Silky smooth and sharp streaks: 3 tips for emotive long exposures

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Dreamy long exposures are as core to landscape photography as are brilliant sunrises and sweeping grand vistas.

Yet to create compelling photos of moving water, you need to do more than use ND filters and select slow shutter speeds. (In fact, I typically advise against using filters and the slowest possible shutter speed—more on that soon.)

Rather, you need to integrate extra compositional features, test different settings, and trial techniques for each scene. So whether you want to take serene waterfall shots or capture powerful seascapes, this guide is for you.

West Coast, New Zealand. Rugged sea stacks? Tick. Powerful waves? Tick. Not a cloud in sight? Hmmm. With a clear blue sky, I opted for my telephoto lens to simplify the scene, focussing on the rocks and crashing waves. I used a faster long exposure and burst mode to capture the strongest moment of impact. Sony A7R Mark IV, FE 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS II lens @ 188mm. 1/13s @ f16, ISO 100.

Harness water features as compositional elements

As I was drafting this guide, I began by addressing the gear you’ll need—but I bumped that down. Gear is, understandably, what many other long exposure articles open with. Yet there’s a good chance you’ve heard it all before.

Instead, I elevated this tip on composition to reiterate the importance of form and flow through your image.

So here’s the first tip: Don’t settle for a slow shutter speed and smooth water and call it a day.

The key to powerful long exposure photography—like all landscape photography—is taking time to observe and then order the compositional elements in the scene.

Thankfully, long exposures often make this task easier by creating leading lines, like clouds streaking overhead or water flowing through the midground.

Fiordland, NZ. Last year, I upgraded from a light travel tripod to a mid-weight tripod—and I sure needed it with this scene. To minimise vibrations from the running water, I pushed the tripod legs deep into the pebbly river bed. This allowed me to frame and capture this sweeping composition over the moving water. Sony A7R Mark IV, Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG lens @ 24mm. 1/6s @ f14, ISO 100.

As an artist, it’s up to you to arrange each element to support the wider scene you’re capturing. So before you plonk down your tripod—and cement your compositional choices—take time to watch how the water moves or crashes through your frame.

Let’s explore how you might apply these ideas in two typical long exposure locations:

By a river: Look for areas of turbulence as the water flows around boulders or rushes over cascades. Can you position your camera to angle those white water lines up towards a tree, waterfall or point of interest in the background?

By the coast: Look for areas where the waves surge into a channel or where the receding foam trails back to the ocean. These streaks will help lead viewers out to the glorious sunrise or moody clouds beyond the horizon.

Get the right gear: Sturdy tripod and remote shutter

Because your camera’s shutter will be open for longer, any moderate vibration will blur your entire frame—not just the moving water. (And unless you want to create more abstract or ICM scenes where the image is intentionally blurry, you’ll still want your other subjects to remain tack sharp.)

So invest in a sturdy tripod, lock the legs and firmly push the feet into the ground so it won’t wobble or shift position. Similarly, pressing your camera’s shutter button will cause some camera shake too.

So connect a Bluetooth or wired shutter release to avoid unnecessarily touching your camera when it’s time to take the shot.

If you don’t have a remote shutter, a delayed two-second timer works for waterfall scenes where the water movement is predictable. But when the environment is more variable and precise timing is needed—like if you’re capturing wave surges—a remote shutter is key.

One item that might seem glaringly absent in this section on gear? An ND filter. I’ve found that carrying, cleaning and using ND filters is cumbersome—and actually prevented me from creating powerful long exposures. Which leads me to my next tip…

Minnamurra. This is another scene where burst mode was my best friend. With each incoming wave, I’d hold down my remote shutter and take five to seven frames. Later on my computer, I sorted through the sequence to select the image with the most pleasing flow. Sony A7R Mark IV, FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM lens @ 16mm. 1/4s @ f8, ISO 100.

Don’t (always) use super slow shutter speeds

In the November 2020 issue of AP, I wrote an article on how Australia’s geography shaped my landscape photography. In the piece, Great Southern Land, I reflected on the influence overseas photographers had on my early development.

On YouTube, British photographers would pull out their pitch-black 10-stop ND filter and smooth out the reflections in a tranquil lake or a calm coastal seascape.

So that’s what I tried down by the rugged Bombo Quarry. However, when applied on the rough Australian coast, all the energy of our coast was lost and so too was the emotional impact. It turned our dynamic coast into a milky bath. 

So I did something different. Where once I’d reach for an ND filter to slow down the shutter, I’ve since embraced ‘fast’ long exposures of 1/4 to 1/10 second.

I’ve found that these speeds still retain detail in the moving water, highlighting that sense of motion and energy in the incoming waves.

The tip for this guide? Don’t let your long exposure become too long, losing the action that’s on offer when a wave slams into cliffs or when water rushes down cascades.

Fiordland, New Zealand. A classic long-exposure scene of running cascades. When I experience a new location, I’m never precisely sure which shutter speed will work best. So when the scene is fairly stable like this (as opposed to an ever-shifting sunrise), I’ll take a range of images at shutter speeds from 1 second through to 1/10 second, varying the aperture or ISO as needed to balance the exposure. Sony A7R Mark III, Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 DG lens @ 26mm. 1/8s @ f9, ISO 125.

The ‘optimal’ shutter speed will vary depending on the water speed, your distance from it—and your preferred long exposure effect. That said, here are some common scenarios and baseline shutter speeds to help you retain that dynamic energy that’s on offer:

Waves crashing on rocks: 1/10 second will freeze the moment of impact like the quills on an echidna.

Waterfall running down a cliff: 1/2 second will create dreamy streaks while still retaining texture. (A free-flowing waterfall chute may suit a full 1 second exposure.)

River stream rushing around boulders: 1/4 second will showcase the natural flow and create leading lines.

One final note on shutter speeds? Be mindful of subjects such as branches, fern fronds and hanging mosses. Even in moderate wind, faster speeds like 1/4 second can result in plants and leaves looking blurry—which will create distractions for the viewer.

To overcome this, you might take an additional exposure at around 1/15 second to freeze the moving foliage. Then in Photoshop, you can blend in areas of silky smooth water from the slower frame into the faster frame where everything is tack sharp.

Look out for part two next week.

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