How To Use Long Exposure To Create Stunning River Photos

Many photographers are using long-exposure photography to its full potential currently because of its ability to produce some of the most amazing images.

Long exposure works amazingly well for river photography since it can blur the water to the point that it basically looks like mist.

How To Use Long Exposure To Create Stunning River Photos

It produces these smooth and simple pictures that create some of the best minimalist fine art photography compositions. 

Now, most landscape photographers will already have extreme Neutral Density (ND) filters which allow them to blur the water.

And while there is certainly credit in using 10-stop ND filters, individuals can often forget that shorter exposure (which, don’t worry, is still long exposure) can also work amazingly well too.

Using this type of long exposure can create a very subtle sense of movement in the water which produces very visually interesting images. 

But overall, there are so many ways that long exposure can improve those amazing photographs of rivers, and in this article, we’re going to take a look at how you can use long exposure in your images and the things you’ll need to consider. 

Location & Planning

Okay, so the very first thing that you’ll need to do is plan. Planning is essential. You’ll want to figure out where exactly you are shooting your pictures and the time that you’re going to do so. 

You’ll likely be using slow shutter shots, and these work best in low-light situations, so you’ll want to be at your location either first thing in the morning or in the later evening around sunset.

In terms of weather, a cloudy overcast day will be your best friend for these long-exposure river photographs. 

Next, you’ll want to figure out where the water is faster moving. So, this might involve walking the route of the river for a while to figure out which area of the river is best for your photographs.

You’ll need speed of some kind so that there is enough movement to blur the water using the long exposure technique. 

Necessary Equipment

Right, so it’s imperative to know that long-exposure photography will always fail if the camera is shaky. It needs to be super sturdy and super still to produce the kind of image you’re hoping to achieve. 

Therefore, a decent tripod will be absolutely vital to this expedition. If you don’t have a tripod then you will need either a remote shutter release.

Failing that you’ll need to rely on your camera’s timer. You can’t really press the capture button manually as this is likely to wobble it and thus produce poor-quality images. 

You will also need a camera where you can control the settings as you’ll likely be experimenting with the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO when creating long exposures. 

Finally, ND filters are a great option. These allow you to keep the shutter open for longer.

There is a selection of different ND filters that you can choose from to assist your needs such as graduated filters that help balance the sky and foreground or reverse grad ND filters that are perfect for sunrise and sunset photographs.


Considering your composition for long-exposure photographs is an absolute must. And you need to think of things a little differently from usual.

Generally speaking, if you are taking long exposure photographs, you are hoping to achieve smooth minimalist photographs and so you’ll need to act accordingly. 

What this means is that, essentially, you need to keep things simple.  You’ll need to make sure that your focal point is clear and obvious and try to keep things as uncluttered as possible.

The image will be much more powerful and impactful if you keep a clear, strong, and simple composition. 

Often, opting for black and white images can work really well to reduce distractions. The other piece of advice we’d give you is to only incorporate things like a few rocks, foliage, or something similar in your image to keep things nice and simple. 

Composition Suggestions

Steady Subjects

Since the river will be moving, having a steady component can really help make the image stand out. It allows you to still have something sharp and in focus and this actually only helps to achieve a spotlight effect on the moving water.

It also shows the intentional technique used and provides evidence that you haven’t just blurred the entire image. 

Natural Elements

Incorporating natural elements into river photography also works really well. And you’ll never be amiss of natural elements to use. Rocks, logs, branches, trees, etc. They’re all found beside and even in rivers. 

These can often really highlight the movement of the river and creates unique and interesting shapes for the image. For example, the way the river runs over a floating branch, or how the water hits rocks or boulders. 

Wide Angles

The beauty of photographing rivers is that they do most of the work for you. They are already naturally stunning. A wide angle can create a really stunning image that incorporates the nearby surroundings too. 

It can also be used to emphasize the size of the river you are taking pictures of. If it is particularly wide or long, you can use your wide angles to truly catch the depth and breadth of the river. 

Using Long-Exposure Photography To Blur Water

Okay, so now that you’ve got all the other tips and tricks down, let’s get to the bit that everyone wants to know more about. How to blur the water using long exposure.

Long exposure photography works so well with water because it can take away the smaller details and instead produce a milky or misty texture which looks amazing. 

There are a few different tips and tricks that you can use to produce a variety of different images from softer and subtler blurs that still distinguish the movement of the water, to smoother mistier options.

And it’s all in the settings you use. So, let’s take a look at how you’d go about it. 

  • Slight Blur With Distinct Movement – If you want only a slight blur that still details distinct movement, you’ll need to use a shutter speed of around 1/30 to 1/3 seconds. 
  • Blurred Water With A Hint Of Movement – If you’re hoping to have a primarily blurred image that still shows just a hint of the movement of the water then depending on the conditions you should use a shutter speed of between 0.5-15 seconds. 
  • Misty Texture To The Water – If you prefer a more misty texture to your image, then you’ll need an exposure that ranges anywhere between 20 seconds to several minutes. 
  • To Combat Bright Light – ND filters can be used to cut out some of the available light for pictures that are taken when the light is too bright. 
  • Decide On Your Mode – You’ll need to choose between the shutter priority mode (S or TV) or Manual Mode (M.)The mode you choose will depend on the amount of control you want over your images. Shutter priority mode will choose the aperture value for you whereas in manual mode you can select the value yourself. 

The Best Settings For Moving Water

When creating movement in the water, you’ll want to slow down your shutter speed and you can do this by choosing the Aperture Priority mode and then dropping the ISO down pretty low, and then finally increasing the aperture to the highest setting your camera will allow. (f/22 works best.) 

Lowering the ISO and increasing the aperture will allow your shutter to stay open for much longer and will allow for the water to move throughout the image. 

Sometimes, you may notice that the images are coming out a little blurry. If this is the case, it’s probably because the camera isn’t still enough.

If keeping the camera still isn’t improving the quality of the image, then you can play around with the settings to find the best option for you. 

In this case, we’d advise setting the aperture to something a little lower such as f/10. Alternatively, you could increase your ISO slightly. Try somewhere between 200-400.

The best option will depend on the lighting of the area you are photographing. This should solve the problem and your images should come out much sharper and cleaner. 

Final Thoughts

Rivers are stunning images that can evoke real emotion in its viewers. And one way to really improve a river photograph is to use long exposure.

You can use this to blur the water and create some really unique photographs. 

Hopefully from reading this article, you now have a much better understanding of how to use this technique to your advantage.

You are well aware of the importance of planning, the equipment that you’ll need to create the best pictures possible, as well as the need for composition considerations, and then finally you also know all the techniques to use to alter the image using long exposure. 

So, what are you waiting for? Get playing around with long exposure and create some of the best photographs of rivers to date!

Laura McNeill
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