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Home / Tips and Tricks / iPhone photography: How to take dreamy photos with long exposure with your iPhone camera

iPhone photography: How to take dreamy photos with long exposure with your iPhone camera



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Andrew Hoyle / CNET

The iPhone 1

1 Pro triple camera array takes some of the best pictures you can get from a phone, and even iPhone SEs only camera takes great pictures that think it’s affordable. But hidden inside these phones, especially those launched after the iPhone 6, is a creative trick that allows you to turn your everyday photos into dreamy long exposure photos.

A photograph with a long exposure is any image where the shutter has been intentionally left open long enough to be blurred in the image. Look up pictures of waterfalls and you will no doubt see pictures where the raging water has been smoothed out in this second world flow – it is a long exposure picture.

To take such a picture with a DSLR camera, you usually need a tripod to keep the camera stable and a filter that blocks light. This is often required to leave the shutter open for a second or more to let in too much light so that the image becomes too bright.

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A standard picture taken with the iPhone 11 Pro (left) and the same picture, with the long exposure mode activated (right).

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

The iPhone uses a different and much more cunning technology, but it does not require additional equipment. It uses Live Photos, a feature that turns a still image into a short animation by recording a few seconds of video as you fire the shutter.

By analyzing which objects are moving, the iPhone captures the movement and erases it. It can also recognize what is not moving (such as a rock or a wall) and try to keep these objects sharp and in focus. It is a brilliant method because it allows you to take pictures with long exposure in even light in the middle of the day without using a tripod or filter. Take it, DSLR.

Here’s how to get started.

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The rushing water gives an attractive blurred motif, while the rocks remain static and sharp.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Know what makes a good long exposure shot

Not everything works as a long exposure image. A close-up of a flower blowing in the wind becomes just a blurred mess, while an image of a static car just remains, yes, static.

What you need is a stage where there are both static and moving elements. Waterfalls are common topics because the rushing water will be blurred while the surrounding rocks will remain solid. All watercourses would really be a good subject to experiment with.

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The default image (left) looks like all the old, forgetful crap from a Disney park. But a long exposure (right) turns it into an ethereal image that really shows the movement in the scene.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

You can also try lively city streets (remember your social distance!). The long exposure effect would keep the buildings and roads sharp and firm in the picture, but the people walking around will be blurred in spooky figures, which look atmospheric and dramatic.

Enable Live Photos

To get a long exposure image, the movement recorded in a Live Photo is required, so it is important that the mode is activated during shooting. It is located at the top right of the screen in the camera (when held in portrait orientation) or at the top left (in landscape orientation). You will see an icon with two circles surrounded by a third dotted circle. If there is no line through it, Live Photos is activated. If there is a line through it, tap the icon and the message “Live” will appear on the screen in a small yellow box.

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Make sure this icon does not have a line through it.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Hold on tight

Although the iPhone does not require a tripod to get a good long exposure picture, you will get the best results if you keep the phone as stable as possible while taking the Live picture. I suggest you rest your phone against a wall or other solid surface while shooting. If you have to hold the phone in your hand, I think that stretching my elbows against my body and holding my breath helps to reduce blur movements when I take the picture.

It is a good idea to take several pictures as well by hammering the shutter button while holding the position. In this way, you increase your chances of capturing at least one image that is stable enough to provide an attractive long exposure.

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Swipe up on your Live Photo in the gallery and activate the ‘Long Exposure’ effect.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Create the long exposure

Once you’ve taken your Live photos, it’s time to turn them into the actual long exposure. Open the image you have decided on in your gallery and swipe up. This will bring up a panel called “Effects” where you can tweak the motion in the video to gifs. Swipe to the end of the effects panel but you will see one called Long Exposure. Tap it.

It takes a second or two, but you quickly see how any movement in your shot has been blurred into the dreamy effect you are looking for. You can then zoom in to check that it is still nice and sharp. Apply the same effect to other photos you took of the same scene, only if they worked better.

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I did not intend to make this shot a long exposure when I first took it, but since it was a Live Photo I could go back later and activate the long exposure mode.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Check your library

Before you rush out to find your nearest waterfall, check your library to see if you already have photos that would work. The great thing about using the iPhone’s long exposure tool is that you do not have to use it while shooting. You can go back and apply it to any long exposure image you have produced so far.

You may have visited Niagara Falls or Havasu Falls in Arizona a few years ago and you happened to have Live Photos enabled when you took your photos. You can swipe up and activate long exposure on any of these images. You can even go to your “Live Photos” album in your gallery to see all the photos you have on your phone that can be turned into long exposures. My advice? Put on a good podcast, sit down in a comfortable chair and see what dreamy pictures you can dig out of your library.


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