The Passage of Time: Using Long Exposures to Create a Sense of Calm

April 5, 2022

One of my favorite things to do with a camera is to transform the landscape in some way as I photograph it. There are several ways to do this, such as choosing a specific lens to frame the landscape a certain way, or using a unique point of view to force a viewer to see things differently. My favorite way to do this is to use longer exposures, to take a scene that may have seemed more turbulent in person, and making it seem calm and serene.

Goonies Island stands in the calm waters of Casco Bay just offshore from Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park in Freeport, Maine.

Wolfe's Neck Reflections

The dawn sky is reflected in the waters of Casco Bay as Googins Island greets the new day in Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park in Freeport, Maine.

In photography, the strict definition of a long exposure is an exposure that is longer than can be held still in your hands. Trying to hand-hold the camera for such an exposure would result in a blurry image with lots of motion - the exact opposite of what I'm trying to do in conveying a sense of calm. For my purposes here, we'll just say that when I say long exposure, I mean any exposure of one second or more. I briefly discussed this in my entry about using on-camera filters in my work. For really long exposures of 30 seconds or more, I'll often use neutral density filters to cut down the amount of light entering the lens. These are darkened glass that slides in front of the lens, similar to the way sunglasses sit in front of your eyes to reduce the amount of light.

The foggy view from the Cutler Coast Trail in down east Maine on a summer morning.

The Cutler Coast

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The rugged Bold Coast near Cutler, Maine, on a summer morning as a light fog rolls in.

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Ultimately, what's the point of long exposures? For me, it's pretty simple. If I can slow down the exposure enough, I can give the scene a different look than what the reality was. For instance, in The Cutler Coast, above, I used a 3-minute exposure to smooth the water around the rocky shoreline. You can see those flat, white areas around the rocks, looking more misty than anything else. Those areas are actually where waves are breaking over the rocks. By using such a long exposure, I can turn it into more of a misty look, which in turn is calmer looking.

Just south of Bath, Maine, Squirrel Point Lighthouse sits on the southwestern tip of Arrowsic Island, watching over the Kennebec River on a chilly autumn evenin

Squirrel Point Lighthouse

Just south of Bath, Maine, Squirrel Point Lighthouse sits on the southwestern tip of Arrowsic Island, watching over the Kennebec River on a chilly autumn evening.

Sometimes it's not huge waves crashing over rocks, but sometimes, if a water body is full of ripples, a long exposure can smooth those out to make the water look like glass, like in Squirrel Point Lighthouse above. At Stanley Lake in the photograph below, using a neutral density filter allowed me to smooth out the ripples caused by wind on the lake. You can still see hints of them, but the longer exposure (13-seconds), allowed it to smooth out enough to allow for a better reflection, really adding a sense of calm to this early morning mountain scene.

McGown Peak is reflected in Stanley lake in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho.

Morning at Stanley Lake

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Alpenglow shines on McGown Peak on a summer morning at Stanley Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. When I arrived at Stanley Lake, the clouds were thick, but as I found the spot I wanted to photograph from, they began to break up and the alpenglow hit the peak. This light lasted only a few minutes, but they were magical.

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A fishing shack reflected in the water at sunrise on Cape Porpoise, Maine.

Cape Porpoise Reflections

Venus is visible in the sky above a fishing shack at twilight on Cape Porpoise, in Kennebunkport, Maine on a winter morning.

The same is true for the image above, "Cape Porpoise Reflections", and below, "Sunset at Pine Point". Cape Porpoise Reflections is situated just off Cape Porpoise Harbor, near Kennebunkport, Maine. The water never gets too turbulent but it is tidal so often has undulations disturbing the reflections. A longer exposure eliminates the undulations and gives me a nice, mirror-like reflection.

A dinghy rests on the mud of the Nonesuch River at sunset at Pine Point in Scarborough, Maine.

Sunset at Pine Point

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A dinghy sits at anchor on the banks of the Nonesuch River as the sky glows after sunset at Pine Point in Scarborough, Maine. This photo is a offered as a limited edition of 100 prints. All limited editions will also receive a signed certificate of authenticity as well as a matching serial number.


For Sunset at Pine Point, the tide was going out so there was only an inch of water on the bed of the Nonesuch River. There was a light breeze which caused the water to ripple softly, but thanks to the low light of the fading sunset, those ripples disappeared entirely.

Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse

Spring Point Ledge Light Station

Spring Point Ledge Light is a sparkplug lighthouse in South Portland, Maine that marks a dangerous obstruction on the west side of the main shipping channel into Portland Harbor. The lighthouse was constructed in 1897 by the government after seven steamship companies stated that many of their vessels ran aground on Spring Point Ledge.

Even more fun than smoothing out turbulent water, I love getting cloud movement from a long exposure. Above, my photo of Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse was a 70-second exposure. I had noticed the clouds moving above me straight over the lighthouse. By using such a long exposure, I was able to not only smooth the waters of Portland Harbor, but also to capture the movement of the clouds. There's no way to know exactly how the clouds will look until I do it, but watching the direction of their movement, I can kind of predict what it'll look like. In this case, a gorgeous halo was created that really elevates the image to something special.

Montauk Point Lighthouse greets the dawn with a fresh blanket of snow on a winter morning.

Montauk Winter

Montauk Point Lighthouse greets the dawn with a fresh blanket of snow on a winter morning.

For Montauk Winter, taken at Montauk Point State Park, the clouds were moving across my frame. This was a one minute exposure, allowing not only the water to smooth out, but the cloud movement created these gorgeous splotches of pastel color in the sky, thanks to the rising sun to my right.

I love long exposures for their ability to give a calm and serene feeling in a photograph, transforming even turbulent scenes. Below are a few more examples of long exposures. Do you have a favorite?

The sky glows pink just before sunrise on Little Hunters Beach in Acadia National Park, Maine.

Sunrise on Little Hunters Beach

The sky glows pink in the early morning on Little Hunters Beach in Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor, Maine.

The sun sets over Barnegat Bay in Lavallette, NJ.

Sunset Over Barnegat Bay

The sun sets over Barnegat Bay in Lavallette, NJ.

The sun shines through the trees on a spring morning in Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park in Freeport, Maine.

Sunrise in Wolfe's Neck Woods

The sun shines through the trees on a spring morning in Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park in Freeport, Maine.

Large rocks sit in a tidal pool on a cloudy morning in Wells Beach, Maine.

Cloudy Morning on Wells Beach

A moody scene on Wells Beach shows barnacle covered rocks reflected in a tide pool on a cloudy morning on the coast of Maine.