Consider this: Photographs are frozen slices of time, and your camera is a time machine capable of freezing or stretching a moment. A short shutter speed can freeze things that happen far too fast to see. With a long shutter duration, motion is blurred, stretching time. When photographing in busy urban environments where people, vehicles, and other things are on the move, long exposures can create a sense of motion in a static photograph.
I’d never before considered this quote from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to have photography implications, but considering what we’ll explore here, I like what it says:
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Taking photos is one way we “stop and look around.” It’s also a way we share what we see with others. But a limitation of still photographs is they are a 2D, static representation of a 3D, moving world. So how can we better communicate motion in a still photo? A long exposure that leaves the shutter open for an extended period will cause moving images to be rendered as blurs. That look communicates motion to the viewer.
So let’s talk about the mechanics of how to do long exposure street photography.
Where to go for the best long exposure street photography
If you’re going to depict motion, you want to go somewhere where things are moving. Busy locations where people, vehicles, and other things are on the move will work well. A busy city street or intersection might be a perfect spot. You could also try a sporting event where the participants are in motion.
For long exposure night photography (which we’ll discuss in greater depth), locations with moving lights and illuminated vehicles work well. Also, consider the interesting looks that can be created when your photograph combines static and dynamic elements. One person standing still in a crowd of moving people can make for an impactful image using the long exposure technique.
A still camera in a moving world
You likely want the motion in your photos to be created by the movement of your subjects, not by the movement of your camera. Handholding your camera and keeping it still during a multi-second exposure will be very difficult, so a tripod is a good idea.
(Though consider if you will be able to use a tripod on a busy city sidewalk or other crowded environments. Creating a hazard where someone could trip over a tripod leg is not something you want to do.)
There is also the “attraction of attention factor.” I will confess: I have not done a lot of street photography because of my personal trepidation about having to engage with strangers who want to know why I’m taking their photo on a street corner. Should I decide street photography is something I want to pursue further, that’s something I’ll need to get past.
That said, I guarantee that you will attract even more attention and possible questions if you set up a tripod and a professional-looking camera on a busy street corner and start taking photos of passersby. Perhaps you could find other ways to brace your camera aside from a tripod. Maybe even figure out how to do long exposures with your cell phone to reduce the attention factor.
(If this isn’t a concern for you, more power to you; you’ve already dealt with a major barrier to being a great street photographer.)
What is a long exposure?
Your objective here is to make “long exposures” so that your subjects move during the shot. So how do we define long exposure photography?
An object will render as blurred in a photograph if it changes position from the time the shutter opens until the time it closes. Two factors will determine the amount of blur:
- The speed of the moving object relative to the duration the shutter is open
- The relative distance the subject moves during the exposure.
Let’s use a moving car as an example. Say you have a shutter speed of 1/30s. You are taking a photo of a car moving at 40 mph. If the car is relatively close to the camera, it could move completely across the frame and thus be rendered as a complete blur. But if the same car, still traveling at 40 mph, was in the distance and relatively small in the frame, it would only move a relatively short distance across the frame in that same 1/30s – and thus wouldn’t show as much blur.
So to simplify, the distance an object moves across the frame during the exposure is what will determine its blurriness. Even relatively slow-moving objects can be blurred if the exposure time is long enough. Take a close-up of a snail with a 5-minute exposure, and you could quite possibly have it appear motion blurred, too!
It’s that exposure triangle thing again
I hope you know what I mean when I speak of the “exposure triangle” – the relationship between ISO, shutter speed, and aperture when making a properly exposed photograph. If you’re not completely familiar, I’d recommend you stop what you’re doing and read all about it here.
Now, if you’re going to make long exposures that are well exposed, you’ll need full control over your shutter speed. There are two basic modes you can use to achieve this: Shutter Priority mode (Tv on Canon cameras, S on Nikons and some other cameras), or full Manual (M) mode.
In either case, you will be able to pick a shutter speed and lock it in. (We’ll talk about choosing a shutter speed in a minute.)
Let’s assume you decide to make a 2-second exposure. Let’s also assume you are in Shutter Priority mode.
When you meter the scene, your shutter speed will be 2 seconds. Your aperture and ISO (if you are using Auto ISO), will “float,” automatically switching to a setting for a proper exposure. Depending on the ambient light, you might get something like 2 seconds at f/11 and ISO 1000. Locking the shutter speed and letting the camera determine aperture and ISO will allow you to get a proper exposure at the shutter duration you choose.
Using Manual mode can give you even greater creative control. Say you set your shutter speed for the same 2 seconds but stop down to f/16 for some additional depth of field. Your ISO can be adjusted to maintain the right exposure, and you’ll get the same 2-second exposure but at f/16 and ISO 2000.
If you are in Manual mode, you get to do all the adjustments yourself. Assuming you want the same 2-second shutter speed, you dial that in. Then you can adjust either the aperture, ISO, or both to center the exposure bar indicator and get a proper exposure. Should you decide to capture multiple shots from the same spot and the light remains constant, you shouldn’t need to make any additional adjustments.
Two important factors
How you choose your long exposure street photography settings will depend on two important factors:
- Your desired shutter speed
- Ambient light in your scene
So ask yourself:
- What shutter speed do I want? Like so much of photography, the answer here is probably “it depends.” How much are the subjects in your shot moving? How fast? How close are they to the camera? What is your desired look? On a crowded street with lots of pedestrians scurrying about, you might be able to make everyone completely disappear in your photo if you use a several-minute exposure. Is that the look you want? Experimentation is the best way to learn the perfect shutter speed for this kind of photography. Try different things, “chimp” your shots, adjust and try again. You will get a feel for what you like and what works best in different situations.
- What are the ambient light conditions? You might decide you’d like a 30-second exposure but are out shooting in the middle of the day in bright sunshine. Even stopping down to f/22 and ISO 50, a 30-second exposure might not be possible without drastically overexposing the image. Long exposure night images, taken when you don’t have much ambient light to deal with, are much easier. At night, instead of lowering the ISO, you might need to raise it. The same 30-second night image might be something like 30 seconds at f/4 and ISO 1600.
The amount of light you have to work with will impact what you can do. Long exposures in low light are usually easier, as you can always open up your aperture to its widest setting and crank up the ISO (noise is still a consideration but less so thanks to improved sensor technology). But how do you make a long exposure when there’s too much light and the smallest aperture and lowest ISO won’t get you the shutter speed you want?
Reach for the “sunglasses”
On a bright, sunny day when the light becomes too intense for our eyes, we’ll often reach for a pair of sunglasses to reduce the brightness. We can do the same for our cameras with neutral density filters (ND filters), which offer different levels of darkness. We can use ND filters to reduce the light hitting the camera sensor, and thus get long shutter durations even in bright conditions.
Here’s an example: You meter the scene, and at your smallest aperture of f/22 and an ISO of 50, the slowest shutter speed you could use and still get a proper exposure is 0.8 seconds. So grab your 6-stop ND filter, add it to the front of your lens, and you’ll be able to use an 8-second exposure. (A 10-stop ND filter could take you all the way to a 2-minute exposure!)
Using ND filters and calculating exposures takes a little study and practice, but the advantage is being able to take long exposures in bright conditions where it would otherwise not be possible. (A nice app to have on your cellphone is an ND filter exposure calculator like this one from Lee, a filter manufacturer: for Android/for iOS).
Lights at night
Decide how long you want your exposure to last. Then in Shutter Priority mode, pick an aperture. If you’re set to use Auto ISO, the camera should pick the ISO setting for you. Of course, if you’re in Manual mode, you get to pick all three settings.
Again, determine your desired shutter speed, pick an aperture, and then adjust the ISO to a setting where you get a proper exposure. It could take some trial and error, but once you get everything dialed in, you will be able to make repeated shots without too much need for further adjustment.
Beyond the mechanics
Working out the camera mechanics when making long exposures is a matter of determining how to get a long exposure in any given lighting conditions. The rest of making an interesting image is no different than with other kinds of photography. Determine if there’s a “story” you want to tell. Decide how to compose your shot. Use compositional guidelines, vary your perspective, and try different shutter speeds to create different looks.
For street photos of people, it can be interesting to go out with a model, someone who will work with you and pose as needed. Put them in a busy location, but instruct them to stay still while you make your shot. They will remain sharp in the shot while the moving passersby will blur. The contrast of static and dynamic between your frozen model and the people moving and blurring can create some dramatic looks.
Add a flash
Here’s something else you can try:
Put a speedlight on your camera and set it up for second-curtain sync. (If you’re unfamiliar with the technique, make sure to read up on it!)
What you’re after is a long exposure that will motion-blur moving people or objects – but then, just before the shutter closes, the flash will fire. Moving elements will have a blur of motion behind them but be frozen by the burst of flash, like this:
Just be aware that, if you thought shooting with a tripod on a busy city street might attract attention, firing a flash will make it clear you’re taking photos. What’s nice about having a model with you is that people will assume you’re making photos of the model and not be as concerned about you making photos of them. You’ll even get lots of apologies from people who say, “Sorry, I got in your shot,” not knowing that was your intent all along.
Go hit the streets
Learning the mechanics of long exposure street photography is the easy part. Getting out on the streets and making photos, particularly with people in them, is the bigger challenge, especially if you haven’t done much street photography before.
If you pride yourself on being a people person, that will come in handy in this genre of photography. The rest, as they say, is practice. Best wishes!
Now over to you:
Do you have any favorite tips or techniques for long exposure street photography? And do you have any long exposure images you’re proud of? Share them in the comments below!