Daytime long exposure photography may seem complex and challenging but this guide will help you go through all the basics for taking long exposures in daylight.
Understanding how to shoot daytime long exposure is essential to avoid mistakes since the beginning. Do you know the basic settings for daytime long exposure? Have you heard yet about the best ND filters for daytime long exposure? There are many things to consider before getting started!
Long exposure photography in daylight brings you the opportunity to capture scenes differently to the way we see things with our eyes, making them, on many occasions, more visually attractive.
Although taking daytime long exposures isn’t difficult, you must know the steps to follow to get the pictures you want. To help you out, in addition to our comprehensive guide to long exposure photography, I want to share some handy tips for taking long exposures in daylight.
I’ve made all the trial and error over the last years for you already, so you can save precious time reading this guide and the best daytime long exposure tips! Let’s get started!
How to take daytime long exposures
Let’s be clear, there is not a fixed method on how to do daytime long exposure photography. Every photographer has its own workflow and routine developed cautiously by time and practice. You will find your way eventually, but this step by step for daytime long exposure photography is a good starting point that will help you learn and develop your own workflow faster.
Specifically, here is the step by step for daytime long exposure photography:
- Scout, observe and analyze your surroundings: In daytime long exposure photography, it’s super important to observe the elements you want in your composition, like the movement of the clouds, streams of water, waves, cars…
- Place your camera on a tripod in a safe place: Make sure your tripod is stable and that it’ll be safe for the time that you are going to be shooting. Keep in mind any element that could harm your equipment like water, wind, or people hitting your tripod legs by mistake.
- Choose your composition: Predict the movement of the elements you want to incorporate into your photo and compose accordingly.
- Change your camera settings: Shoot in Raw, turn off the image stabilization, and attach the shutter release or turn on the delay mode in your camera. Set the base ISO of your camera (normally ISO 100) and use an aperture that ensures the best sharpness and a wide depth of field if you are shooting long exposure landscape photography (I usually start with an f/8, f/11).
- Focus: Make sure your focus is correct before attaching any filters to make it easier to focus on your camera and get sharp images. You can focus in manual or automatic mode, but once you have the perfect focus, leave the camera in manual focus mode.
- Take a test shot: Adjust the shutter speed setting so the light meter is 0 as explained in our guide on the exposure triangle. Then, take a test shoot to double-check your focus and the histogram of your photo. If everything is in focus and you are not clipping any darks or lights, take note or remember the shutter speed.
- Set up your ND Filter: Do it carefully so you don’t move your camera or the focus ring of your lens while placing your filters.
- Cover the viewfinder: To avoid any light leaks, cover your camera viewfinder using the cover or a black cloth.
- Calculate the exposure time: Use a long exposure calculator app to calculate the shutter speed needed depending on the filter you are using and the shutter speed from your test shot. This way, you will ensure you have the right exposure from the first time. If the result is longer than 30 seconds, you’ll have to change your camera to Bulb Mode and use a shutter release to trigger your shutter.
- Take the shot: Take the photo using the remote or the delay mode. Be patient, it’s easy to rush to see the final photo and one of the main mistakes is to stop the shutter before the required time, resulting in underexposed images. Double-check the focus and the histogram. If the daytime long exposure photo is too bright or too dark, go back, adjust, and repeat!
This is a flexible workflow. Depending on your long exposure photography gear and skills, you will skip some steps or add more. It’s just a matter of time and practice until you develop your own workflow.
Best settings for daytime long exposure
The camera settings for daytime long exposure don’t differ much from the generic photography basic settings, so a properly exposed photograph will be determined by the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
However, the most important setting in long exposure photography is the shutter speed, which is usually longer than usual.
The basic parameters you must consider when shooting daytime long exposure photography are:
- ISO: To get the best quality image avoiding digital noise and having the best dynamic range, you should use the native ISO in your camera. The native ISO is usually 100 or 200, but it can change depending on the model.
- Aperture: Choose an aperture between f8-f13. Working within these aperture values around the sweet spot of your lens, you’ll see the best quality and sharpest photos. I highly recommend not using apertures over f16 to avoid optical diffraction.
- Shutter speed: the core of daytime long exposure photography. You will have to adapt this setting depending on the shooting conditions and the ND filters that you are using. Don’t forget that if the exposure time that you need is longer than 30 sec., you’ll need to change your camera mode to Bulb and use a shutter release.
These settings are the basics to shoot daytime long exposure photography, but I also suggest reading this long exposure photography guide if you want to dive deeper into this topic.
Best ND filter for daytime long exposure
Using an ND filter for daytime long exposure photography is (almost) mandatory. Neutral Density filters block the harsh light that reaches your camera’s sensor, requiring to use a longer shutter speed.
The best filter for a daytime long exposure is the one that adapts better to the circumstances you are shooting in, and it will depend on your subject, light and the final result you have in mind.
The most common daytime long exposure ND filters are:
- 10-stop ND filter (ND 3): This is the most common ND filter in daytime long exposure photography. Thanks to this filter, you can take long exposures even in harsh light at noon, and it has a big visual impact on the images. It’s the perfect filter to create the minimalist and dreamlike atmospheres typical of long exposure photography.
- 6-stop ND filter (ND 1.8): If your goal is to keep some detail of the moving elements, then this is the lens filter for daytime long exposure to go. Ideal when shooting waterfalls or seascapes.
- 15-stop ND filter (ND 4.5): Generally used to capture daytime ultra-long exposure photographs, with exposure times over 5 minutes in daylight.
Some filter holders allow us to use 2 and 3 filters at the same time, so you can achieve a similar result using a 10 + 6-stop ND filters instead of a 15-stop ND filter. (Just make sure there are no light leaks between the filter gaps).
ND Filters are usually expensive, but even though you can find cheap filters, my recommendation is to invest in a good quality 10-stop ND filter for long exposure photography in daylight. If you want to know more about different types and brands, you can take a look at our in-depth guide to lens filters in photography.
Daytime long exposure photography tips
We have gone through the main basics of shooting long exposure photography in daylight, but we are not done yet. Daytime long exposure photography requires a lot of trial and error, and it can be frustrating when you first try it.
To help you succeed and enjoy it, below you’ll find some of the best daytime long exposure photography tips:
- Open your eyes: Before setting the tripod or taking any pictures, observe and analyze in advance what you have around to look for the best composition. It’s also helpful to avoid people walking in front of your camera when shooting very long exposures in daylight.
- Use a sturdy tripod: The most important gear for daytime long exposure photography. Check this article out to understand how important it’s to use a tripod while taking long exposure photos in daylight.
- Shoot in Raw: To get the best quality files. That way you’ll have more data to play within the post-processing.
- Turn off the Image Stabilization (IS): Otherwise, your lens will try to counteract any movement adding blur to your final photos.
- Look for any light leaks: Light leaks are very common in daytime long exposure photography. To avoid any unwanted flare in your photos, cover the viewfinder and the space between the ND filters.
- Focus before setting up the ND filters: Focusing with the filters on will be quite difficult as they block the light. So first of all, focus, then take a test shot to double-check the focus and lastly lock the autofocus off.
- Use a shutter release cable or the Exposure delay mode: To prevent any vibrations in your camera and blur in your photos. An intervalometer is another helpful accessory for daytime long exposure in order to set up more parameters besides the shutter speed.
- Use a long exposure calculator: There are a lot of helpful apps to calculate the shutter speed for your long exposure photos during the day. You can check how to use them and a couple of examples here.
- Reduce the noise in post-production: Taking daytime long exposure photographs with exposures over 5 minutes could create some noise in your photos because of the heat of the sensor. To minimize the noise, use low ISO’s. If your photos have some noise don’t worry, just take a look at the best noise reduction software here. Currently, I’m using Topaz DeNoise AI.
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Daytime long exposure photography without nd filter
Taking long exposure photography in daylight with no filters is challenging and you won’t have the same results than using an ND filter. However, if for any reason you are not able to use any filters, you can try this daytime long exposure settings without filter:
- Push down your ISO to the minimum of your camera (ISO 50 in Canon or ISO 32 with Nikon)
- Close your aperture to the minimum of your lens, like f22 or f36
With these settings, you can use a longer shutter speed, but keep in mind that it’ll result in less quality images due to optical diffraction and smaller dynamic Range in your photos.
Another alternative to do long exposure during the day without ND filter is taking a certain amount of photos of the same scene and merging them in Photoshop as a smart object with the blend mode “Median” or “Mean”.
Daytime long exposure photography ideas
Daytime long exposure photography is not just about knowing the right settings and having the proper gear. To succeed in taking long exposure photographs in daylight you have to go a step forward; visualizing and creating the photo you want in advance.
Having an idea of the final photo considering all the elements that you want to include in your photos is crucial. Being creative and trying new things will make your photos stand out from the rest of the daytime long exposure pictures.
Being creative isn’t always easy, so a good source of inspiration always helps.
To bring some inspiration, below you’ll find some daytime long exposure ideas:
Daytime long exposure photography will help you open a new world of photographic possibilities from a different point of view, and the best thing: capturing something that our eyes can’t see.
The creative opportunities using this technique are limitless and even though it could seem a challenging type of photography, knowing the basics like the camera settings for daytime long exposure or the best ND filters to take long exposures in daylight will help you take any image that you can imagine.
I really hope this daytime long exposure photography tutorial helps you and encourages you to go out and to try this fascinating genre.
Let us know if you have any questions on the comments below and don’t hesitate to share this guide if you think it could help other photographers interested in daytime long exposure photography!
JOSE LUIS CANTABRANA
Photographer & contributor
Jose is a photographer based in Sydney. He truly believes photography is all about interpreting emotions.
He is a “glass half full” kind of guy. His curiosity consumes him and keeps him wanting more. He will go to the edge of the cliff or the top of a mountain to capture the perfect moment; no fences will stop him. In fact, the more challenging the scenario, the more adrenaline he has, rushing through, pushing him forward.