Long exposure photography makes for some of the coolest photos out there. It’s an incredibly flexible technique, too. It’s utilizable both to brighten dark places and to smooth out movement. You can even do long exposure on a mobile phone to snap a shot of the Milky Way or capture star trails.
Seriously, it’s not just for professional photographers, either! Anyone can do a long exposure with the smartphone already in their pocket.
We’re going to take you through every step of taking a long exposure photograph on your phone, so read on to bring your phone photography to the next level.
What is Long Exposure? How Can I Do Long Exposure on a Smartphone?
So, let’s learn what long exposure is and how to do it on our smartphones, shall we? First, we’ll go over how traditional long exposure gets done (i.e., the technical side of how it’s done on a DSLR or mirrorless).
Then, we’ll explain how the term long exposure can be a bit ambiguous. Fortunately, the ambiguity of the term makes the practice of long exposure pretty useful. We’ll tell you why we mean what we mean.
The short version of long exposure is this – just leave the shutter open for longer and receive more light.
The extended version is a little more complicated. The shutter is, more or less, a curtain that covers the sensor of your camera. In a standard photograph, the shutter is open for around 1/160th of a second. The sensor absorbs light for that brief period and is then covered again, and the picture is processed.
Phones, and many professional cameras, don’t have a physical shutter. They use an electrical shutter, a combination of software and sensor hardware that emulates a traditional shutter by “rolling down” the sensor.
There are pros and cons to both shutters, of course. The mechanical shutter does eventually wear out and has to get replaced, whereas electrical shutters don’t expire. Mechanical shutters generally can reach a higher shutter speed, though.
Long exposure is any shot where you set the shutter to stay open longer than that standard 1/160th-ish.
It’s not a well-defined term. There’s no mandatory minimum shutter speed to be considered long exposure.
However, there is rarely a reason to take a photo with, say, a 5-second exposure. The only reason to use a long exposure, in this case, would be in a very dim environment and taking a still photo but didn’t want to increase ISO (since that would make your image grainy).
Typically, long exposures will be anywhere from 30-seconds to 30 minutes. It depends on the subject of your photo and the effect for which you’re looking.
Take astrophotography, for example. If you look at the sky with your eyes, you can usually see stars dimly. In a remote place, you can faintly see the Milky Way.
We continuously process light as it hits our retina. A camera sensor keeps gathering light and laying it on the image it’s creating the whole time the shutter is open. Unlike our eyes, it captures the cumulative effect of all the light in that timeframe.
So a 30-second exposure aimed at the night sky will result in a picture with incredibly bright stars and clearly-defined nebulae in the Milky Way.
But if you exposed it for much longer than that, the stars would form trails. You’re capturing the rotation of the earth relative to those stars. You can see by the trails how much the earth has spun since you started taking the picture. How crazy is that?
Necessary Equipment for Long Exposure on Cell Phones
Tripods for Long Exposure
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For starters, a tripod.
You’ll need something to hold your phone steady during the exposure – and your hands aren’t it. Even if you have the steady hands of a brain surgeon, there are micro-tremors you can’t detect. The phone sure can, though.
It’s not just vibrations from your hand, either. You’ll probably sway slightly without realizing it. Hands simply don’t cut it for any exposure longer than a couple of seconds.
So, yeah, get a tripod that’s compatible with your phone. There are lots of tripods that are small and collapsible, so it’ll be easy to carry with you. I’d recommend one of the ones that are also flexible. Being able to attach the phone to a surface other than the ground can get you some unique angles.
Are you not convinced? Here’s our manifesto on why tripods are essential for any mobile photographer. If you are convinced, check out this list of our favorite tripods.
Remote Camera Shutters for Long Exposure
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Consider using a remote camera shutter. Tapping the screen to start your exposure starts your photograph with vibration – kind of defeats the point of a tripod, huh?
Not to mention that remote camera shutters are the best way to get selfies while preserving your dignity. You can set up your camera (on a tripod), do your brooding, enigmatic pose, and then click the photo. It’s perfect for people with an inflated sense of self-importance or those that don’t have any friends to take pictures of them.
We’ve written a whole post about why you need a smartphone camera remote too if you aren’t convinced.
For real though, if we’re talking long exposure, they’re handy. It’s an easy way to get yourself or another human subject in the shot without introducing unnecessary movement. Or, for example, if you want to do some light painting while you’re shooting.
Lenses for Long Exposure
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Lastly, you’ll probably want some sort of lens. A smartphone camera lens isn’t intrinsically necessary for this type of shot, but you’re probably going to be using one anyway. There are as many lenses for smartphone cameras as there are for regular cameras, and some are equally powerful.
If you’re aiming to do some long exposure astrophotography on your phone, grab a wide-angle lens. That’s also an excellent lens for landscape photography, which are two of the most common long exposure shots.
Since long exposure shots gather so much light, images taken during the day often get washed out. You can combat this by shooting at twilight, or by using a neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light.
Here’s our guide to smartphone lens filters. They’re an invaluable tool that open up a lot of types (and times) of photography.
Long Exposure on a Smartphone with Manual / Pro Mode
The first step to actually taking the photo is to access your phone’s manual photography mode.
- Instructions for Shooting in Manual Mode on iPhone: It’s a weird workaround. You have to turn on Live Photos, take a shot, then go to photos to check the option to turn it into a long exposure. Instead of putting the frames after one another to make a mini video, it layers them all into a one-second long exposure. It’s not a great substitute, so we’d recommend using a third-party app. One of 2020s newest iPhones won’t have this problem, though.
- Instructions Shooting in Manual Mode on Android Phones: Pretty straightforward, actually. Just open your native camera app and swipe from left to right. It should open a menu that shows all kinds of picture modes: Sport, Panorama, Auto, Portrait, etc. One of those will be called Pro mode or Manual Mode – that’s the one.
However, many older iPhones (and a few Android phones) don’t support manual shutter adjustment. The ability to change shutter speeds is only present on newer iPhones and has only come standard on Androids in recent years.
If this makes you think you need to upgrade your smartphone, then check out our guide to all the smartphones released since the iPhone 8.
You can work around those silly, arbitrary limitations by downloading a third-party camera app.
Photo Apps for Long Exposure
The native photography software of some phones is incredibly shallow. It hides a lot of features like adjusting shutter speed or ISO from the user while letting the camera adjust them automatically.
Don’t allow yourself to be handicapped by the whims of the manufacturer. Grab an app that will enable you to use the full facilities of your phone.
Here’s a list of some of the best third party apps for photography.
If you’d like to compare a bunch of apps, you should click the link above. Here are our top picks, though:
Android (Google Play): HD Camera has a full customization and editing suite. It allows you to adjust all the aspects of your shot manually.
iPhone (iTunes Store): Camera+ 2 is recently rebuilt and ready to take your iPhone photography to the next level. It brings manual control to iPhones, which is a sorely needed feature. It also includes a powerful editor.
How to Compose Long Exposure Photographs
Once you know how to get the long exposure effects, we need to be sure you’re composing your shots correctly too. Arguably, the photo’s composition is the most crucial piece of the puzzle, so you’ll want to be sure to think about it a lot when setting up your shot. The rules of photo composition are largely the same for long exposure photography, so if you need the basics, then check this out.
Remember, because each shot takes longer, you’re going to be able to take fewer shots. As a result, you need to make sure each one counts. So, with that in mind, let’s go over the rules of photo composition for long exposure with a smartphone.
Motion and Long Exposure
Long exposure photographs are generally used to capture motion and “smooth it.” That means that your shot should have some element of action in it. In nature or landscape photography, motion is found:
- In the sky – Clouds. It works best if the air is mostly full of clouds. If there are just a few big ones on a blue backdrop, a long exposure will simply make them blurry. Certain clouds, like cirrus clouds, tend to be expansive, thin, and wispy. They move in and over themselves, creating great motion for long exposure. Stars, or astrophotography. You can indeed capture the motion of the stars in star trails. With a (relatively) shorter exposure, you’re just capturing more light.
- In the water – Water moves. Pretty much all the time. The only exception is very small bodies like puddles or tiny ponds. Relatively low-movement bodies, such as a lake, will average out to a glassy, smooth surface. Rivers and waterfalls form bright, tangled streams of light and color.
Elements of Long Exposure
The key to a well-composed long exposure photo is simplicity. The blur-effect of motion already adds “busyness” to a photo, so you want to omit anything else that might draw the eye.
To keep it simple, limit the components of your photo to 2 or 3 elements:
- Sky and/or Water
It’s important not to overwhelm your image. That’s counterproductive to the whole philosophy of long exposure – to take chaos and motion and subdue it.
The subject of a long exposure photograph is often the object in motion, but it doesn’t have to be. A tree in the middle of the water is an example of a non-moving long exposure subject.
If that tree in the middle of the water looks too dull in your shot, try framing it with some other part of the landscape (tree branches, for instance). An out-of-focus frame will remove negative space from your composition without adding busyness.
Editing Long Exposure Photographs on Phone – Get a Top Class Photo Editing App
For Android: Use Snapseed. It’s an incredibly powerful and easy-to-use photo editor. It blows away the competition. Best of all, it’s free.
For iPhone: Also use Snapseed. For all the reasons above. You can’t go wrong.
Post-Processing Long Exposure on Phone
The good news is that long exposure images generally need minimal editing. The blur that’s introduced usually equalizes any extreme contrast (which is generally fleeting anyway).
The main thing to look at is exposure. With that much light being absorbed, there’s a good chance part of your image is washed out—experiment with only changing the exposure levels in parts of the image.
Although we generally frown on filters for being amateurish, a lot of long exposure photos simply look better in sepia tones or black & white. It adds to the simplicity of the photos and enhances the effect of flowing clouds or water.
If you’re using Snapseed, take advantage of the healing wand tool to remove clutter from the image – things like telephone poles or poorly-placed trees.
Lastly, try adding a light vignette. In images without a natural frame, it draws the eyes to the center and to the subject.
Long Exposure Techniques to Try
Here are a few of our favorite types of long exposure shots. How many have you done?
This style of photography is just what it sounds like – taking pictures of space! Many shots of this type use the gorgeous Milky Way Galaxy as their subject. These photos aren’t hard to take; the tough part is to find an area with no light pollution. All of the best astro shots are from the middle of the desert or the tops of mountains.
This is perhaps the artsiest of all photography techniques. Moving around a light in-frame, or playing with out-of-frame light sources, can create some incredibly unique photographs. It’s also mega-easy to do.
Here’s our guide on how to light paint with mobile phones!
You’ve probably never heard of solargraphy before; it’s pretty niche. The idea is to take a photo of the sun’s light as the subject. Usually, this involves some long exposures and almost always a pinhole camera (or some extreme filters). The effect is a lot like light painting, but somehow even more trippy.
Do you have any tips for long exposure photography on your phone? Cool pictures? Share them n the comments below!
4 thoughts on “Complete Guide: Long Exposure Photography on Smartphones”
“HD camera +” ??? cannot find one. Tons of options, but not match. Please give more info.
Looks like it was a faulty link. Should be all fixed now! Let me know if you have any other questions.
Been trying to work with long exposure phoyography on phones for a but now and I enjoyed your clear cut overview. Question for you though: you list HD camera as a good android app to do manual techniques with. As far as I can tell, after opening up all manual settings, the shutter speed only goes up to one second. Ni matter what I can the iso to or how dark the environment. The S9 I am using already goes up to 10 seconds so this is not an improvement. Am I missing something here?
Hey Jeremy – thanks for the kind words. When it comes to long exposure on Android, I’m going to break your heart and then hopefully provide a hack that’ll make it SOOOO easy for you – so stay with me.
In my experience making broad claims about Android cameras and photo apps is bad, so I’m sorry that you’ve been led astray. Some Android apps simply work better with other Android phones while others struggle. With my Google Pixel 3a, for example, I was blown away by how little was available to me in a third-party app like HD Camera or Filmic Pro. It was like the entire native camera app was so based on software that once you removed it from the native camera app software bubble the camera was next to useless.
Now, all that being said I wanted to take long exposures on my Pixel and to provide a relevant solution for all Android users. What I settled on was using the Night Mode as a quasi-long exposure (30 second – 3 minute shots that aren’t really long exposure but there’s a full video on our Youtube Channel). If you can keep the sensor open for 10 seconds, you can still get some awesome results (3 seconds will give you light trails). I have had multiple readers message me about the results from the Camera FV-5 app if you’re hardset on a longer exposure for something like astrophotography. I checked the device compatibility and you should be good, though, it is a paid app. I hope this helps – I’m happy to help with any other questions too!