How to easily create long exposure images using an iPhone

In Gear by Rusty Parkhurst15 Comments

In case you haven't noticed, the camera in Apple's iPhone has become quite popular – and quite good – over the past few years. In fact, Flickr ranked the iPhone as the most popular camera used for photos uploaded to their site last year. According to the popular image hosting site, iPhones accounted for 54% of devices used by photographers in 2017, which was more than all other traditional cameras combined. Furthermore, iPhones populated 9 out of the top 10 spots for devices used to take pictures that year, with the Canon 5D Mark III the only non-iPhone device cracking the top ten – in 9th place.

So what does all of this mean? Does it mean that the iPhone is the best “camera” on the market? Certainly not. Am I going to sell off all my DSLR and mirrorless camera gear and be a full-time ‘iPhoneographer'? Um…no. Does the iPhone have the best camera of any other smartphone? Nice try, but I'm not even going there. Smartphone wars don't make much sense to me. Kind of like the usual old debates: Canon vs. Nikon, Ford vs. Chevy, Coke vs. Pepsi. Besides, everyone knows Coke rules.

The main takeaway here is that the iPhone has become a very useful tool for photographers. That tiny camera can be used to create some pretty nice images. Not to mention that continual improvements in the software and development of new apps has really unleashed the power of a device that can be carried in your pocket. Oh yeah, and you can even make calls with it.

A little bit of motion can make an image more interesting.  These wind turbines didn't appear to be moving all that fast, but the blades almost disappear when converted to a long exposure image.

What you need

There are multiple third-party camera apps out there that allow one to control the iPhone camera and dial in the shutter speed you want. This trick allows you to create a long exposure using the native camera app. As the title would imply, you obviously need an iPhone to do this. Not just any iPhone, but it needs to be on iPhone 6s or later, which was the first version to include the ability to take Live Photos. More on that later. Your phone also needs to be running iOS 11 or later. You also may want to have the ability to set up your iPhone on a tripod, although it is possible to get by without it in some cases. From there, it's easy-peasy to create a long exposure image.

 

What is Live Photos and How to turn it on

Live Photos is a feature that was introduced in 2015 with the iPhone 6s and is found on all iPhones after that. When this feature is turned on, you not only get a JPEG still image, but also a 3-second video is created every time the camera's shutter button is pressed. The short video clip consists of the 1.5 seconds before and after the shutter button is pressed. It's crazy that your phone knows you are going to take a picture before the button is even pressed.

I believe the Live Photos feature is enabled by default; however, it may be off for various reasons. Like me, you may have disabled this feature not long after it was introduced. Not only did this save storage space, but there just didn't seem to be much use for all the little video clips it created. That changed with the added features in iOS 11, so you may want to turn Live Photos back on to give them a try.

To enable Live Photos, open the default camera app on your iPhone. At the top center of the screen is a circular icon that looks like a target. If Live Photos is off, there will be a line through that icon. Just touch the icon to enable the feature. After taking a picture, click on the thumbnail in the lower left to review the image. If it is a Live Photo, then the Live Photo icon will be shown next to the word “Live” in the upper left-hand corner.

The small target icon at the top of the screen indicates that Live Photos is enabled.

How to use Live Photos to make a long exposure image

To be honest, I had no idea this feature was available on my phone until a recent trip to Utah. We had just visited Lower Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. My good friend – Mike Ince – was showing me some cool images on his phone that showed the motion of the water. The images were created using the native camera app and there were no filters involved. He then proceeded to show me  how easy this is to do.

It's pretty clever how the new software leverages the power of Live Photos to create a long exposure image. When you take a picture, it just seems like a normal photo. However, remember that the camera is actually recording 3 seconds of footage. When the Long Exposure option is selected, those 3 seconds are combined to create a single image with a 3 second exposure. Any movement in the frame (or if the phone was moved while taking the shot) will be shown as motion blur.

Here's how you do it:

  1. Take a picture using the Camera app with Live Photos turned on. Make sure to hold the phone steady while taking the shot.
  2. Click the thumbnail to review the image or navigate to the Photos app and find the image there.
  3. With the image displayed on the screen, swipe up to reveal the 4 options that are available: Live, Loop, Bounce, and Long Exposure.
  4. Select Long Exposure.
  5. After a second or two, the photo is magically transformed to show an image with motion blur.

After creating the long exposure, you can do anything with the resulting image that you could with a normal photo. Save it, export to social media, send it to someone via email or messages, or edit the image within Photos or third-party app. You can also revert back to the normal image if you choose.

Swiping up on the image reveals the Long Exposure (as well as other) options.

 

When to use it

For those who carry an iPhone, this feature is fun to use any time there is movement in the scene. Even if you are shooting with your DSLR or mirrorless camera, take a few moments to grab some shots with your phone as well. It's easy to do and the images can be shared from almost anywhere.

An obvious time to create a long exposure image is when there is moving water in a scene – a stream, river, waterfall, or fountain. However, the possibilities are endless. You can show movement of traffic, people, or the subtle movements of a tree or flower in the wind. You can even create your own motion blur by moving the camera during the exposure. Get creative. It's not something you would want to overdo, but include a shot or two like this when the situation calls for it. Besides, if a shot doesn't work out, it can always be deleted.

A great use of the Long Exposure feature.  The Live Photo is on the left and Long Exposure on the right.  Photo by Mike Ince.

 

Another example of the Long Exposure feature.  Note that the Long Exposure image is cropped in-camera.

Final Tips

There isn't much to creating these long exposure images with an iPhone, but here are a few little tips to keep in mind.

  • Use a tripod when necessary. I've had mostly good luck just hand-holding the phone, but there may be situations when mounting the phone on a tripod would be better. There are many options for mounting a phone that can be easily carried with you.
  • Be sure to hold the phone still for longer than normal. Since Live Photos records 3 seconds of video, be sure to keep the phone still for at least that amount of time. I have a habit of taking a picture, then quickly moving on to something else. Doing this can cause unwanted motion blur and ruin a shot.
  • Experiment with objects moving at different speeds. The faster something is moving, the more blurred it will be in the final image. If you want to retain at least some detail (such as in moving water), try shooting a subject that is moving a bit slower.
  • Note that Live Photos only works in Photo mode. It's not even an option in Portrait, Square, or Pano modes, so be sure to have the camera set to the correct mode to do this.
  • Above all else, get creative and have fun. Features like this may be gimmicky, and image quality doesn't compare to a ‘real' camera, but it's fun and will get you shooting more. That's what it's all about.

 

 

 


About the Author

Rusty Parkhurst

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Rusty has been passionate about learning photography and creating great images since picking up his first 'real' camera 5 years ago. He works in the environmental consulting industry by day, spends evenings and weekends trying to keep up with 3 growing boys, and squeezes in as much photography time as possible. He loves talking photography and welcomes any questions you may have. More of his work can be found on his website.

Comments

  1. I had no idea you could do this! That is pretty cool. (Though I’ll probably stick to the slow shutter app which does more or less the same thing but allows me to choose the length of exposure time).

    1. Author

      I was surprised as well, Tracy. There are certainly limitations, but I suspect the feature will be continually improved.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I almost never think to take out my iFone to make an image. This will help me remember to give it a try. Thanks!

    “It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, got it right the first time.”

    1. Author

      I’m the same way, Bob. I’ve historically neglected the phone, in favor of whatever other ‘better’ camera I happen to have with me. However, the phone can be a great device to help complement the visual story we are trying to tell. Not only for stills, but also video. Not to mention that it is likely always with me anyway, so why not use it?

      I’ll get you guys to come around to my way of thinking eventually…

  3. I found this by accident now you’ve made it clear. I’ve view some photo in the photo app and when I swipe up I don’t get the choice of different views but just people and places and related. Does this mean the live view was not on.
    Thanks
    Bill

    1. Author

      Hi Bill – if you swipe up on a photo, but don’t get the Effects options, then Live Photos probably wasn’t turned on for that image. A quick way to tell is to look in the upper left corner of a photo. If an image is a Live Photo, it will have the icon and the word “Live”.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. I was actually wondering how people make this type of photos as there are tons on Instagram and many were saying that they’re actually taken with a phone. Too bad I have a Samsung 🙁 – but my husband has an iPhone so I will steal that one :)) Thanks for sharing

    1. Author

      There are also many apps that allow you to control the exposure time on your phone. There are most likely some for your Samsung as well. 😉

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Hey Rusty, you’re a wicked shaap fella. thanks for the iPhone info. Maybe I will use it more, now.

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