How to take a long exposure with iPhone

Long-Exposure Photography is a photographic technique that I truly missed when I turned to iPhone Photography back in 2012. Taking a long exposure photo was a DSLR camera domain and required using neutral density filters to extend the shutter speed.

But that changed when I discovered the long exposure iPhone camera app Slow Shutter Cam App in 2012. That camera app enabled me to take a long exposure with iPhone of up to 60 seconds - and even longer.

In this blog post, I'll describe four ways and apps that will help you to do long exposure photography on your iPhone and recommend two tripods that I use on myself for this photographic technique.

Table of Contents:

But first, here are three long exposures that I took using the three different camera apps I'll mention in this blog post.

40 second long exposure of the London Eye shot on iPhone 6s using Slow Shutter Cam App.

3 second long exposure of a train entering a tunnel from a Live Photo shot on iPhone 11 Pro

Simulated long exposure of nightly London shot on iPhone 6s Plus using Pro Camera Night Mode

 

What's the problem with long exposure photography on iPhone?

Let's get right to the point: The problem is that the iPhone's shutter speed is limited to 1 second. Even if you use a third-party camera app, it can't go beyond this exposure time. If it does, it uses one of the fancy methods that all the camera apps mentioned in this article.

Take a long exposure of up to 60 seconds and even longer with Slow Shutter Camera App

I'll start this list of camera apps with the one I've been using for years: Slow Shutter Camera App.

It was the first camera app that allowed me to do long exposure photography with my iPhone. Slow Shutter Camera App comes with three different shooting modes:

  • Motion Blur
  • Light Trails
  • Night Photography

You can read more about these different shooting modes in my Slow Shutter Cam App review that I've published earlier.

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 in London.

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

But there's even more that you can do with Slow Shutter Cam App. You can even edit the blur intensity after you took the photo. Try that with a DSLR camera! I've also covered this in the review of Slow Shutter Cam App.

So to summarize - and this is just my personal opinion - Slow Shutter Cam App is the best app for shooting long exposure photos with iPhone because:

  • It supports different shooting modes: Motion blur, light trails, and night photography.
  • You can manually adjust the ISO speed for low noise photos
  • The app allows you to adjust the motion blur intensity after you took the photo
  • Slow Shutter Cam App supports all lenses of modern iPhones.
  • It comes with an Apple Watch companion app that you can use as a remote shutter release
  • It supports many Bluetooth remote shutter releases

Please note that you'll need a tripod when using Slow Shutter Cam App. Otherwise, your photos will be blurry.

Finally, Slow Shutter Cam App is a great app for Light Painting Photography. Set it to Light Trail mode, enable focus lock and tap once to focus. I use this technique to take photos with iPhone in total darkness.

Of course, Slow Shutter Cam App is a great app for long exposure photography on the iPhone 12 and earlier models. Did I already mention that I've published a review of Slow Shutter Cam App)? If you want to get it right away, you can download Slow Shutter Cam App from the App Store or continue to read about the other options for long exposure photography with iPhone.

For long exposure if up to three seconds: Use Live Photos

Apple introduced Live Photos with the iPhone 6S. When taking a Live Photo, the iOS camera app will actually capture a short video clip, recording 1.5 seconds before (yes, before!) and after you hit the shutter release button.

But only since iOS 11 you can convert such a 3-second video clip ("Live Photo") to a long exposure. The results are pretty neat.

Here's an example of a Live Photo that I converted to a long exposure on an iPhone 11 Pro.

Live Photo Long Exposure of a streetcar entering a tunnel

For night photography: Try a night mode camera app

Instead of using a long exposure to photograph night scenes, you may want to try a special night mode camera app that mimics a long exposure at night.

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

When using night mode, your 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. It's the view from the Shard in London.

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

Contrary to iOS Night Mode, ProCamera Night Mode works with all three lenses of the iPhone 12 and previous models. To learn more, please head over to the ProCamera Night Mode review.

Apple followed and released a special night mode with iOS 13 and the iPhone 11. However, when iOS night mode was introduced, it only worked with the standard wide-angle lens of the iPhone 11. Even with the iPhone 12 Pro, night mode only works with the standard and ultra-wide lens - but not with the telephoto lens.

Here's a photo of a railroad bridge in Bratislava, Slovakia, that I took using iOS Night Mode.

iPhone night mode camera simulating a long exposure

If you try to use iOS night using the telephoto lens, then the iPhone's actually cheating. It will use the wide lens with digital zoom.

To learn more about iOS night mode, check the iPhone night mode review I've published earlier

To summarize: Night mode camera apps are a great way to capture photos at night that mimic a long exposure. However, you won't be able to capture light trails with such a camera app. For that, you'll need a camera app like Slow Shutter Camera App.

Using ND Filters with iPhone

In the DSLR world, you'd be using neutral density filters for long exposure photography. A neutral density filter is essentially a darkened glass that you'd mount in front of the lens to be able to increase the shutter speed without overexposing the photo.

Since 2020, ND filters and filter mounts are available for iPhone, too. Most notably, Moment sells a 37mm filter mount for use with the built-in iPhone lenses which requires the Moment Photo Case. There's also a 67mm filter mount available for use with the Moment lenses.

When I purchased the Moment Photo Case for my new iPhone 12 Pro Max, I also got myself the 37mm filter mount - but only for use with a CPL filter for iPhone.

Using an ND Filter sounds like a great way to take a long exposure photo with iPhone, just as you did back in the good old DSLR days. However, this doesn't eliminate the major obstacle: The iPhone's shutter speed is still limited to 1 second. But if that's enough for your kind of long exposure photography, go ahead!

The second problem is that you should use a third-party camera app because you can't control the shutter speed directly with the iOS stock camera app. Further, If the stock camera app detects low light (due to the neutral density filter), it'll also increase ISO or use night mode. Probably you don't want either of that.

Lastly, if you want to use ND filters with your iPhone, make sure you buy a variable ND filter. Otherwise, you will need to carry a set of ND filters for different stops and experiment before you can take a photo.

These are exactly the reasons why I'm currently not thinking about using ND filters for iPhone and just covered the topic for the sake of completeness.

Do I need a tripod when taking a long exposure with iPhone?

Short answer: "yes", if you use Slow Shutter Cam App and "it depends" if you chose to go the Live Photo route. Remember that Photos App will apply image stabilization when converting a Live Photo to a long exposure and may slightly crop the resulting photo.

So my recommendation is to use a tripod for taking a long exposure with your iPhone, independent of which camera app you use.

Personally, I use and recommend either the small and ultra portable Gorillapod Magnetic or the Rollei Compact Traveller No. 1.

Lastly, when using a tripod, you should also use a remote shutter release to avoid camera shake when pressing the shutter release.

All of the camera apps mentioned in this blog post come with a companion Apple Watch app that you can use as a remote shutter release. Using these Apple Watch Apps, you can start the exposure from your Apple Watch rather than by tapping the shutter release button on your iPhone. This way, you'll avoid camera shake and blurry photos.

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

If you don't have or don't want to buy an Apple Watch, do invest a few bucks for a Bluetooth remote shutter release. Here are a few such Bluetooth Remote Shutters on Amazon.

Recommended camera app for taking a long exposure on iPhone

If I had to recommend just one camera app for long exposure photography, it would be Slow Shutter Cam App for the reasons I already outlined:

  • Works excellent even in low light situations
  • Supports different shooting modes
  • Freely select the shutter speed
  • Supports manual ISO speed setting
  • Works with all three lenses of current iPhone models.

With this camera app, you'll get an app that works equally well for capturing a long exposure and motion during the day and night. As a convenience, here's the link to the full Slow Shutter Cam App review again.

Seven long exposure photography ideas to try with your iPhone

And finally, as you've made it to the end of this blog post, here are some ideally to get you started with long exposure photography on your iPhone:

  • Take a long exposure of a waterfall with iPhone to capture 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 timeframe from the rocket launch until it explodes.
  • Find a well-illuminated building in your city and capture a sharp and noise-free night photo.
  • Take a long exposure of a fountain and as a bonus idea: Photograph a well-illuminated fountain at night.
  • Go to a fairground and try to take a long exposure of spinning rides with your iPhone. Experiment with different exposure times.
  • Try to remove people from a busy street or place by taking a long exposure of several minutes during the day or at night.

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