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For most shooting situations, you want a fast shutter speed. You want your subject to be tack sharp, and you don't want any blur creating a distraction in your image. However, there are times when using a slow shutter speed can create a much more interesting photograph, particularly in landscape photography. To get these long exposures, simply stop down your aperture to allow for slower shutter speeds, or, if it's still too bright, use an ND filter to reduce the amount of incoming light.
Smooth, Flowing Water
This is one of the most common reasons for using a long exposure in landscape photos. If you take a fast shot of a stream, waterfall, or any other flowing water, it often looks chunky. You're freezing the motion of the water which results in a muddle of clear and reflected spots, which usually isn't very beautiful. However, if you slow your shutter speed down to a few seconds or more, the water will begin to blur and create a smooth gradient. This look is much more eye-pleasing. The longer your shutter speed is, the smoother the water will look, but don't forget to keep the rest of your scene in mind. A 30-second exposure might make a waterfall look beautiful, but might end up blurring the leaves on the surrounding trees too.
These are created from moving sources of light during a long exposure. The moving light will create a streak across the frame that follows the light's movement. The most common objects used for capturing light streaks includes vehicles and stars. Cars can offer straight or curvy lines, depending on the road they're driving on. If it's a busy street, using a long exposure will capture a series of light streaks from the car's headlights and taillights which can light up an otherwise dim road. Stars, on the other hand, will always create an arc across they sky as the earth rotates. Star streaks can create a very dynamic image, especially when the foreground is properly exposed.
Clouds can also be blurred, much like water can, though it often takes a much longer shutter speed to capture cloud movement. This adds some life to the photo, as everything isn't captured as a freeze frame. This works best when there are only a few uninteresting clouds floating in the sky. Instead of capturing them as they are, you can lengthen your exposure and capture the clouds' movement as they stretch across the frame.
There are some times when you may need to use a slower shutter speed out of necessity. When the sun sets, you loose a lot of your light, but you may still have enough to take some shots if you use a long exposure. Pre-dawn or dusk settings my require you to use a longer shutter speed, but oftentimes your foreground will be much darker than the sky. This creates a huge contrast in which you may end up blowing out the highlights or creating black shadows. To counter this, try using a graduated ND filter. These filters are dark at the top and clear on the bottom. Positioning these filters correctly will allow you to cut the light coming in from the sky and reduce the contrast of your scene.
Blurred subjects are not always bad. Occasionally, showing movement in a scene can add life to the photo. This may involve blurred fields of wheat as the wind blows through the stalks or blurry streaks of red and yellow as autumn leaves fall off a tree during the changing season. The key here is simply experimentation. Sometimes long exposures work, and sometimes they don't. But you often won't know until you try.
Written by Spencer Seastrom