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How to Enhance Your Landscape Photography Composition with Long Exposure

How to Enhance Your Landscape Photography Composition with Long Exposure

A long exposure gives and infuses life into still landscape images. The ability to illustrate the path of moving objects enables the landscape photographer to give a glimpse of how the place and the elements around it move with life.

In this article, we shall talk about some effective long exposure photography ideas and the most effective moving landscape photography elements found both in nature and in the city that you can photograph to enhance your images. Shooting the night sky with long exposure is a different case. Read this blog to find out more.

1. Flowing Water

Perhaps one of the easiest to shoot in long exposure photography is the flow of water. Anybody of water that has a good foreground and background elements can be photographed in quite a number of ways depending on the movement that occurs with the water.

From as short as a fraction of a second, all the way to a few minutes, there are various effects and textures that can be rendered by shooting long exposures with a camera on a tripod and some ND filters. If you are shooting on a beach with moderate to strong waves, this can be a perfect scenario for capturing the short washing out of waves on the beach, preferably with a few solid elements in the foreground.

For just half a second to about 5 seconds, let the exposure capture the crashing of the waves onto the surface and the flow of the water as it is washed back into the ocean. The resulting brushed textures can definitely create an impactful effect on your photograph especially if captured during moments of beautiful lighting such as during the sunrise or as the sunsets.

For very calm bodies of water, long exposure photography does quite an opposite effect. Instead of rendering textures, exposing the shot for a couple of minutes cancels out unwanted ripples in the surface of the water leaving it flat and smooth.

Doing this with significant elements in the foreground infuses a healthy dose of contrast that will make the foreground elements stand out. These foreground elements can come in the form of rocks, driftwood, or other significantly sized objects that would fit the context of the image. By letting the slow movement of the water cancel out and unwanted textures that may otherwise be distracting or considered as clutter, your landscape image would most likely turn out to be more refined.

Waterfalls are also very dynamic bodies of water to photograph. The downward movement of the water creates an effect that somehow illustrates life flowing downwards onto the surface of the earth in the foreground.

Though very attractive to photograph as they are, long exposure can further enhance the flow of the waterfalls by capturing a seemingly stronger flow. If captured for a few seconds, long exposure can create interesting textures within the flow itself. However, if captured for even longer, it can create a smooth, veil-like effect that creates a less turbulent and peaceful long exposure waterfall image.

2. Clouds

Clouds being blown by the wind may perhaps be the easiest long exposure element to find in any situation. It can also be captured both during the day and at night and that means clouds can be a go-to dynamic element for many landscape photographs. With your camera on a tripod (and some filters during the day), moving clouds can create very dynamic backgrounds for your nature photography and landscape images.

Clouds that move from one end of the frame to the other create a very clean, refined, and organized background that would fit any rural, urban, or even architectural scene. Clouds that move diagonally towards an aesthetically significant point in the frame can create visual paths that would help the viewers of the image better experience the photograph. Alternatively, to create a minimal effect and get rid of unwanted textures in the sky, long exposures can also help smoothen out the texture of the background.

3. Vegetation

When shooting in a location that is rich in plants, trees, and grass, the tendency is for the frame to be filled with an abundance of solid details. While generally, acceptable, the multitude of figures in the foreground and background may take away some attention from the more crucial parts of the frame.

With the help of wind and a few seconds of exposure, these objects can instead be a smooth surface that would provide contrast and emphasis for the elements in the frame that are not in motion. Similar to what flowing water would do to rocks in the foreground, vegetation being blown by the wind can create helpful effects to complement your landscape photograph’s visual design by creating smooth brushed textures to illustrate movement.

4. City Lights and Traffic

When shooting landscape images in the city, vehicular traffic can be quite a dynamic moving element to photograph. Especially during the blue hour where the city is rich in colors, the lights from the moving cars can create bright and dynamic trails of light on the roads. Not only do these lights create bright and attractive points in the frame, but if positioned aesthetically in the frame, the lights from cars and other vehicles can create visual paths that lead the viewers’ eyes through and into the cityscape.

In long exposure night photography, light trails from cars can also be very helpful specifically in photographing locations with roads with interesting patterns. Capturing the light trails of a moving vehicle as it moves from one end of the path to the other can significantly highlight that interesting pattern and if fortunate with the weather, the photograph can even be complemented by a clear night sky.

5. Stars

On a clear night, stars and other illuminated bodies in the night sky can also be very effective long exposure elements. Infused into interesting landscapes taken at night, a starry sky can definitely provide extra impact on your images.

This can be done either by shooting exposures of a few minutes to capture short star trails as the earth rotates in axis or by spending hours to capture hundreds of images with an intervalometer and later stacking them to form long illuminated trails. Either way, the trails created by the movement of the earth on its axis create significant and visible trails that are always interesting to see in a nighttime landscape photograph.

Essential Gear for Long Exposure Landscape Photography

Camera settings with manual functions

Landscape photography makes use mostly of settings that are unique from most genres of photography. Generally, landscape and nature photography are some of the few that make use of the longest exposure times and smallest apertures for both technical and aesthetic purposes. That is why the most crucial technical aspect is having a camera that would be entirely customizable to those needs. Of course, a higher resolution output would always be better as well.

Wide Angle or Standard Zoom Lens

Generally, any lens can be used in landscape photography and the choices to be made in terms of lenses should depend on the actual location from which you are shooting. Long telephoto lenses can be helpful in finding intimate scenes and isolate certain structures that would be very effective with long exposure movement. On the other hand, capturing movement up close with an ultra-wide-angle lens can give a very immersive and dynamic perspective to the movement.

Neutral Density Filters (ND Filters)

A photographer's ability to do long exposures would be greatly limited without neutral density filters. ND filters decrease the amount of light that enters the camera and therefore allow the photographer to shoot longer exposure times even in very bright daytime situations. A properly chosen ND filter would give the photographer the ability to shoot movement for the amount of time they would need to capture the movement and render their intended effect. You can check out here to find out the best ND filters of 2021.

A Sturdy Tripod

Long exposure photography is generally impossible without a tripod. The tripod plays a role in making sure that the frame is captured clearly even amidst all the movement in the surroundings.

A sturdy tripod is one of the most important investments in landscape photography since it deals with a lot of harsh environments wherein a cheap and flimsy tripod might end up getting blown away by strong winds or currents of flowing water. That would result in a failed exposure or worse, damaged gear.

A Reliable Camera Remote Trigger

Most cameras are only able to do a maximum of 30 seconds when it comes to long exposure. Most of the time, longer exposure can create more dynamic movement and more interesting textures in moving clouds or flowing water. Especially when movement is rather slow, it is important to have a camera remote shutter that would be able to maintain the exposure for up to a couple of minutes.

The MIOPS Smart+ camera remote is a trigger that allows you to do that and more. For landscape photographers, the array of accessories from MIOPS can be a very reliable companion for daytime and nighttime landscape photography, cityscape photography, lightning photography, as well as creating moving clips through timelapse photography.

Either independently or controlled through the MIOPS mobile app on your smartphone as a camera remote shutter, this camera trigger can allow you to comfortably and securely trigger your long exposures with ease.

The Smart+ has a wide array of modes that are compatible with different methods in landscape photography. From a simple remote shutter, a customizable camera timer, manual press-and-hold control for remote shutter release, as well as a timed-release mode for very long and specifically timed exposures.

It is also perfect for interval shooting in long exposure night photography. The Miops mobile app is also equipped with a tool to help you calculate the perfect exposure time when using ND filters through the Neutral Density calculator that automatically sets the resulting exposure time into the timed release mode. 

The Miops Smart+ is also equipped with additional technology for more intuitive shooting. A lightning sensor can be found on the front of the device to aid in capturing strikes of lightning, a sound trigger for timing movements with particularly loud sounds, and a motion trigger for perfectly timed exposures when capturing fast-moving objects.

Landscape photography and long exposure are two almost inseparable concepts. For most landscape photographers, being able to do long exposures is one of the fundamentals that every aspiring landscape photographer should know. It is without any doubt that the method offers a lot of ways to enhance the images of outdoor scenes and most of that deals with giving the images more impact and dynamism. 

Blog Credit: Nicco Valenzuela

Nicco started his photographic journey in 2007 practicing the craft as a hobby. Currently, he shoots for various local and international architectural firms and construction companies. Out of his love for sharing his knowledge, Nicco began writing about photography and various pieces of gear.