on the ice beach. The Magic Cloth covered the lens when the waves came in so only receding waves (wet sand) were exposed over a very long exposure (168 sec).

Recommended camera gear for long exposure photography.

Canon 5D - full frame
Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 l

Gitzo Carbon Fiber Tripod
B+W 77mm SC 106 ND
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By Tony Prower

Tony Prower spent over 15 years photographing the landscapes of Iceland. Tony Prower is a pioneer of the Magic Cloth Technique and ran thousands of photo tours in Iceland over 10 years.

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