My Favorite Go-To Long Exposure Photography Trick

First off, a huge thanks to the 350 Lightroom fans that came out to my Arlington/Dallas Lightroom seminar yesterday. I’m very lucky to have such nice crowds in each city I go to. Now it’s on to Atlanta, GA for the same seminar tomorrow.

Anyway, I took the photo above the other week in Bandon Beach, Oregon (click to see it larger), and I wanted to share one of the tricks I used on it (and other photos) for post-processing long exposures. See, one of the cool things to me about long exposure photos is the motion that we’re able to see in the photo. Combine that with the silky smooth effect you usually get from any water that happens to be in the photo, and I think you get a really powerful image.

But here’s the problem. 30-60 seconds is typically fine to smooth out water, but if you’re sky isn’t moving very quickly, it’s not long enough to give any motion to the clouds (which is an important part of long exposures). So what’s next? Well, you could increase your shutter speed. But, in my case, this was taken late in the morning (close to noon) when it was bright out. I was already using a 10-stop ND filter, and even though it was cloudy out, I couldn’t increase the exposure time any more than I already did without blowing out the sky in the photo.

So instead, I resorted to my favorite little trick in Photoshop. You can even download the original image to try it out on your own.

Step 1: First, you open the photo in Photoshop and make a selection of the sky with the Quick Selection Tool.

Step 2: Then, press Cmd-J (PC: Ctrl-J) twice, to duplicate that selection on to a new layer two times. Your Layers palette should look like this.

Step 3: Then click the topmost layer to target it. Then go to Layer > Create Clipping Mask. Now your Layers palette should look like this. (Note: Creating the clipping mask keeps the blur you’re about to add restricted to the actual shape of the sky, so it doesn’t start to feather/blur outside of the original sky area, and into the rest of the photo).

Step 4: Finally, go to Filter > Blur > Radial Blur. Select Zoom for the Blur Method, 57 for the Amount and click in the Blur Center area to move the Radial Blur center point toward the top right of the photo. Click OK when you’re done and you’ll have the same blurry streaky skies that you see in those cool long exposure photos.

Photo Info:
Nikon D800
Nikon 16-35mm
Lee Big Stopper 10-stop ND
Aperture: f/22
Shutter Speed: 60 seconds
ISO: 100

Anyway, there’s a little peak into one of the tricks I do on my long exposure photos when I’m not able to get the exposure times exactly as I’d like. Enjoy and have a good one!

  • FastPrime

    Matt,thank you very much for sharing that trick! But why the skewing to the upper right with the blur center? BTW, when you were in Oregon, did Brian show you his tripod??? (A while after he got it, he did a webinar. He mentioned it and a few of us have kidded him about his enthusiasm about it over time since!)

    • Matt Kloskowski

      Because you don’t want the blur to emanate from the middle of the photo. Your clouds would look like they’re converging in a weird area.

      • FastPrime

        Matt, thank you for explaining that, and thank you for sharing your settings in the tutorial. Brian’s a great guy, but he sure was “enthusiastic” about that tripod! Judging by his webinar examples, he also has a knack for finding good photo locations, as you probably know. I am hoping sometime in the future, you will shoot a few frames with the new Nikon f/4 70-200mm on your D800. Mine should be arriving today, but I would enjoy reading what you think of the lens.

  • David Roberts

    Thanks for the great post. Was wondering if there are any tips to acquiring the Big Stopper? Sounds like they are always sold out, why doesn’t Lee just produce more? Thanks again.

  • Stefan

    Hi Matt, thx for sharing your approach. I only have PSE11 so I tried the same with your original photo as you advised but can’t make a clipping mask. The result is different but better than without. Or do you have any other suggestion working not in photoshop but in elements. Thx in advance for your reaction.

    Cheers Stefan

    • Matt Kloskowski

      Hey Stefan – I just looked and my Elements 11 has the ability to create a clipping mask under the Layer menu.

      • Stefan

        oeps, I have found it also now, sorry for my worse searching :-)

  • Jay Mitchosky

    Hey Matt

    First off, stunning photo. Love the look of this with the implied shapes created by the posts.

    Secondly, this is killer:

    “Note: Creating the clipping mask keeps the blur you’re about to add restricted to the actual shape of the sky, so it doesn’t start to feather/blur outside of the original sky area, and into the rest of the photo”

    Whenever I have tried to do selective blurring the bleed has always been a frustration when trying to just use a mask. I’ll be sure to try a clip in the future.

  • Dennis Zito

    Hey Matt,

    Well for some reason my post from this morning didn’t submit for some reason. Anyway, I’ve seen you use this method several times and tried it on several photos. However, I missed the part about the clipping mask! Tried it again this morning using the clipping mask and wow … it worked great. In the past, I always had to add a mask and clean up the outer areas. Lot of work.

    This is Great … thanks again!


  • Susan

    That’s a great tip, thanks. Is there any way to change the opacity of the blur other than to go back into the filter and up or down the setting from the get go?

  • iacrylic

    Hey Matt, we put this one on acrylic for your last week… the depth in that image was amazing!! Well done.. Hope to see you all at WPPI… thanks Brian Gudas @twitter-873789962:disqus

  • pvanderheyde

    Great tutorial! thanks, definitely something I’ll try out …

    I do have a question about the photo you took (so not really about the tutorial). I see you took it at f/22 … since I don’t have a ND filter (yet), whenever I want longer exposures I go to f/22 as well. But then you read about diffraction and why it’s not good to go to these numbers … what’s your idea on this?

    Thanks, Paul

  • Pingback: Long Exposure Photo Trick