Guest Post: Bryan Esler on Using Long Exposures for Architectural Photography

We’re back with a new guest blog post with our friend Bryan Esler! He’s going to talk about long exposures for cityscapes and architecture.

Bryan Esler is a corporate, landscape and event photographer located in Grand Rapids, Mich. He has worked with clients such as CNBC, Michigan State University, ArtPrize, Steelcase, SpartanNash and more. His work has also been featured by Delta Airlines, NBC, Microsoft, LiveStrong and Pure Michigan. He also serves as assistant editor for Photofocus.


We got our first big snow last week in Michigan, and that meant it was the perfect time to get creative. I’ve long been into creating long exposures, no matter what the environment. And by coupling nature and architecture, you can come away with a truly remarkable piece of art.

I went to the Fallasburg Bridge, located in Lowell, Mich., to photograph the bridge with a long exposure of the river leading to it. I’m a big fan of long exposures, as it helps me to create some type of action in a photograph without producing a video. There was a ton of snow present, along with some leaves that had fallen into the water. The bridge itself is a remarkable piece of architecture, having been built in 1871.

Sure, it’s easy to make a long exposure. But how can it give that architectural subject that extra punch to make it stand apart?

Look for leading…anything

Leading lines are a common technique used by photographers to help guide the viewer’s eye to the main subject. For instance, if you’re shooting a building, you might find lines on the sidewalk that lead up to it. This might require you to play with different angles or to get lower to the ground.

In my case, the leaves and the movement in the water were the elements leading the eye to the bridge. Using a 4-second exposure with a 10-stop ND filter meant I could capture some movement in the water, which created vertical lines and blurry leaves that led up to the bridge. I put my tripod on its lowest setting and shot up with a slight angle that focused on the bridge. Too low and the bridge was no longer the focus; too high and the leading lines would not be as prevalent.

Frame the subject

While the leading lines were drawing the viewer’s eye to the bridge, the trees surrounding the bridge were leading in. This helped to frame the bridge in a way that’s not initially obvious. It helps to separate the bridge from the rest of the scene.

When working with a cityscape, you can do the same thing, working with trees, light posts, signage or other elements that are present.

Consider multiple exposures

By taking multiple long exposures, you can then combine them in a tool like Photoshop to create a super long exposure. It allows you, for instance, to capture the lights of cars or trains as they lead to the skyline. If you use an Olympus camera, you can achieve the same effect with the Live Composite mode, which allows you to set a base exposure and then have it capture any new light that enters the scene.

Get creative with lighting

When I was out in Los Angeles earlier this year, one of my bucket list items was to photograph the Walt Disney Concert Hall. And when I got there, it was spectacular. But for some reason, my photos really didn’t do it justice.


Before I was caught by security (oops), I put my camera on my tripod and took a long exposure. Then I brought in a small LED flashlight. Something like a Lume Cube would be perfect for this, as it helped to create a light flare in the corner of my image. It gave the photograph a unique look that is different from just a straight-on photograph of the building.

Forget the technical

The below photograph was completely by mistake, but it turned out to be one of my favorite photographs from Chicago I’ve ever taken. By simply having fun and not worrying about settings and every last detail, I was able to capture this shot of the Chicago Theatre, with a ton of swirling effects.

If all else fails, just have fun with it! Long exposures are great to play with, and can really get you thinking about the creative direction of your photography.



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