Education Tutorial

Shooting long exposures without ND filter

October 8, 2015

There is a reason photographers love shooting water using extremely slow shutter speed aka long exposure. It’s because the motion of the water creates a silky smooth stream when shot at slow shutter speeds. It leads the viewer’s eye into the shot, creates energy and momentum in the shot. That’s why strong ND filters such as Lee Big Stopper or other 10-stop ND filters have become the de facto standard for long exposure photography.

© Christian Rey

Realistically speaking, there are reasons for a person to not carry a strong ND filter, cost being one of the most common of them all. High-quality ND filters of higher densities are expensive. To make things worse, a photographer generally needs more than one of different densities. In addition, lenses with larger diameter require larger filters which are even more expensive. Landscape lovers are the ones who suffer the most since they mostly use super-wide angle lenses. Popular lenses such as Samyang 14mm, Nikon 14-24mm, Tamron 15-30mm etc. have a bulging front element that does not accept circular filters and therefore require a specialized square filter system. Square filter systems cost hundreds of dollars and for most hobbyists, this is a huge deal breaker especially in the beginning.

© Arpan Das

So how do you get that smooth water effect without an ND filter? Let me tell you some secrets and cheats to do that.


Option 1: Shoot at Magic Hour

You can almost get away without an ND filter if you shoot your seascapes at sunrise, sunset or the blue hours. So get to your location, compose your shot and wait for the Sun to go down. Then do the following:

  • Use Aperture-priority “A” mode
  • Set your aperture to f/22 or the highest f-number your lens offers
  • Set the ISO to the lowest setting your camera allows
  • Take your shot

Before I proceed, let me show you a shot that I took on a cloudy winter afternoon. I didn’t have an ND filter but clouds were of help. The water was turbulent which helped as well. Here is what I got at f/11:

Image A – ISO 100, f11, ¼ sec

As you can see that the water doesn’t look very pleasing because the shutter speed is ¼ sec which is still too fast for the smooth effect I wanted. So I applied the technique mentioned above and changed my aperture to f/22. Here is what I got:

Image B – ISO 100, f22, 2.5 sec

Amazing, isn’t it? Just by changing the aperture to the highest f-number, I was able to slow down my shutter speed significantly.

But what if you were shooting into the Sun at sunset or sunrise? In that case, f/22 might still not give you a shutter speed above 1 to 2 seconds. So here is what you can do to double that exposure time:

  • Make sure your shooting format is Raw
  • Note down the shutter speed your camera suggests at f/22 (or highest f-number)
  • Now switch to manual mode “M”
  • Read below paragraph. Extremely important!

Now here is the fun part. Shooting in Raw format gives us the flexibility to recover detail in underexposed and over-exposed areas of an image. Depending on the camera sensor, the room for recovery would be different. For example, I have tested Nikon D800 and Canon 6D for highlight recovery. Canon 6D users can faithfully recover detail from upto 1.75 stops of over-exposed raw image. Nikon D800 users can recover detail from upto 2.25 stop over-exposed raw image. Nikon DSLR’s generally offer more flexibility in highlight recovery. Nonetheless most modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras offer ample room to recover detail in shadows and highlights, only if you shoot in Raw format. Now let’s put that knowledge to work for us.

  • After making a note of the shutter speed that the camera meter suggests and switching to manual mode, depending upon the highlight recovery ability of your camera raw file, decrease the shutter speed by 1 stop or more.

This allows you to double your exposure time or in case of Canon 6D, Nikon D750, D800/D810 etc. you can slow down your shutter speed by up to 2 stops. So if your camera’s exposure meter suggested a 2 second exposure, decreasing the shutter speed by 1 to 2 stops in manual mode will get you between 4 to 8 second of long exposure, all without an ND filter. 8 second is a good start for our next step.

Here is what I got applying the above technique:

Image C – ISO 100, f22, 8 sec (1.5 stop overexposed and recovered in ACR)

The above shot was deliberately overexposed by 1.5 stops to get a shutter speed of 8 seconds instead of the camera’s suggested shutter speed of 2.5 sec. I knew that I could push my exposure by 1.5 stops and would still be able to recover it in post, and that knowledge gave me the advantage on location to shoot without an ND. I didn’t go with using this image because the effect of water was identical between this shot (image C) and the one before (image B).

Finally, for those concerned about diffraction at high apertures, you can always take two shots, first one at your lens sweet spot to get the sharpest image corner to corner, and the second shot at f/22 to get smooth water effect. Later you can blend both in Photoshop to create a single image. Savvy?


Option 2: Shoot at Magic Hour + Blue Hour

If you don’t have the luxury of cameras such as a Canon 6D, Canon 5D Mk III, Nikon D7100, D600/D610, D800/D810, D750 or other capable cameras, you can do the following:

  • For sky, you can take your first shot at magic hour
  • To get a longer exposure for a smoother water effect, wait for the Sun to go below the horizon and take another shot with the same settings mentioned in Option 1

Now you have two separate shots, one for the Sun and sky, and another one just for the water in the foreground. You can now combine the two in Photoshop to get a seamless composition which has the best of both worlds.

© Ander Alegria


Enhancing Long Exposure Effect in Photoshop

Once you get your shots using the techniques mentioned above, you can further enhance the long exposure effect on water in Photoshop. Do the following:

  • Open your Raw file in Adobe Camera Raw
  • Select the adjustment brush and paint over the water area (see image D)
  • Lower the clarity value to -100

Image D – showing spot adjustment mask on water

Reducing clarity value softens details and create that misty, smooth look which mimics a shot taken using a strong density ND filter. You can also intensify the softening effect by applying spot adjustment brush on water multiple times.


More Examples

By now, your image should have a pleasant long exposure effect and a lot can be done in Photoshop to add drama and interest to an ordinary seascape.

Here is a shot I took at Sunset from the same location. This is unedited, unprocessed shot captured using the technique mentioned in Option 1.

Image E – SOOC, unedited, unprocessed

And after applying the above-mentioned technique in addition to many Curves, Levels, Hue/Saturation adjustments, dodging and burning, I was able to turn the same shot into a version that expressed my vision.

Image RE – Final processed version

And finally, here is the unedited, unprocessed, straight out of camera version of the cover shot.

Cover shot SOOC – unedited, unprocessed

Need I say more? Don’t limit yourself because of the gear. If you really want to achieve something, you will find a way… always. Happy shooting!



Hi, I am Hammad Iqbal, a professional photographer based in Doha. Welcome to the "HI Blog" where I share tutorials, tips and techniques about shooting and post-processing images using Lightroom and Photoshop. Follow my updates by subscribing to my newsletter and discover with me the art of photography and post-processing!

Newsletter Sign-up