How to take a long exposure with iPhone: Apps and Accessories

Being able to take a long exposure with iPhone was one of the things I missed when I turned to iPhone photography in 2012. Back then, the photo technique of capturing a long exposure photo was a domain of DSLRs and required the use of ND filters and knowledge about shutter speed, ISO and aperture.

Back then, some iPhone camera apps offered manual control of the shutter speed. So you could increase the exposure time on iPhone - but only up to half a second. That was not long enough for long exposure photography.

But a lot has changed since then. In this blog post, I'll show you three ways how to take a long exposure on iPhone.

But first, here are a few iPhone long exposure photos that I took during the last years.

 
 

Can you take a long exposure on iPhone?

The short answer to this question is yes. There are a number of ways and apps that will help you to take a long exposure on iPhone.

Basically, you have three options to take a long exposure with iPhone:

  • Use Live Photos in iOS for taking a long exposure photo using an exposure time of up to three seconds
  • Download a dedicated iPhone long exposure app like Slow Shutter Cam App that will allow you to take long exposures of up to several minutes
  • Try the built in Night Mode or a dedicated night mode camera app if you need to take low noise and well lit photos at night with iPhone.

Let's have a look at each of these options in more detail.

How to take a long exposure photo using iOS Live Photos

Apple introduced Live Photos with the iPhone 6S. By taking a Live Photo, the camera app essentially captures a short video clip, recording 1.5 seconds before (yes, before!) and after you hit the shutter release.

Since iOS 11, you can turn this 3 second video clip into a long exposure on iPhone and get pretty neat results like this long exposure of a train entering a tunnel.

Live Photo Long Exposure of a streetcar entering a tunnel

Live Photo Long Exposure of a streetcar entering a tunnel

To take a long exposure with iOS Live Photos you need to:

  1. Make sure Live Photos is turned on
  2. Hold your camera as steady as possible or to use a tripod for iPhone. iOS will detect even the slightest camera shake, and the result will be a cropped photo.
  3. Once you took the Live Photo, swipe up over your Live Photo in the camera roll.
  4. Swipe left under Effects. The last entry is labeled Long Exposure
  5. Tap it and see your Live Photo turned into a long exposure.

I've taken hundreds of long exposures using Live Photos since the release of iOS11.

But as I've mentioned, if you don't keep your iPhone steady, you'll end with a cropped image. So, whenever possible, I use a tripod like the Gorillapod Magnetic for iPhone.

That tripod is so small that it fits into almost any pocket or bag without adding much bulk. Moreover, the magnetic feed allows you to use anything, even a light post, as a tripod.

You can find an in depth tutorial about how to convert a Live Photo to a long exposure in the blog.

How to take a long exposure using iPhone night mode camera?

ProCamera app was one of the first camera apps to introduce a special low light mode that simulates taking a long exposure.

Using such a night mode, iPhone will take multiple photos and combine them into a single, low noise and well exposed photo that mimics a long exposure. Here's such a photo taken with ProCamera App.

Pro Camera Low Light Mode simulates a long expose for low light situations

Pro Camera Low Light Mode simulates a long expose for low light situations

Apple followed with the release of iOS 13 and the iPhone 11. That mode is called iPhone night mode camera and here's a sample photo I took using this special mode.

iPhone night mode camera simulating a long exposure

iPhone night mode camera simulating a long exposure

I've an in depth review of ProCamera Low Light Mode and the iPhone night mode camera for you in the blog.

These iPhone night mode camera apps are best for static scenes with little movement in them. If you have any movement, it won't create an actual motion capturing long exposure, but you'll get a ghosting effect instead.

To take a true long exposure that allows you to capture moving clouds or flowing water, I recommend an app like Slow Shutter Cam App, that I've been using for years.

How to take a long exposure using Slow Shutter Cam App?

Slow Shutter Cam App was the first camera app that enabled you to take a true long exposure with iPhone for creating motion blur effects and capturing stunning photos at night. It supports three different shooting modes and manual ISO control and requires the use of a tripod.

To demonstrate the capabilities of Slow Shutter Camera App, here is a 40 second long exposure photo of the London Eye that I took with an iPhone 6S years ago.

40 Second Long Exposure of the London Eye taken with Slow Shutter Cam App

40 Second Long Exposure of the London Eye taken with Slow Shutter Cam App

Slow Shutter Cam App is one of these apps that does one thing, and does it exceptionally well, and that is, you guessed it, helping you to take a long exposure photo with iPhone.

Meanwhile, a lot of similar apps were released. But I'm still sticking to this long exposure camera app for the following reasons:

  • Excellent Image Quality.
  • Dedicated shooting modes for light trails, motion blur and night photography.
  • Manual ISO control.
  • You can even adjust the some aspects of the long exposure after you took the photo.
  • Supports all three lenses of the iPhone 11 Pro
  • Fine granular control over the exposure time. It even supports a bulb mode.

I've written an extensive review of Slow Shutter Cam app plus a few tutorials for this app like how to photograph fireworks with iPhone or how to photograph fairground rides at night with iPhone.

Do I need a tripod for taking a long exposure photo with iPhone?

No matter which approach you use, I strongly encourage you to think about using a tripod for taking a long exposure with your iPhone; otherwise, you're photos may be blurry or even cropped, especially when using Live Photos.

There are many apps that use software magic to ensure a sharp photo even when you move your camera a bit while taking a long exposure. But that software magic comes at a price: cropped images with a lower resolution.

See for yourself:

  • Take a Live Photo
  • Move your camera slightly (!)
  • Turn the photo into a long exposure
  • Check the resolution of the image using the EXIF viewer of ProCamera App

And you'll see what I mean.

Personally, I use and recommend either the ultra portable Gorillapod Magnetic or the Rollei Compact Traveller No. 1 for long exposure photography with your iPhone.

Lastly, all of the apps mentioned in this article come with a companion Apple Watch app that you can use as a remote shutter release. Use these Apple Watch Apps to avoid camera shake by rather starting the exposure from your Apple Watch then by tapping the shutter release button on your iPhone.

So, if you are looking for a reason to buy an Apple Watch, there you go!

Otherwise, do invest a few bucks for buying a Bluetooth remote shutter release. Here are a few Bluetooth Remote Shutters on Amazon.

What is the best camera app for taking a long exposure app with iPhone?

If I should recommend just one app, it would be Slow Shutter Cam App for the reasons outlined above. As a convenience, here's the link to the full Slow Shutter Cam App review.

Seven ideas to try for taking a long exposure photo with iPhone

And finally, if you're looking for some inspiration to start with, here they are:

  • Take a long exposure of a waterfall with iPhone capturing flowing water. Try to find the perfect exposure time. The longer the exposure, the more the waterfall will look like milk. Do experiment a little.
  • Find a safe place in your city to capture light trails of cars driving by. Also, experiment with different exposure settings and see the difference.
  • Try to photograph fireworks with iPhone and try to capture the entire period from the launch of the rocket until it explodes.
  • Find a well-illuminated building in your city and capture a sharp and noise-free photo of it at night.
  • Take a long exposure of a fountain and as a bonus idea: Find a fountain that's illuminated at night.
  • Go to a fairground and try to take a long exposure of spinning rides with iPhone. Experiment with different exposure times.
  • Try to remove people from a busy street or place by taking long exposure of several minutes during the day or at night.

And now, let's have fun and take some impressive long exposures with iPhone together.

If you're looking for additional inspiration about taking a long exposure with iPhone, you may want to check the blog posts about taking long exposure photos with iPhone that include tutorials and some photo spots.