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What Is Long Exposure Photography And Why Long Exposure Photography

An attempt to a definition of long exposure photography for the sake of clarity

There is no generally accepted definition on what Long Exposure photography is but for the sake of clarity and for this article I want to use the definition and explanation in this article.

Long exposure photography is taking photographs by using longer exposure times than needed to obtain a correctly exposed photograph, either during daytime with the use of filters or else during the night with or without the use of filters, with the deliberate intent to create an effect on any moving object that is typical for long exposure photographs. Namely: the effect that prolonged or passing time has on any moving subject when this specific effect has been captured in one still frame. Effects like blurred skies with streaks of clouds, smoothed out water like if it was frozen, blurred ghostlike people, star trails, moon trails and light trails, using an exposure time that is deliberately prolonged to achieve this effect.

It’s not the duration of the exposure that qualifies it as a long exposure photograph, but the intention of capturing moving objects with longer exposure times than necessary that makes it a long exposure photograph.

If for example a filter is used during very bright day light in order to reduce the intensity of the light because the limits of shutter speeds options of the camera have been exceeded and an even shorter exposure is needed, then this is not regarded long exposure photography. For example, most cameras will have a minimum shutter speed of 1/4000s. If the photo is still overexposed at this minimum speed, because the correct exposure time was 1/6000s, then the only solution is either to decrease the aperture, or to add an ND filter with 3 stops. Decreasing the aperture won’t be the preferred solution if you shoot portraits or if you prefer to shoot around the sweet spot of the lens so the best thing to do is to add a 3 stops ND filter and reduce the exposure time to 1/750s.

Why Long exposure photography?

This is a question people often ask me, especially those who don’t have any experience with it themselves. And there’s not just one answer but in my case it has everything to do with creating a mysterious, surreal atmosphere. About visualizing the invisible. An extended exposure can reveal to the eye what was visible to the mind’s eye only. That’s why I love long exposure photography: I want to reveal what my mind’s eye sees. Apart from this, and this is another incentive for me to shoot long exposure photographs: even though results are to some extent predictable, based on my experience as a long exposure photographer and the technical settings of a shot, the final result will always remain a surprise. And sometimes, it’s not what you’ve expected but more often things will become visible that I couldn’t have anticipated beforehand, even with my years of long exposure photography experience. And again, it’s part of my artistic philosophy to move away from reality as many steps as possible.

Essential Equipment For Long Exposure Photography

The gear you need for long exposure photography: minimal requirements and suggestions

Camera With Bulb Mode

Canon 5dsr camera

The 50MP DSLR. Lots of megapixels, great quality but perhaps not a great fit for long exposure photography due to the high noise levels with long exposures. It has a bulb mode for long exposure photography.

sony a7 rii camera

is a 42.5 MP mirrorless camera that’s a bit lighter than a comparable DSLR. It remains to be seen if this camera is also usable for long exposure photography, in spite of the excellent quality under normal conditions and its bulb mode feature.

Obviously you will need a camera. I recommend any camera that has a bulb mode. Any conventional DSLR with bulb feature will do, as will a mirrorless camera with bulb. Of course analog cameras will also work for long exposure photographs, even better than with digital cameras since the issue with increasing noise with extended long exposures is largely a digital camera issue. Analog cameras are more suitable for extreme long exposures and with that I mean long exposures that are extended up to an hour or even longer at night.

Most camera’s have a maximum exposure time of 30 seconds, which is not long enough most of the time for long exposure photography. The bulb mode allows you to go past that point of 30 seconds. Most models like the that I use have a dial with the B(ulb) setting that’s easy to find. If you have a brand that doesn’t have this explicit Bulb mode setting on the dials then most of the times it’s hidden somewhere under the Manual setting. Just dial in an exposure time past the 30 seconds and you will see the bulb mode.

Recommendable Cameras And The Noise Issue With Long Exposure Photography

At the time of writing the update on this tutorial there’s an increasing amount of cameras emerging that have 30MP or more. The were one of the first DSLRs that exceeded 30MP and along with that also the issue of increased noise with long exposure photography became an increasing problem. The high megapixel cameras, and with high megapixel I mean any DSLR or camera with a resolution of more than 30MP weren’t equipped for long exposure photography. They will do extremely well for normal use of the camera but they perform not as well as the older generation of relatively low megapixel cameras like the Canon 5D mark III, when shooting long exposure photographs. The amount of megapixels packed up on just a small digital CMOS sensor simply approach the limits of such a sensor, especially in extreme conditions as in long exposure photography where sensors will heat faster, the thermal noise issue. However, Nikon now has released a camera, the , intended for astrophotography and long exposure photography specifically, but not exclusively, and has far less of an issue with noise. Even more, the Nikon D810A comes with a so-called so you won’t even need a remote control to take long exposure photographs up to 10 minutes to avoid the inevitable vibration. The new  on the other hand doesn’t perform at all for long exposure photography. From the various long exposure testshots I’ve seen taken with this specific camera, for example, the noise is already a huge issue with very short long exposures. As long as Canon doesn’t acknowledge and tackle this issue I would simply not recommend this camera if long exposure photography is an important part of your style of photography. In spite of the huge amount of megapixels and great image quality when using this camera under normal conditions. Sony, also recently released the mirrorless and the first reviews, , indicated that also this camera isn’t performing as expected with long exposure photography but it looks like Sony is actually seriously working on  by releasing a firmware update. Apart from those rumours, and I have to emphasize they’re just rumours or second hand information since I haven’t tested any of those new high megapixel cameras myself, and there are simply just very few actual reviews that I could find specifically targeted at long exposure photography. It’s too early to say anything definitive on the long exposure photography capabilities of these new high megapixel cameras. Please bear in mind that these new cameras are all fantastic high resolution cameras and will perform extraordinarily well as long as you don’t need to take long exposure photographs with these cameras. The exception is, as mentioned earlier, the new and judging the  that were focused on astrophotography and not so much on daytime long exposure photography, I’m leaning towards recommending it for daytime long exposure photography as well, if you’re also in need of high megapixel photographs. Note that I’m not talking about the which also seemed to have when used for long exposure photography.

In-Camera Noise Reduction (NR) Feature: Not The Solution For Noise

Some of you may ask: then why not turn on the in-camera noise reduction or NR feature? Let me state that when using the NR feature on a DSLR to get rid of the noise issue, it isn’t a solution for a long exposure photographer as I am, nor should it be the solution in general: turning on the NR feature doesn’t take away the real issue and that is that the sensor cannot handle long exposures. I’m discussing this topic in a bit more detail later in this tutorial but right now I just want to state that I never use in-camera NR simply because the advantages of using in-camera NR don’t weigh up against the disadvantages of using in-camera NR. My most important argument against use of in-camera NR is that it doubles the time of your exposure. That shouldn’t be a problem if you take long exposures of 30 seconds or less, if you’re not into more extreme long exposure photography like I am. On average it takes me 30 minutes to take one long exposure photograph varying in exposure time between 6 and 8 minutes, my preferred long exposure time, because I need to find a good composition and angle first, manually focus the lens and level the camera on my tripod, take a proper meter reading, take a test shot, correct the settings, take another reading, attach the ND filters (trust me, that isn’t always easy and can take some time!) and remote control, cover the viewfinder and any other cracks and holes on your camera with black tape or a hat, and then finally wait for the ideal moment, if that moment didn’t already pass (in bold because this is an important moment) and then take the actual long exposure photo. That’s all in all 30 minutes on average for one photograph. If you have extensive experience in long exposure photography and with actually shooting out in the field then you know that light and weather conditions can change rapidly, so I’m already taking away from my time and photographic opportunities by needing 30 minutes on average for just one photograph: you might just miss out on that fantastic cloud sequence, that fantastic light, while still setting up and taking that one photograph. You would miss out on even more weather and photography opportunities if you use in-camera NR to increase the time that you would need for just one photograph with an additional 6 or 8 minutes. That’s almost 40 minutes for one long exposure photograph. That’s really too much: even though I’m a slow photographer, taking his time for every photograph, I simply don’t like wasting any of my time, not one minute of my time, because I need to wait for the in-camera NR to get rid of sensor noise because the sensor can’t handle it. A problem that should’ve been solved by the manufacturer.


Manfrotto 055XPRO

A reliable, relatively heavy but sturdy aluminum tripod with flip locks and 2 sections and a center column from Manfrotto, the , a budget line tripod with a lot of value for money. Heavier than carbon fiber or basalt tripods.

Really Right Stuff TVC 24

A beautifully designed, top of the line carbon fiber tripod from , with 4 leg sections, twist locks and without a center column: the  is a tripod for the demanding photographer that also comes with a price.

Carbon Fiber, Basalt Or Aluminium Tripods. Twist Locks Or Flip Locks (Lever Locks)

The sturdier the tripod, the better. I have used all kinds of tripod over the years and you can take this from me and from other experienced long exposure photographers: don’t buy the cheap tripods. In the end it will only cost you more money. It really depends on the type of long exposure photographer you are if I am to recommend any tripod to you. When I was exclusively shooting long exposure landscapes and seascapes some years ago I needed a tripod that was more sturdy and heavy and one that’s easy to clean when shooting out in the sea. One that’s heavy enough to eliminate as much vibration as possible on a windy beach and usually those tripods are not very easy to travel with. If you travel a lot you might be better served with a compact tripod that you can easily put in your suitcase and also in your backpack. One that’s compact, light but not too light. These days I shoot a lot of architecture and now I prefer a tripod that I can easily travel with in the subway without hitting someone in the face accidentally with the tripod for example, so it should be relatively compact. At the same time it should be extendable to at least 6 foot or 1.80 meters, preferably even larger, so I can use it to tower above the traffic in a city if I need to. Well, compact and extendable to an extra large format, usually don’t really go together. Even more if you want something that’s not too heavy but still has enough weight to resist any vibration. In other words: the perfect tripod doesn’t exist. It’s for that reason I have a few different tripods: one light and compact one for architecture and a more heavy tripod for seascapes. I’m now looking for a bigger but still a light weight tripod for architecture that’s not going to hurt my back when traveling extensively.

When looking for a tripod pay attention to the following aspects:

  • Material: aluminum or carbon fiber or basalt. Aluminum is cheaper and heavier but can serve a purpose when you’re shooting in windy conditions to provide more stability. Carbon fiber is more expensive and also lighter. Basalt is somewhere in between in terms of weight and price. Travellers would benefit more from a light weight carbon fiber tripod. If it’s too light for shooting in windy conditions then attaching a weight (your backpack for example) to the hook under the tripod can solve this problem.
  • Leg sections and extendable height of the tripod: tripods with more leg sections usually have a larger maximum height and can have more compact dimensions ideal for traveling. Note that when you’re not so tall it doesn’t mean that it’s not recommendable to buy a tripod with a 7 foot maximum height for example. Such a tripod could come in very handy in situations where you need to tower out above the direct environment. You will need to use a ladder in that case or stand on another artificial platform, obviously.
  • Twist locks or flip locks (lever locks): Personally I prefer the twist locks. Very easy and fast to lock, unlock, set up and take down compared to the flip locks.  But I’ve heard of many other photographers who claim exactly the opposite! It’s a matter of personal preference but usually tripods with flip locks or lever locks cannot have too many leg sections. Furthermore I find that flip locks can get stuck easily when there’s a bit of sand in the flip locks. and have a large assortment of mainly twist lock tripods.
  • Center column or not: The purposes of a center column are various. To some it’s a way to have additional height, to others it’s useful to be able to tilt the center column, if it has this feature. Some others claim that since the hook, to attach additional weight to, is right under the center column this will directly reduce any vibration in the camera. I find this a bit far fetched but I’m not necessarily saying it’s nonsens. Some center columns can be inverted, now that’s a feature I’ve found to be quite handy at times. Whatever you decide, it’s not recommended to extend the center column if you don’t need to, it will only increase chances of vibration in your camera and will make the tripod less stable.

A tripod that I can recommend and is very affordable and a great entry level tripod in general, besides being sturdy and reliable as well, is the . It’s versatile and you can use it for both architectural photography and for seascapes. If you want to spend a bit more money then I can recommend the . They have tripods for the more demanding photographer up to the professional photographer. They have a large assortment of carbon fiber tripods. If you want something in between, that’s lighter than an aluminum tripod but heavier than a carbon fiber tripod, than Gitzo also have basalt tripods. If you’re looking for the top of the line tripods then  (RRS) might be something for you. They have beautifully crafted carbon fiber tripods in all sizes, and they don’t only have a high quality and robust feel, they also look good. This is for example an  that I can recommend: it’s extendable to 175cm and has a good load capacity. The latter is an important aspect to factor in if the weight of your camera and lens combined is heavier than usual. But the RRS tripods come with a price. There are many other good tripods that are very affordable and still very good but be prepared to pay at least a few hundred dollars for a good tripod.

Tripod Heads And Quick Release Systems

Manfrotto MHXpro 3 way head

A typical example of a good but very affordable pan/tilt or 3 way head: the  one of many good  that has the quick release system included.

A typical high quality but affordable ball head: the  from German manufacturer . This ball head doesn’t come with the Arca-Swiss compatible Quick Release system from FLM which needs to be purchased separately. Note that you could also attach a third party Arca-Swiss quick release system to this ball head or even a non Arca-Swiss quick release system.

Arca swiss c1 cube

A geared head tripod head from Arca-Swiss. This is the that looks fantastic and is of the highest quality but it is also very expensive. It comes with the Arca-Swiss flip lock quick release system.

Various Types Of Tripod Heads And The Importance Of A Good Tripod Head – Suggestions And An Overview

Not only a good sturdy and reliable tripod is important for the long exposure photographer, but also a good tripod head as it is the connection between tripod and camera and it needs to be as sturdy and reliable as the tripod itself. In the intro part of this section I’m referring to a tripod head as the entire device of tripod head and quick release system together but I will discuss them separately when I describe the various tripod heads and quick release systems. An expensive tripod with a cheap, low quality tripod head will eliminate the positive qualities of your tripod and the feeling of security for your expensive camera and lens: if your camera is locked on your tripod head, you need to be able to rely that it’s tightly locked to the clamp under all circumstances and that the ball doesn’t slip out of position after a few seconds.  Apart from that, and here I’m addressing the quick release systems more specifically, it’s equally important that you can easily and safely remove the camera from your tripod head and that you don’t have to pay a high price for every mistake you make. Safety pins on the quick release system of a tripod head will give you additional safety. Furthermore, attaching your camera to the tripod head and any adjustments to the camera position should be done, just as safe and smoothly and accurately. Keep in mind that with long exposure photography all these aspects and requirements are more critical than with normal exposure times. The extended long exposure times make the whole set up of camera, tripod and tripod head even more sensitive for vibrations and knobs that won’t lock the ball tightly enough for a longer time. There are several types of tripod heads and what you choose is dependent on the personal preferences but all types of tripod heads are suitable for long exposure photography. The ball head however is the more obvious choice for long exposure photographers, for its flexibility and quick operation, while the geared head is more the choice for photographers who need accurate adjustments and levelling like architectural photographers.

  • PAN/TILT HEADS – These are tripod heads that have 3 way movements, making it easy to adjust the head in all directions with the use of handles. The separate handles make levelling a camera in all directions very easy, by independently tilting and locking the head vertically, horizontally and 360 degrees around since each axis can be operated and locked independently. A major disadvantage of such a head is that they’re usually quite large due to the handles and they will make carrying this around with you a little less comfortable. Also storing this type of tripod head in your backpack or suitcase takes up more space. has a few affordable 3 way tripod heads that I can recommend. Here’s an example of a good . The load of these tripod heads are enough for most DSLRs but if you’re using medium format or large format cameras then pay attention to the load capacity as well.
  • BALL HEADS – These are the most popular types and there are some very beautifully designed and high quality ball heads from all the popular brands on the market. Ball heads can be adjusted in any direction by using the camera that’s attached on top of the ball head, as a ‘handle’. This method gives you a lot of flexibility and speed while working, but at the same time it’s not really easy to level the camera exactly horizontal and vertical since none of the axes can be locked separately. What you have to look for when considering a ball head are the following:
    • Ball diameter: ball heads come in several sizes and the larger the more easy it will be to adjust and the more stable they will be with heavier loads. They can vary in size up to around 58mm for some of the biggest ball heads.
    • Load capacity: this is related to the ball diameter and it will be obvious that you will need a higher load capacity if you’re working with larger and heavier telephoto lenses or with medium format cameras. A heavy camera with heavy lenses on a ball head that doesn’t support the load will cause the ball head to move off position and will also make it far more difficult to adjust the position. Ball heads with a large ball diameter and therefore also higher load capacity are more expensive and will also increase the weight of your backpack/suitcase when travelling.

    Ball heads come in several price ranges with more or less options but it’s recommendable to have a ball head with a knob to adjust the friction depending on the weight of your camera and lens. In general, a ball head is considered to be more ‘professional’ than a pan/tilt head. It’s true that ball heads come in a larger variety and often also in higher price ranges but I think that the normal ball head without any possibility to adjust friction and fix at least one axis are terrible when you need to have accurate and quick levelling. No matter how expensive they are. When shooting architecture and giving long exposure demonstrations at workshops, I find using most ball heads really annoying. I think you’re better off with a cheaper pan/tilt head then. If you still want to go for a ball head type tripod head then there are a few features that will make using ball heads less annoying and even highly recommendable.

    • Friction adjustment: a knob or ring with which you can adjust the friction to the weight of the camera and your personal preferences. This feature will help a lot, but not enough for someone like me who prefers more precise adjustment control.
    • Tilt locking: now this is going to make a big difference. With this feature, only available from a few brands, you can lock the ball head on one or even more axes. Most of the time they will lock only one axis, like the horizontal axis. So after you’ve levelled the camera horizontally, you can lock the horizontal axis and then continue levelling the camera on the other axis without having to lose the horizontal levelling. Something that happens to me all the time and is disturbing. , a German manufacturer, who produces some very high quality ball heads that are very affordable and come with features that you won’t see anywhere, produces ball heads with this feature, like the  that I can highly recommend. Very recently I’ve decided to  myself, after a neck-and-neck race with the , that even has 2 tilt locks: a horizontal and a vertical lock. The FLM is definitely cheaper and in terms of quality absolutely not less. But I decided it would give me just a bit more flexibility and speed if I only had one tilt lock.

    Recommended brands for ball heads are , the Swiss manufacturer who basically invented the ball head and set the standard for the quality and functionality of ball heads and the  in this industry and . Unfortunately Really Right Stuff doesn’t have a ball head with the tilt lock. Both these brands are among the best. But there are many other familiar or less familiar manufacturers that produce high quality ball heads. is another example of high quality and aesthetic German engineering and an example of one of the many other brands.

  • GEARED HEADS – there are just a few brands that have geared heads in their line of tripod heads which I think is a bit disappointing. This type of tripod heads have my absolute preference since you can very accurately fine tune the level on all axes with a geared head in small incremental steps, which is absolutely not the case with ball heads. Often I get so frustrated working with ball heads without any tilt locking feature and it can take me sometimes minutes to level my camera correctly with a ball head only to see it’s still not levelled. Using geared heads will save you the annoyance, but the comfort and accuracy of geared heads come with a price. The best geared heads are from Arca-Swiss. The cheapest version, the will cost you around $ 1,000. Their top model is the that will sell for around $ 1,700. Manfrotto also has a few geared heads in their that are between 0 and 0 but are either or simply not as robust as their Arca-Swiss counterparts and can’t support a too heavy load. Another disadvantage of the Manfrotto tripod heads is that they don’t come with the Arca-Swiss type of quick release, making it rather limited in using brand independent interchangeable accessories. Having said that,  recently released a few models like the  and  that come with an Arca-Swiss compatible quick release system called that can also be purchased separately to fit to a select few Manfrotto tripod heads. If you’re interested in the Manfrotto geared heads and want the versatility of the Arca-Swiss system, it’s worth looking into this. Besides these brands there are virtually no other manufacturers with geared heads. If you are an architectural photographer, then either go for the ball heads with a tilt lock or go for the geared heads. In the video below the is being demonstrated by  to give you an idea how a geared head works.
arca swiss quick release adapter

or clamp with so-called flip lock. This part is attached on top of the tripod head. The camera plate, that needs to be inserted into this clamp, can be any third party camera plate, as long as it is compatible with the Arca-Swiss system standard.

arca swiss universal quick release plate

that will fit most cameras and that will go into the Arca-Swiss quick release clamp in the previous picture or in any other Arca style QR clamp.

Manfrotto quick release clamp 323 rc2

The Quick Release system with clamp and plate. An example of a budget priced QR system that’s not Arca-Swiss compatible.

Arca Swiss Or Arca Style Quick Release Systems And Uniq/C Systems

Discussing the various types of tripod heads without addressing the topic of the  wouldn’t be complete. A quick release system (QR) is any system of plates and clamps or adapters, that accept those plates, to ensure quick releasing of your camera from the tripod head. Often the tripod heads come with a quick release system, specifically made for the tripod head, but sometimes you have to purchase it separately. In almost all cases you’re free to ignore the quick release system that came with the tripod head or is suggested by the brand, and go for a third party quick release system. Whatever type of tripod head/quick release combination you’re going to choose, if you buy one, consider going for a quick release system of the so-called , system, although the new looks like it’s going to be a good alternative as well. The Arca-Swiss type, or often referred to as Arca type or Arca style, is a universal system of camera plates and clamp design, invented by Arca-Swiss, to ensure compatibility and interchangeability between plates and clamps, so the plates that you have for your camera will fit on other third party Arca-Swiss type ball heads, or more precisely, clamps. As addressed under tripod heads, a reliable and high quality quick release system as part of the entire tripod head, is essential for the safety of your expensive gear. The Arca-Swiss system is a proven and reliable system. Furthermore, this system can save you money on the long run, especially if you want to extend your ball head with accessories like L-plates from other brands.

IMPORTANT NOTE: even though there’s a universal system of quick release, called the Arca-Swiss system, and most manufacturers propagate and claim to have this system, this is in practice not always true. If you want to make sure your camera plate will fit on a Arca-Swiss system clamp, or vice versa, then and their actual compatibility with the Arca system. It’s also due to this relative compatibility, or incompatibility if you like, that a new initiative has started recently with another system of quick releases that’s also largely Arca-Swiss compatible: the German of interchangeable clamps and plates. Leading, high quality German manufacturers like , and for example now produce quick release systems that are compatible according the UniQ/C system, and on top will also accept Arca type plates, but of course with the same reservation that applies to other Arca style compatible systems. Here’s an and what plates will fit to what clamps. Although in most cases Arca-Swiss type plates will be accepted by UniQ/C type clamps, what usually won’t work is the safety pin on UniQ/C type clamps to prevent the camera from gliding off the clamp when it’s unlocked. For those safety pins to work properly, UniQ/C type plates are necessary.

Neutral Density (ND) Filters

A set of rectangular neutral density filters by formatt hitech

A complete set of rectangular ND filters from , with aluminum filter holder and 2 adapters, a 77mm and an 82mm adapter, to accommodate the most commonly used lens sizes.

a set of circular neutral density filters by formatt hitech

A set of circular screw on ND filter from  in various densities varying from a 3 stops ND, a 6 stops ND to a 10 stops ND filter.

Why ND Filters?

In another section in this tutorial on long exposure photography, and even more extensively in the – Black and white photography, architecture and beyond, written by me and co-author , I’m going into more detail why I prefer to shoot during daytime with exposure times varying between 3 and 7 minutes. The only way to do long exposure photography, in normal conditions, during daytime is by using very dark neutral density or ND filters. There’s no other way to stop the light effectively and increase exposure times than by using ND filters in front of your lens. If you aim to have long exposure times between 3 and 7 minutes, then you will need at least 10 stops ND filters. At this moment the ND filters that I prefer and personally use are the . These are the only 16 stops ND filters in the world and on top of that, they’re also the most neutral ND filters without any noticeable color cast. You can read more on these filters on the or here in the , and in which is obviously more subjective since these filters also carry my name, or in the of my website.

Circular Or Rectangular ND Filters

ND filters in general come as either circular screw-on ND filters and as rectangular slide in filters for which you need an additional filter holder.

The choice between circular screw-on filters like the ones from Formatt-Hitech and B+W on one hand and the rectangular ND filter systems, comprising of ND filter, filter holder and adapter, from Formatt-Hitech and Lee on the other hand, is a very personal and subjective one. Before I started using the Formatt-Hitech rectangular filters a few years ago, I’ve always used the circular B+W filters as there were no other easily accessible alternatives. Lee’s ND filter with holder system were quite difficult to get and still are difficult to get your hands on since they’re quite often out of stock. These days several manufacturers like Formatt-Hitech and Singh-Ray have both rectangular and circular filter systems and choosing either one of them isn’t based on accessibility and availability of one of those filters anymore. It will be a choice based on personal preference.

An adapter for the rectangular filter system

With a rectangular filter system, you will need an adapter to attach the filter holder to the lens. This is a 77mm adapter for a 100mm filter holder

Filter holder for the 100mm rectangular nd filter

After that, an aluminum Formatt-Hitech filter holder for regular 100mm rectangular ND filters, or any other compatible filter holder like the one from Lee, is attached to the adapter.

the rectangular filter placed into the filter holder

Finally you need to insert the rectangular ND filter into the filter holder. Most filter holders will have spacers to stack multiple filters.

I have both types of ND filters. In the past I preferred the rectangular filters to the circular ones. Most of the times I thought, and many others with me, it would be easier to attach your ND filters to your lens using rectangular filters since you only have to slide them into the filter holder that’s attached to the front part of your lens. With circular filters you always run the risk that you accidentally adjust the focus on your lens when trying to screw the filters onto your lens. Furthermore the filter-holders can be attached to any size lens using an adapter ring, usually they come in the sizes 77 and 82mm to accommodate the most commonly used lenses.

These days however, with the arrival of the Firecrest filters that also come as very slim filters, I find it easier to use the circular filters. Due to the size they’re easier to attach and they take up almost no space in your backpack compared to the rectangular filters with filter holders. When I’m out shooting I just carry them around in my pockets, which I find is more practical and saves me valuable time.

gasket on the rectangular nd filter

A rectangular filter from with a gasket to avoid light leaking through the sides of the filter. In spite of the gasket, it’s almost impossible to avoid light leakage with extended long exposures

black tape on the sides of the filter holder to prevent light leakage

Black tape on the sides of two stacked rectangular filters in a regular 100mm filter holder to avoid light leaking through the openings between the stacked filters and filter holder during extended long exposures in bright daylight.

Another important reason for me to use circular screw on filters: I don’t need to tape the sides of the filter since the screw construction will leak no light, which is different with rectangular filters: even though filter holders and filters are constructed very solidly and have a gasket to make the filter and filter holder construction more light-proof, it’s almost impossible to avoid light leaking through the sides of the filters. Especially with extended long exposures and in bright light conditions. You will always need to tape the sides where the filter on one side and the holder on the other side, leaves an opening.

The above were my personal arguments for using circular filters these days. If I would be using ND gradient filters, then my choice would be different. If you want to make an informed decision, then have a look at the table below with the pros and cons for going either with a rectangular ND filter or with a circular ND filter. In the end one system is not better than the other, but it will be a personal preference.

Pro and cons of rectangular slide-in filters vs circular screw-on filters

Filter Type Pros Cons Remark Circular – Easy to transport and store, takes up little space. you can put it in your pocket while shooting and on the move
– Not so easy to break due to the ring that serves as protection
– No light leakage through the sides of the filters
– Easier to attach: just screw it on your lens (subjective)
– Easy to stack
– Less expensive than a set of rectangular filters with filter holder and adapter – Not possible or very hard to stack with neutral gradient filters
– Sometimes the filter is hard to remove from the lens or other filter when stacked: it gets stuck sometimes
– Sircular filters will cause some vignetting due to its size and the ring if they’re thick rings
– One size doesn’t fit all: you need different filter sizes for different lens sizes if you don’t use step up adapters
– Screwing on the filter on your lens can cause your lens to get out of focus
– You can’t use circular filters on bulgy lenses like the canon 17mm ts-e or nikon 14-24 Formatt-hitech has superslim and ultraslim circular filters that don’t cause any vignetting
– My personal experience is that the superslim circular filters are far easier to attach than rectangular filters
– Tip: when your filter gets stuck then screw it even tighter, then unscrew it. this will work most of the times
– You can use one circular filter to fit most of your lenses (not the bulgy lens types) if you buy cheap step up rings. make sure then that you buy the largest filter to fit on the smaller lenses as well to avoid vignetting Rectangular – Can be easily combined with neutral gradient filters
– You can slide in the filters into the filter holder while the filter holder is already attached to the lens. chances of your lens getting out of focus are less (subjective)
– Easy to stack
– Ene size fits all lenses. you only need an adapter ring for your filter holder. note: when you have a bulgy lens like the nikon 14-24 or canon ts-e 17mm then you will need a lucroit filter holder – You always need a filter holder and adapter to fit it to your lens. this takes up space in your bag.
– I find it more cumbersome and time consuming to attach a rectangular filter with filter holder in-between each shot than simply screwing and unscrewing a circular filter
– The sides of the filter holder with filter will cause light leakage most of the times: you need to cover it with black tape
– A set of rectangular filters with filter holder and adapter is more expensive than a circular filter – Some people find it easier to attach a rectangular filter with filter holder in-between shots. personally i think it’s easier to screw it on. circular filters have my preference Lee filter holder foundations set

The  for rectangular ND filters, for use with most regular lenses, without the adapter ring to attach to the lens. It has several slots for use with multiple ND or ND grad filters at the same time.

canon 17mm ts-e lens

A typical ‘bulgy’ lens, the . Regular filter holders like in the image before this, or circular filters cannot be used on a lens as this. Lucroit developed filter holders for a lens like this.

lucroit filter holder system by formatt hitech

The , in this case for Nikon lenses, for use with 165mm rectangular ND filters on atypical bulgy lenses such as the Nikon 14-24mm where the regular filter holders from Lee or Formatt-Hitech won’t fit.

Vignetting And Stacking ND Filters

Many long exposure photographers use multiple filters at once. They might use a 10 stops, a 6 stops and a GND. Using multiple filters at once is called stacking. There is nothing wrong with stacking and it is even recommended when you need 16 stops of ND filters but don’t have a for example. You just need to stack it then. Before I had the Firecrest 16 stops ND filter, I used to stack my 10 stops ND with my 6 stops ND almost on every occasion since it was the only way to achieve 16 stops of ND filtration. There’s however a disadvantage to stacking: vignetting. This is far more related to stacking circular ND filters where the thickness of the ring of the filter will determine the amount of vignetting. It’s less or no problem with stacking rectangular ND filters. I wouldn’t recommend stacking more than 2 filters at the same time for circular filters and not more than 3 filters for rectangular filters. Especially ultra wide angle lenses at their furthest reach will then encounter vignetting and also other issues like reflections in one of the stacked rectangular filters. Best thing is to just one filter at the same time to avoid those issues.

Overview Of Most Popular ND Filters

There are many ND filter manufacturers, some produce only light ND filters, some produce a whole range of them. Some are very well known brands, some are lesser known. The filters come in different price ranges and in different sizes. Instead of listing them all here I will only list the more important brands here, how they perform and what I prefer.

  • Formatt-Hitech produces filters for video and photography and has every filter you could possibly think of, including a line of ND filters from 3 stops up to 16 stops, as circular screw on filters or as rectangular slide in filters, as separate filters or as complete, value for money kits. In August 2014 released the very neutral filter, the world’s first 16 stops ND filter without any noticeable color cast or vignetting at all, not even in poor light conditions. I’ve tested it extensively  and more , and I was very impressed with the absolute neutrality of it. The Firecrest line of ND filters are available as rectangular slide-in resin filters in the sizes 100x100mm or 165x165mm, that you can use with the aluminum  or , or, for the 165mm rectangular filters, with the to use it on wide angle bulgy lenses such as the or the . The Firecrest filters are also available as superslim circular glass filters (stackable 5.5mm rings) available in the sizes 72, 77 and 82mm. The circular filters will also be available as non-stackable ultraslim filters: 3mm rings which makes them the thinnest filters in the world, ideal for ultra wide angle lenses and even less vignetting. All filters, rectangular and circular Firecrest filters are, available in the densities 3, 6, 10, 13 and 16 stops Firecrest ND filters. The Firecrest filters are also available as complete ND filter kits, the . The older line of Prostop IRND filters are also still available and are all made from Resin and have slightly more color cast compared to the Firecrest filters. At this moment (October 2015) there’s a backlog in shipping the filters worldwide but Formatt-Hitech has been taken over by Kenko Tokina from Japan in October 2015 and this will ensure that Formatt-Hitech can meet market demands in time. If you want to purchase the Firecrest filters, then click .
  • B+W Produces some great filters that I’ve been using myself for years before Formatt-Hitech released their latest IRND filters. The are available only as circular screw on filters in any size and up to 10 stops. It’s very easy to stack a with a for example, thanks to the filter thread on both the front and the back of each filter. B+W filters are very reliable and have a slightly warm color cast that is also easy to correct in post.
  • for a few years the Lee filters have been one of the most popular filters on the market and pushed B+W from the number one spot in the ND filter market. Especially their so called have been in demand widely. They’re only available as rectangular filters to be used with a that’s also provided by Lee.  The Lee has a blue color cast which is easy to correct in post-processing. The only major disadvantage of the Lee Big Stopper is that ever since their release in 2010 they were out of stock everywhere in the world and hard to get. Another, smaller, disadvantage is that they’re not exactly 10 stops but more close to 11 stops. In 2014 Lee also released the to easily stack it with the 10 stops ND filter to make it 16 stops. But taking into account that the 10 stops is more close to 11 stops you would actually have almost 17 stops of ND filtration which would require very long long exposure times – a bit too long to my taste.
  • Singh-Ray filters are among the most expensive filters in the market but they have a great range of filters. Until recently they didn’t have ND filters with more than 8 stops but they have hit back with their recent release of a 1o stops and even a . Definitely something to consider seriously but the high price will be an obstacle to many. Singh-Ray also have a with adjustable stops varying from 1 to 8 stops. The disadvantage with variable ND filters is that they’re constructed from polarizing filters that are placed on top of each other and will filter the light out as if they’re neutral density filters. This can lead to some strange and unpredictable results when using those vari ND filters. I would always recommend going for solid and fixed neutral density filters.
  • The rest – There are a lot of other brands out there, some with absolute horrible color cast and poor construction, others with a good price-quality ratio. Hoya for example is a brand that produces some fantastic filters, especially Infra Red filters but their is very usable but with just not enough ND stops.
Firecrest 16 stops nd filter 77mm

The very neutral  circular screw on filter. The circular screw on filters come as superslim and ultraslim filters that will reduce vignetting significantly at very wide angles.

lee big stopper 10 stops nd filter

The rectangular filter which in practice is more close to 11 stops. It has a slight blue cast that can be corrected easily in post production.


Lenses in long exposure photography

For long exposure photography no specific lenses are needed. But in general wide angle lenses are used most of the times in long exposure photography and longer lenses less often. There are several reasons for this.

  • The typical use of long exposure photography is in landscapes, seascapes and architectural photography, and to include moving objects in those scenes such as skies and water. Those genres usually are the domain of wider angle lenses to capture the entirety of a specific scene.
  • The longer the lens, the more sensitive the whole setup will be to vibrations. Shooting long exposure photographs for example with a 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens is not impossible but they’re more likely to fail, especially in windy conditions than when using a 24mm lens. In those conditions when zooming in with a 200mm lens and with the camera and lens on a tripod, you will already see that the scene is constantly moving and cannot made fixed and still. But even in less windy conditions when you think the lens is stable and the scene isn’t moving, it will only take a few windy moments during your long exposure shot to fail the end result. The whole setup is simply more prone to vibrations. I’ve been photographing a lot of long exposure photographs in very windy conditions with a wide angle lens at the beach with great and sharp results. If I’ve tried that with my telephoto lens then perhaps 90% of the shots would have failed due to vibrations in the lens. But if you manage to set up your camera with long lens on a very stable platform in which the lens is supported securely and stable as well, then you might be more successful. Roughly speaking, and depending on the type of lens, there shouldn’t be a problem shooting long exposures with lenses up to 50mm. Those are relatively compactly built lenses. As soon as you need to extend your lens then it’s going to be less stable. Again, this doesn’t mean that longer lenses than 50mm aren’t going to work for long exposure photography, but as a rule of thumb I would say that anything longer than 70mm is going to be increasingly difficult but not impossible.

Lenses I would recommend for long exposure photography are solidly and compactly built lenses, preferably prime lenses but wide angle zoom lenses will also work very well. Any lens you would also use for shooting landscapes or seascapes or architecture in normal situations without the intention to shoot long exposure, will do. At this moment I’m almost exclusively using my manual with fantastic results, but I’ve also used the without any problem for long exposure photography.

Just make sure that if you use to cover the lens with an old lens bag for example to prevent the light from leaking in through the lens. Tilt-shift lenses are usually not built for long exposure photography and will leak light through the hinges and other openings of a typical tilt-shift lens.

using a lensbag as a cover

Basically, any lens can be used for long exposure photography, but if you use a tilt-shift lens like this one from Canon, you will need to cover the lens with a dark cloth or, what I prefer, with an old lens bag, to prevent light from leaking in through the T-S mechanism in the .

canon ef 70-200mm lens

The telephoto zoom lens is a fantastic lens with a very solid construction, but not the ideal lens for long exposure photography in windy conditions: too much visible vibration.

carl zeiss 15mm f/2.8 lens

A wide angle lens, and even more a prime lens, like this manual focus lens, are the ideal lenses for long exposure photography. But any other wider lens should do fine.

Other Useful Accessoires


Many photographers use polarizer filters also in combination with ND filters. The great thing about polarizer filters is that not only do they give a little color boost, but also reduces the light with 2 additional stops. There are two types of polarization filters: the circular polarizer (CP) and the linear polarizer (LP). There is some talk that a LP filter isn’t suitable for DSLR’s, it seems to disable the auto focusing of your camera and the built in light metering. I can’t say for a fact whether that is true or not. But why risk it? Just use a CP. Besides, most polarization filters are CP. Also know that the so called variable ND filters are based on the concept of 2 polarizing filters to reduce the light. It’s therefore recommended if you use a variable ND filter to not use it in combination with a polarizer filter because the outcome will be very unpredictable.

Step Up And Step Down Rings

A lot of people who use circular screw on filters will encounter the problem that one size doesn’t fit all. So your newly bought 10 stops ND filter worth $ 100 or more, does fit your 82mm wide-angle, but not your 77mm zoom lens. There’s a quick and easy remedy to this:  using step up/down rings. A step up/down ring is a thin ring that you mount onto the front of your lens. You can screw your ND filter onto the ring.

You use a step up ring to fit a filter onto a lens that has a smaller diameter than the filter. For example: using a 77mm ND filter on a 58mm lens. There won’t be any vignetting, since the filter is bigger than the lens.

You use this ring to fit a filter onto a lens that has a bigger diameter than the filter. For example: using a 58mm ND filter on a 77mm lens. This will cause vignetting. As stated here before: it’s a quick and easy fix. But don’t expect any miracles for that kind of price. It’s better to buy one large diameter ND circular filter that can fit to your largest lens without using a step-up ring and will fit all your smaller lenses with the step-up ring to avoid vignetting.

Remote Shutter Release

Another important accessory is a remote that locks. You simply cannot do long exposure photography if you don’t have a remote shutter release. If you manually press down the shutter button, the camera moves just a little bit which results in unsharp pictures. And of course you don’t want to keep pressing that shutter button for 5 minutes or longer when taking long exposure photographs. It really doesn’t matter if you buy a $ 400 dollar wireless remote with multiple functions or a simple $ 10 dollar no brand remote. As long as it remotely presses and depresses the shutter button and it can lock the shutter button.

Black Tape

Yes black tape. Probably the cheapest accessory in your bag but also one that can save you a lot of frustration. Use it to cover the view finder to prevent the light from leaking in if your camera doesn’t come with a built-in cover like the Nikons. Use it to tape your lens bag around your tilt-shift lens. And there are so many other uses when out in the field. Light-leakage is the most common mistake beginners make and it will show in your photo as a strange overexposed purple or magenta-like area in your photo. Most of the times, that is light leaking into your camera. Remember that most cameras are not specifically built for long exposure photography.

Long Exposure Photography Quick Reference Guide

A high resolution, downloadable and printable long exposure infographic or quick reference card with optimal settings, featuring the most important and relevant practical information when shooting out in the field.

The most important practical information available in this tutorial have been narrowed down to a visual representation or infographic, called Long Exposure Quick Reference Card with Optimal Settings, that you can download and print to bring with you as a handy reference when shooting in the field. It’s a high resolution long exposure quick reference card with only the most used and most relevant information and tips and, what I also believe, most optimal settings for long exposure photography. All on one page. So instead of presenting a large amount of long exposure times, including useless and unrealistic times, like in the simple but detailed Long Exposure Photography Exposure Times table in this tutorial, I’ve only included the most relevant times and filter types. It needs to be mentioned that this is a quick reference card not only for beginners and more advanced long exposure photographers but it’s also designed for long exposure photography workshop instructors who want to give their students a (hopefully) easy to understand and portable quick guide to bring with them when shooting out in the field. Of course it doesn’t have all possible information. For example: I’ve only included exposure times and suggestions for the most commonly used ND filters and I’ve also only included the realistic exposure times with personal suggestions what the best exposure times are, depending on the time of day and light conditions. If for example, on one hand you live in an area with very bright light conditions and you only have a 6 stops ND filter then the best you can get at daytime is just an exposure of less than 1 second, which is not enough for the type of long exposure photography I propagate. But if you go out shooting at night on the other hand, then the 6 stops ND filter is very useful. Another example: a 16 stops ND filter is great for any type of daytime long exposure photography (and a filter I use all the time) but it’s not useful for nighttime long exposure photography and a 10 stops is ideal when shooting at dusk or dawn or whenever light conditions are poor.  What you can also see from the quick reference card is that a 10, 13 and 16 stops ND filter is the best set of filters to cover anything during daylight under any condition and part of the evening as well. This type of information will all be visible in the quick reference card and it’s the way I’ve designed this card: to get quick and clear insight how long you can shoot with what settings and ND filters.

If you need to know more or don’t know how to start, then I would strongly suggest reading the full tutorial in this post first, then print this quick reference card and then go out shooting!

TIP: to download the high resolution 3.7Mb file. 

quick reference chart for long exposure photography

Please don’t copy and distribute this quick reference card without referring to the original author and copyright owner ( – Joel Tjintjelaar)


TIP: to download the high resolution 3.7Mb file. 

Please don’t copy and distribute this quick reference card without referring to the original author and copyright owner ( – Joel Tjintjelaar)


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