How To Create Long Exposure Photographs Without Using ND Filters

Long Exposure Tutorial

Keen on creating beautiful long exposure photographs, but don’t have the available ND filters needed to limit the amount of light reaching your sensor? Well, there is a simple method that can be used to very closely mimic the look of a long exposure.

Firstly, the reason why ND filters are important for daytime long exposure photography is to heavily limit the amount of light that reaches your camera’s sensor. This allows for the shutter to remain open for far longer periods of time without heavily overexposing or completely blowing out an image. Even by setting your camera to the lowest ISO and narrowest aperture, you just wouldn’t be able to limit the amount of light enough to be able to capture a long exposure. This is, of course, unless it was night time, in which case, you would be able to do so, in most cases, without filters.

How This Method Works

The process behind this method is simple!

You’ll take multiple short exposures of your chosen scene, capturing the same movement you would via a single long exposure. From here it’s simply a matter of merging them all together via an automatic function within Photoshop.

It’s also worth mentioning that some cameras do have a feature that will allow you to merge multiple shots into a single photo, eliminating the need for the Photoshop step.

Here’s What You’ll Need

As with a normal long exposure shot, you’ll need the following pieces of gear:

A Sturdy Tripod:It’s important to ensure that there is no movement, from your end, in the sequence of shots you’ll be taking. As such, you’ll want your camera set up on a tripod or placed on top of a solid object to prevent any movement.

Remote Shutter Release or Intervalometer: Although not required, it would be helpful to use a remote shutter release. Since you’ll be taking anywhere from 5 to 50, or more, single shots, you’ll want to eliminate any possibility of the movement and vibration that usually comes from physically pressing the shutter button.

If you don’t have a remote shutter, turn on the 2-second self-timer for your camera. This way you can press the shutter release button while allowing 2 seconds for any shake or movement to subside before the shutter opens. Be careful not to physically bump or move the position of your camera each time you hit the button.

Alternatively, if you shoot with a WiFi enabled Canon, you can download the Canon Camera Connect App from the iTunes App Store or Android Play Store. The app offers full control of your camera, from your phone.

Adobe Photoshop & Lightroom: Aside from having the aforementioned gear, you’ll also need access to Adobe Photoshop and, optionally, Adobe Lightroom. I’d assume that a similar effect can be achieved in comparable post processing software, so if you don’t use either of these, it would be worth reading below to see if the software you use has a similar function.

Capturing Your Sequence

As mentioned, the goal here is to capture multiple short single exposures, in the same manner you would when taking a timelapse. Afterwards, each of the images will be merged, or stacked, with Photoshop to create a single image.

You have two options when it comes to taking these.

Firstly, you can opt to just fire away and capture as many individual frames as you like. There’s no set number of shots to take, as this will differ depending on your location and how quickly things, such as clouds, are moving. As a rule of thumb, I generally take a minimum of 20 shots, with 1-2 second breaks between. This ensures that there is at least some natural movement or change in the scene between each shot.

The other option, a little more technical, will see you set out an exact number of shots to take, depending on how long of an open shutter you wish to mimic. This requires a little calculation, based on the shutter speed you’ll be shooting at, as shown in the following example:

If you want to mimic the look of a 2-minute long exposure, and you’re shooting at a shutter speed of 1 second, you would need to take a total of 120 individual photos, without a delay between each. Alternatively, you could drop this down to just 60 shots, with a 1 second delay between each.

Pretty simple right?

Import and Edit

Now that you’ve captured your sequence of images, it’s time to turn them into a single photograph.

It’s worth mentioning that the following workflow is just how I like to do it, but there are probably another couple of ways to achieve the same thing. This involves making my desired minor edits and adjustments to the images via Lightroom, before stacking them in Photoshop.

To start with, import all of your images via Lightroom. Make sure that you create a new, named and dated, folder for easy access to the RAW files when we get to the Photoshop step. From here, select just the first photo within your sequence and make your desired edits.

Edit Long Exposure

Once you’re happy with your edits, you can sync them with each of the other images within your sequence. To do this, highlight all of the images, making sure your edited image is the first in the sequence, and click on the “Sync” button underneath the right hand side develop settings. A pop-up will appear, ensure all options are ticked before clicking on the “Synchronize” button. The sync process should only take a few minutes depending on how many images are in your sequence.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to worry if there is a change in exposure between shots, particularly if you shot at sunrise or sunset. This won’t matter due to the way Photoshop stacks the images.

Stacking Your Images

Remember the folder that you set-up when importing your RAW files?

It’s time to find it so that we can pull all of the images into Photoshop.

Find just the first image within your sequence and open in Photoshop. Right Click > Open With > Adobe Photoshop. You’ll be greeted with Photoshop’s Camera Raw Filter screen, where you’ll need to click on “Open Image” in the bottom right-hand corner. Once you’ve done this, open your folder of images again, select all of them, except the first, drag them into the Photoshop document, and drop them on top of the first image. Camera Raw Filter will open for each image being added, where you’ll need to click on “Ok” to add each of them to your file.

TIP: Due to the size of RAW files, and particularly if you have more than a handful of shots, this process can be quite slow and take up a lot of your machine’s resources. If you’re running on an older machine, or just want to speed things up, you can export your sequence of shots from Lightroom as .JPG’s, resizing to a smaller overall size, and then drop them into Photoshop.

We’re almost finished.

Select all of the newly created layers in the right-hand side Layers panel, right click on any of them and select “Convert To Smart Object” from the drop down menu. This will move all of the images into a single object while still retaining access to the individual layers.

And now, for the final step.
Ensure that you have your smart object layer selected and then click on the “Layer” menu option, then “Smart Objects > Stack Mode > Mean” from the drop down menu. This will stack and merge each of the images from your original sequence, creating a single long exposure. Be mindful, depending on how many images you had, the process could take a few moments.

The result?
Here’s an example of an image created from a sequence of 150 individual photographs.

Long Exposure Tutorial