How do you take long-exposure photographs?

Ueno road intersection light trails

Have you ever seen those night city shots of intense, fiery light trails? You do it by using long exposures. Do you want to learn how to do it? Well, this post is for you. It’ll teach you the basics. Let’s get ready!

Well, first, I must say this article isn’t about Tokyo exactly. But as long-exposures feature heavily on this website, I thought I should let you know how they are done. Is that okay?

What gear do you need for long-exposure photographs?

  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Shutter release cable
Shinjuku street light trails

Why do you need a tripod and shutter release cable? Well, your shutter is going to be open for a long time. If your camera moves, your photos might get blurred. You don’t want that!

Even pressing the shutter button will move your camera. Of course, handheld long exposures are impossible. Well, they are for me. To avoid it, use a tripod and a cable.

The tripod will give your a solid place to put your camera. Do you have one? Don’t worry if you don’t. Tables and window sills are good substitutes.

And don’t worry about the shutter release cable if you don’t have one. Your camera should have an internal timer to do the job. If you don’t know how to use it, consult the user’s manual. Next, let’s look at camera settings.

Light trails in front of Shinjuku skyscrapers

A review of camera settings

What are these? They are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Let’s look at the basics.

  • Shutter Speed

The longer you keep the shutter open, there more light hits the sensor. It can also have another effect. Keeping it open can create motion blur and those fabulous light trails. This is very important.

Tokyo suburban hill street light trails
  • Aperture

The aperture is the opening in the lens that controls how much light comes into the camera’s sensor. We can make it big (e.g., f/2.0) or small (e.g., f/22). It also influences the depth of field.

If you choose a wide aperture (e.g., f/2.0), the depth of field will be very shallow. Things behind your subject might be blurred. Close it down to the f/22, and it’ll be deep. That means more will be in focus.

  • ISO

ISO controls the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor. The higher it is, the more light will be collected. It has a downside, though. The higher it goes, the more noise or grain will appear in your image.

Yakatabune light trails in front of rainbow bridge

What settings do long-exposure photographs need?

We need to keep the shutter open for as long as possible. Why? If we do that, the traffic will leave long light trails in our photo.

For this lesson, let’s use a shutter speed of five seconds. You can go shorter, but the trails probably won’t be attractive. Of course, you can go longer.

Don’t ignore your aperture and ISO. If they are incorrect, you can get an overexposed photo. That’s okay because even a mistake is a learning experience. It’ll teach you what doesn’t work!

My go-to aperture setting for light trails ranges from f/8 to f/11. Remember, small aperture numbers mean the lens will be open wider. That will let more light in. We want less light for longer shutter speeds. Use a higher number.

Next, consider your ISO setting. Keep it low. Why? Because your camera’s sensor will be less sensitive, reducing the amount of light. For a five-second exposure, use the lowest possible setting your camera has. That will also reduce noise/grain.

Go ahead and take a photo! Well, not yet. Attach your camera to your tripod and use a shutter release cable. Next, focus your lens on the subject. Now you are ready.

Using the shutter release cable, take your photo! How does it look? Too bright? Too dark? That’s ok. Adjust your settings and try again. Repeat until you get what you want.

massive clouds over Shinjuku

Wrapping up

Long-exposure photographs aren’t hard. But they need practice. Once you get a successful one, you’ll want to do it again. Trust me. They make for great photos.

One day, you might find a part of the city that is very bright, even in the middle of the night. For those, use a filter to reduce the amount of light getting onto your camera’s sensor. They even allow you to take long exposure during the day! But I’ll leave that for another article. Please leave questions and comments below.

light trails between neon lit buildings

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