Empower Your Portfolio with Long Exposure Portraits

Do you want to add game-changing portraits to your wedding portfolio? Are you looking for ways to knock the socks off your destination photography clients? Or do you just love making WOW-factor photographs that push you creatively and challenge your technical skills?

Long exposure photography is your new best friend – and you don’t need wildly-expensive tools or years of experience to try it!

We’ll guide you through four long exposure portraits styles you can create using tools you (probably) already have.

Pro Tip: Never even heard of long exposure photography? Learn the basics with one of these terrific tutorials:
How To Set Up Your Camera For Long Exposure Photography (DigitalRev)
8 Tips for Long Exposure Photography (Adorama)
Tips and Tricks for Long Exposure Photography (Adorama)

Photo by Mike Allebach

“Pop of Light” Portrait

Mike’s settings:

5 seconds
ISO 400
Time of day: late sunset

What you need:

  • Tripod
  • Flash
  • Remote Trigger (optional)

Choose your scene, and place your camera and tripod accordingly. In a Pop of Light portrait, your long exposure will brighten the scene, and the pop of your flash will expose your subject. (You’ll still ask them to hold still, but it’s okay if they don’t quite nail it. The flash will freeze any minor movements!)

In these portraits, the flash is hidden in the front seat of the car, and bounces off the ceiling to fill the car with light. In close quarters like in these portraits, manually setting your flash to its lowest power (e.g. 1/128th power) would likely provide plenty of light, but you may need to experiment with different power levels and camera long exposure settings depending on the type of flash you’re using.

If you have a remote trigger, you can trigger the flash yourself when you press the shutter release button to take these portraits.

If you DO NOT have a remote trigger, show your client how to press the flash test button, and signal to them to press it after you’ve clicked the shutter. Your shutter will be open long enough that there will be plenty of time for the flash to fire while you take these portraits. It doesn’t matter when you fire the flash during the long exposure.

Pro Tip: ONLY your ISO and f-stop (aperture) impact the long exposure from your flash. If your flash is too bright in your portraits but you can’t power it down any further, you can

  • A) lower your ISO to reduce your camera’s sensitivity to light, or
  • B) close down your aperture to a higher f-number to let less light in.

You’ll notice then that your scene has become darker overall. That’s okay! Just drag your shutter speed even longer. (Your camera is on a tripod, after all! It doesn’t matter if your shutter stays open for 5 seconds or 50!) Remember: a slow shutter speed does not impact the long exposure of your flash. A slow shutter speed only impacts the long exposure of ambient light or existing light. This is because your flash’s light lasts for the same amount of time, regardless of your shutter speed or how long your shutter is open.

Photo by Ara Roselani

Ethereal Landscape

Whether you’re photographing landscapes for editorial or personal use, or setting the scene for an event you’re documenting, nothing captures the mood of a magical landscape like a long exposure.

Ara’s settings:

45 seconds
ISO 100
Time of day: early evening

What you need:

  • Tripod
  • ND (Neutral Density) Filter (optional)

Choose your scene and set your tripod. You may wish to shoot in the early evening, like Ara did, to capture more detail in the shadows, while still enjoying the softer ambient light of the coming night. To achieve this, you’ll want to use an ND filter, which reduces the ambient light reaching your film or sensor, allowing you to make long exposure even before nightfall.

If you don’t have an ND filter, wait until dark to make that 45” long exposure!

Pro Tip: Don’t have a tripod on hand? Rest your camera on another solid surface! Tripods give you the most control over your angle and composition, but any stable surface can work in a pinch.

Photo by Anne Simone

The Venue At Twilight

My settings:

25 seconds
ISO 400
Time of day: one hour after sunset

What you need:

  • Mini Tripod
  • Willingness to lie in the grass

Photographed from a low angle, this long exposure highlights a wedding venue after sunset, before full dark has set in. The 25” long exposure enhances the brightness of the moon and the late evening sky’s colors; and at f/16, every corner of the photograph is crisp.

Nighttime venue photographs can be a great way to close out an album for couples who don’t have a grand departure, or who don’t book you through the end of their reception.

Pro Tip: If your image is too dark or too bright after your first attempt, think carefully about which of your settings you’ll change:

Your photo is too bright:

  • Decrease your ISO – if it’s not already on its lowest setting (usually ISO 100).
  • Decrease your exposure time. If you’re shooting at 30 seconds, try 25 seconds instead. Changing your exposure time will also change the amount of motion blur you capture, so if a bit of blur is your intention (as when photographing a waterfall, for example), make note of any differences.
  • Close down your aperture. Changing your aperture from f/11 to f/5.6 will reduce the light reaching your image by two stops – but it will also decrease your depth of field. Be sure your focus is sharp!

Your photo is too dark:

  • Try the opposite of the tips listed above!

Photo by Mike Allebach

“Paint with Light” Portrait

Even the least fantastic space can be transformed with this creative lighting technique!

Mike’s settings:

10 seconds
ISO 400
Time of day: photographed indoors at midday

What you need:

  • Tripod
  • LED Flashlight

Instruct your clients to stay very still for these long exposure portraits, since there is no flash to “freeze” them in the long exposure photograph. Instead, your flashlight creates both the light on the subject and the unique swirls of light swimming around them!

  • Aim the flashlight at your camera lens to capture the “painted” light streaks.
  • Direct the light at your subjects to illuminate them! For more on painting with light, read here:

Beginners Guide To Light Painting (Digital Photography School)
Basic Guide To Light Painting Photography (PetaPixel)
How To Paint With Light (LifeHacker)

Pro Tip: Your tripod may sway when you press the shutter on your camera, so enable your camera’s self-timer. This gives your tripod time to “settle down” after you press the button, so you won’t have any unwanted motion blur in your final long exposure portraits.

Can’t get enough of light painting? Duplicate the header photo, also by Mike Allebach, with a fun little gadget called the PixelStick! Mike shot the header image with these settings: f/11, 10 seconds, ISO 400, after dark.

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