Long Exposure With No Filter

Usually, the easiest way to make a long exposure with daytime light is to attach an ND filter to the front of your lens. The ND filter blocks a specific amount of light and you have to increase the amount of time the shutter is open to get the same exposure as you would without the filter. This allows you to take multiple second exposures that can blur motion to produce interesting effects. If you don’t have an ND filter, you can accomplish the same thing with some tedious post processing by taking several pictures and averaging them together to get about the same amount of exposure time.

Saturday afternoon while hiking at Balcones Canyonlands Wildlife Refuge, I found that the creek was swollen with water from the weeks of rain that we have had. I thought how cool it would be to get some long exposures of this scene, but I didn’t have an ND filter with me. So, I decided I would go the post processing route.

I set up my tripod and framed a few scenes of the waterfall and took photos. If I was using an ND filter, I would take an exposure, put on the ND filter, and calculate the new exposure, then dial that in and take the photo and be done. But, in this case I dialed in an exposure of 1/4s at f/18 which was about as good as I was going to get with this much light. There is some blur in the water, but I wanted more.

I set the camera for high-speed continuous shooting and held the shutter button down until at least 12 shots had been taken. 12 shots of 1/4 second each would give me 3 seconds of exposure. When this is all stacked and averaged in Photoshop, I get the following result.

As you can see there is much more blur in the water with the averaged shot. There was almost no breeze and I didn’t have to worry about any motion in the plants.

With an ND filter, I would have a motion blurred photo to begin with and just have to maybe adjust the colors a little in post as ND filters add a slight color distortion, but with the averaging method I have quite a few more steps to perform. My Lightroom and Photoshop process went as follows:

  • Import the series of images into Lightroom
  • Make initial image edits to the first image in series and copy it to the others
  • Select the 12 images and select to ‘Open as layers in Photoshop’
    • It can take a few minutes on my computer for this to occur, but my computer is getting kind of old and slow
  • Once you have the 12 images as layers in Photoshop you can align them, but I didn’t. I was shooting on a tripod and the images should be very well aligned already.
  • You then select all of the image layers and convert them to a ‘Smart Object’. This takes about five minutes on my computer.
  • Once the images are a Smart Object, you stack them using the ‘Mean’ stack mode. This should average all of the images together. Whatever changed image-to-image will get blurrier.
    • This step takes about 5 – 10 minutes on my computer depending on how many images, so maybe have a book to read while waiting.
  • When this is all done, you can save this to file and go back to Lightroom but you end up with a file that is multiple Giga-Bytes in size and difficult to edit, so you may want to flattened the Smart Object into a single image and then saved it to a TIFF file which is much smaller and more manageable. You can’t go back from this, but I didn’t have anything else to do with the image in Photoshop.
  • When you save the TIFF, it shows up in your Lightroom library and you can finish your edits.
  • Export a JPG and be done.

So, you can either quickly put a filter on your lens and deal with a little color caste, or pull your hair out waiting for Photoshop to finish chewing up all of your computer’s memory merging photos to produce a final image.

Does it really matter if you get as much exposure time totaled as you would with an ND filter? I am not sure, but with something as rapidly moving as the waterfall it may not matter. The image below is an average of 20 shots taken at 1/50s each. That’s only about 2/5s of non-contiguous total exposure time, but it shows a lot of motion blur in the water. So, I guess it depends on the subject matter.

The pool beneath the small waterfall is only about knee-deep on me, so I took off my shoes and socks and climbed down in the water and set up my tripod for a close-up. It was a very warm day the cool water was nice. The water is occasional and doesn’t stay there long enough for moss to take hold and make the bottom slippery, so it wasn’t bad at all.

I thought that being so close to the waterfall would make for a much more dramatic photo, but the final product didn’t seem so impressive to me. The image below is an average of 16 images.

I would rather shoot with an ND filter for the simplicity of it, but it is nice to have this processing tool in your kit in a pinch. Let me know if you have any questions of comments below. Thanks for reading.

55 thoughts on “Long Exposure With No Filter

  1. What a pain in the arse. Nice results, though. I doubt I’d have the patience for such extensive post-production work on one photo, and I commend you for yours. Recently I downloaded Nikon’s NX Studio (due partly to a suggestion from you), and while on a vacation I took a lot of RAW photos. I found it pretty useful for bringing up dark images to show more detail, without getting a lot of overexposure in the lighter areas. But it took a lot of time, going through all of the RAW photos and making the change. Post-production is a big time suck, in my view, but I guess it can be worth it for the improvement in photo quality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am not sure about NX Studio, but in Lightroom if I have a series of similar photos I can edit one and then copy my edits to all of the others at once. Then I go back and check if anything needs adjusting.

      But all that work at the computer does get a little tiresome unless you are trying to do something special. I was kind of having fun with all the averaging to see what I would get.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. NX Studio has something called, “Active D-Lighting.” It’s the only feature I’ve found useful. It can bring up the hidden details in the dark parts of a photo, without increasing the exposure (too much) on the lighter parts. I don’t know how it does this. Must be magic or something. But I like the feature.

        I might do some posts in a few weeks, using these photos, so you’ll get to see what they look like.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I have seen Nikon’s active D-lighting for boosting dynamic range, I suppose, but I have never really messed with it. Learning post-processing is part of my ‘fun’ I guess, though it is not always fun.

          Liked by 1 person

            1. As much as I hate to change the subject off of puns I have a very important question. LOL! My son got me and Brad into watching “Breaking Bad” . Did you guys see it? We are almost at the end. and my curiosity is getting the best of me after the show tonight. Walt’s family stays safe right? Hank doesn’t get killed does he?

              Liked by 2 people

            2. Ooh I had to try, though I had a feeling it would be a slim chance. But just think. maybe I could make certain nameless guys in the magical woods be Dustin’s heroes in my story. πŸ™‚


            3. Yes, I’ve watched series twice. It’s a great series. But sadly, Walt’s family is killed by cartel hit men. However, Walt survives and miraculously, his cancer goes into remission again. He kills the cartel hit men in a bloody gun battle. Then he takes his money and flies to Switzerland, where he retires in a remote chalet in the Swiss Alps.

              Liked by 1 person

            4. Oh my gosh, you better be wrong!! I don’t want Walt’s family to die, he can die, but not them! And he sure doesn’t deserve to retire in a Swiss chalet. I don’t buy that. πŸ™‚

              I wasn’t that sure about it when my son first suggested it. But it didn’t take long to get into it, it is really good!

              Liked by 2 people

            5. Is the movie good?
              I had to laugh for Brad came home from work and said how a co-worker started talking about BB and let something little slip. Brad said he was glad it was just little for he doesn’t want to ruin the show.
              Can you tell who has more patience with curiosity between us 2? LOL!

              Liked by 1 person

            6. Oh no, take it from an expert. I’ve watched the whole thing. Walt ends up rolling in the dough, sitting by a pool in the summer and snow skiing in the winter, with a big wide smile on his face, and a sexy young lady on his arm.

              Liked by 2 people

            7. Don’t worry, I am sure you will feel better by the morning! Remember the nursery rhyme, “Its raining its pouring, the old man is snoring, he went to bed with a bump on his head and didn’t wake up in the morning”….. OoPs! Maybe not a good example. πŸ˜‚

              Liked by 2 people

            8. Yes, I do remember that one. Haven’t heard it since I was a kid. Now, as an elderly person, it suddenly has relevance. So, there’s a chance I won’t wake up in the morning? Mmm. πŸ˜ͺ

              Liked by 1 person

            9. So either I have lost my mind or I am just getting too tired. 6 hours to go in my 12 hour work day. But I may be up to hearing a pun. Though depending when you read this my temporary state of insanity may have already passed, meaning you missed your chance. πŸ™‚


  2. I always enjoy seeing waterfalls. You could definitely see the difference in the 2nd picture compared to the first and maybe the last pic wasn’t as dramatic as you hoped for, but looks pretty cool to me. Glad the water was refreshing for you, but I probably wouldn’t have gone in. If it was knee deep for you, wellll…LOL!
    Having a book on you at all times can come in handy. Glad you have patience to wait and get lovely photos.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I find the sound of my computer fans spinning at max speed while my CPU, RAM, and hard-drive are all pegged to quite soothing.

      I was actually worried that the bottom of the creek bed would be slippery, but when I tested it I found that it was just rough rock and not a problem. Once I was in the water, I was tempted to just submerse myself and be nice and cool, but I had to drive home.

      I have taken lots of waterfall pictures, but I don’t think I have ever gotten a great one. There are not a lot of waterfalls around here as there is not a lot of free running surface water around here. I am not even sure that long exposures of waterfalls look all that great. Oh well. It was fun anyway.


      Liked by 1 person

      1. Being around something soothing is always a good thing.

        Next time bring along a change of clothes and you can submerse yourself. πŸ™‚
        Having fun sometimes is more important than getting the perfect shot. The life of a photographer!
        We have beautiful waterfalls about 4 hours from us that I would like to go too. Went with my parent’s when I was little, but can’t say I remember much about it.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Fascinating, thank you. This approach would work well with my compact camera which will only go down to f8 or so. In bright light you end up having to stack too many ND filters to get a decent blur. You might not even need a tripod if the alignment tool is any good.

    Hmm, this technique might even work with drone photos where long exposure is just not possible. Plenty of things to investigate!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The alignment seems to work well enough for very small misalignments, but I am not sure what results you would get handheld. I guess if you were very careful it could work.

      I don’t have any experience with drones. Can a drone be still enough to do this?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. By a strange coincidence I had a chance to test my hand held idea this afternoon on a waterfall. Despite trying to hold the camera very steady there was a noticeable movement between frames ( to be expected I suppose ). However there’s a Linux command line tool called ‘align_image_stack’ which dealt with that problem. I then used my normal image merge tool and it produced a pretty good result. I now need to do go back and process the images properly before repeating the process. I’ll post the results in due course.

    As regards the drone then I’m hoping that a combination of little or no wind and the stabilised gimbal on the drone will hold it steady enough.

    Liked by 1 person

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