Ask James: Long Exposures

Would like to know about long exposures, what ND filters you use, how do you know how long to keep the shutter opened in bright daylight, how close do you need to be to the water or if you are by the ocean how far back should you be for safety? Thank you James. You are a awesome teacher !!!Dorothy Roberts

Thanks for the kind words!

Long exposure photography is similar to night sky photography in many ways. First, it’s going to require a tripod because your shutter speed will be far too slow to go hand held. Second, it requires a lot of patience and experimentation. Third, when you start getting the hang of it, it feels like you have access to a whole new world of possibilities!

My ND filter of choice at the moment is the LEE Big Stopper. It produces a beautiful blue color cast that I’ve always been quite fond of. Sometimes I remove the color cast in post, but I usually embrace it because it’s so clean.


4 minute exposure at Badwater Basin in Death Valley.

The most impressive ND filters on the market right now are the Firecrest lineup from Formatt-Hitech. I just haven’t gotten around to ordering them yet. These filters produce zero color cast and are available in your standard 3-10 stops, but they also have 13 and 16 stops as well!

6 second exposure. Kings River, Arkansas.

6 second exposure. Kings River, Arkansas.

How long to keep your shutter open completely depends on the situation. In broad daylight, the entire point of using an ND filter is to slow things down. You have to decide what you want to do and go from there. This is where having options comes in to play. If it’s still daylight and you want to add a bit of movement to the waves coming in, you’ll want around a .5-2 second exposure. If you want to give the water a completely ghosted look, you’ll want around 30 seconds. If there are clouds moving overhead and you want to make them streak across the sky, you’ll need 30 seconds or several minutes.

As far as how close to get, again, that depends on the situation. How calm (or treacherous) is the water? Is the tide coming in or going out? There’s not a right or wrong answer to your question I’m afraid.

Long Exposure Video Tutorial

Here’s a very well done video tutorial on long exposures by my buddy Mark Gvazdinskas. Long exposures are his specialty and he walks you through the entire in-camera process here.

Long Exposure Tutorial from John Gvazdinskas on Vimeo.

This is a comprehensive in-field tutorial covering long exposure photography techniques by Mark Gvazdinskas. He is an accomplished landscape and concert photographer focusing on extreme long exposure compositions. The following steps are reviewed in detail in the video to provide an overview of everything you need to do prior to taking a long exposure shot.

Long Exposure Checklist:
1) Set camera to manual mode
2) Compose shot and grab focus before installing filter(s)
3) Take test shot without filter(s) to get an even histogram
4) Select white balance
5) Install filter(s)
6) Calculate exposure time with filter(s) installed
7) Turn vibration reduction or image stabilzation OFF
8) Make sure focus is set to manual
9) Cover viewfinder with curtain or gaffers tape

For questions or to see more of Mark’s work, please visit
For production inquiries or to see more of John’s work, please visit

Equipment – Camera, Motion controlled equipment, tripods/ballheads and software by:
Canon – 5D Mark ii and iii, 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8:
Nikon – D800, 16-35mm f2.8:
Formatt Hitech Filters:
Emotimo – TB3 Black:
Dynamic Perception – Stage Zero Bundle:
Really Right Stuff Tripods and Ballheads –
DJI – Inspire 1:
Adobe – Lightroom, After Effects, Premier Pro:
Granite Bay Software:

Music by:
Artist: J Kwiechert
Song: 1000 Lies

A Few More Examples

133 second exposure at Corona Arch in Moab, Utah.

133 second exposure at Corona Arch in Moab, Utah.

Punalu'u Beach Twilight | Hawaii

30 second exposure at Punalu’u Beach in Hawaii.

.25 second exposure at Wawaloli Beach in Hawaii.

.25 second exposure at Wawaloli Beach in Hawaii.

3.2 second exposure. Santa Cruz, California

3.2 second exposure. Santa Cruz, California


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