How to take long exposure Photos on iPhone

Doing long-exposure photography on iPhone was one of the few things I missed when I turned to iPhone Photography back in 2012. But soon, clever developers released the first camera apps that enabled you take long exposure photos with iPhone. One of them was Slow Shutter Cam App, that I've been using ever since then.

Today, you have several options to take long exposure photos on iPhone, and in this blog post, I'll outline a few ways and apps that I use myself.

Table of Contents:

What's a long exposure photo?

Usually, when you take a photo, the iPhone camera app uses a fast shutter speed that's measured in fractions of a second, e.g., 1/100 second.

To take a long exposure photo on iPhone and to blur the moving subject, you'd have to use a notably slower shutter speed and keep the shutter open for several seconds. The problem is that the iPhone's shutter speed is limited to one second, and even third-party camera apps can't overcome this limitation.

To get around this hardware limitation, clever iPhone developers released camera apps for iPhone that take dozens of photos within a single second and combine them into a single image to simulate the motion blur effect of a long exposure.

An early (2014) long exposure photo shot on iPhone using Slow Shutter Camera App

An early (2014) long exposure photo shot on iPhone using Slow Shutter Camera App

So let's have a look at the different options and camera apps for long exposure photography on iPhone.

How to take a long exposure on iPhone?

To do long exposure photography on iPhone, you need a dedicated camera app. Depending on the type of long exposure I want to take, I use one of the following three camera apps.

Slow Shutter Cam App: The most versatile long exposure camera app

I'll start this list with my favorite long exposure camera app. I discovered it sometime in 2013 and that I've been using for my long exposure photography on iPhone ever since then: Slow Shutter Cam App. The app works on all recent iPhone models.

Slow Shutter Camera App comes with three different shooting modes:

  • Motion Blur
  • Light Trails
  • Night Photography

Slow Shutter Cam App covers all long exposure photography needs with these three shooting modes: From blurring motion to creating light trails at night to taking well exposed and low noise photos at night.

You can read more about the different shooting modes in my extensive Slow Shutter Cam App review.

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

40 Second long exposure of the London Eye shot using Slow Shutter Cam App

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

If you'd ask me for just three reasons why you should try Slow Shutter Cam App, these would be:

  • Three different shooting modes that cover all the different aspects of long exposure photography on iPhone
  • It supports all three lenses of the iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 and allows you to set the ISO speed manually
  • It comes with an Apple Watch app that you can use as a remote shutter release to avoid camera shake when opening the shutter.

Please note that you'll need a tripod when using Slow Shutter Cam App. Like with a DSLR, your photos will be blurry otherwise because you have to keep the iPhone steady when taking a long exposure, and Slow Shutter Cam app does not have image stabilization.

If you're looking into light painting photography, Slow Shutter Cam App has you covered, too. Set the shooting mode to Light Trail, the shutter speed to bulb, enable focus lock, and tap once to focus. Now use any light source for light painting.

I use this technique to take photos in total darkness with iPhone.

Did I mention that I've published a comprehensive review of Slow Shutter Cam App? If you want to get Slow Shutter Cam App right away, you can download Slow Shutter Cam App from the App Store. It's available for a one time purchase.

Live Photos: The most convenient way for long exposure photography with iPhone

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

Since iOS 11, you can convert such a 3-second Live Photo to a long exposure photo. The results are pretty neat. Here's an example of such a Live Photo I converted to a long exposure on an iPhone 11 Pro.

Live Photo Long Exposure of a streetcar entering a tunnel

I tend to use Live Photos for long exposure photography in good light conditions, and if I don't want to use my tripod because Live Photos use the iPhone's image stabilization.

But there are some disadvantages of using Live Photos for long exposure photography that you should be aware of. And the first one is image stabilization.

Suppose you don't hold the iPhone steady while it takes the Live Photo. In that case, Photos App will crop the resulting photo if you convert it to a long exposure because of the image stabilization. Thus you'll end up with a slightly lower image resolution, meaning: fewer pixels.

I still see this effect with modern iPhones like the iPhone 12 Pro Max, though it's not as strong as it used to be with older iPhone models.

Second, you're limited to a shutter speed of 3 seconds, which you can't change or adjust. Sure, you can crop the 3-second video clip and create a long exposure from that shorter clip. But my results with that process were mixed.

So, let's see it this way: Live Photos are a great way to capture long exposure snapshots. If I should provide three reasons why to use Live Photos for long exposure photography with iPhone, these are:

  • You don't need a third-party camera app. Live Photos is built into the stock iOS camera app
  • You don't need a tripod because it has built-in image stabilization. But beware that the image stabilization may produce slightly cropped photos with a lower resolution.
  • It works with all three lenses of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 11

To summarize: Taking a Live Photo is a great and easy way to get started with long exposure photography on iPhone, and it's great for taking snapshots in good light conditions.

To learn more, head over to my blog post describing how to convert a Live Photo to a long exposure.

Night mode camera apps: To simulate a long exposure in low light conditions

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

ProCamera app was one of the first iPhone camera apps to introduce such a special low light mode.

These night mode camera apps work similarly to what Slow Shutter Cam App and Live Photos do. They take a series of differently exposed photos and merge them into a single, low noise, and well-exposed photo that simulates a long exposure taken at night. However, night mode camera apps won't allow you to capture light trails at night.

Here's such a photo taken using the Low Light mode of 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 the iOS night mode 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 Apple introduced night mode, 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.

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

Here's a photo of a railroad bridge in Bratislava, Slovakia, that I took using iOS night mode camera.

iPhone night mode camera simulating a long exposure

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

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 or blur motion with such a camera app. For that, you'll need a camera app like Slow Shutter Camera App.

Answers to frequently asked questions about taking a long exposure with iPhone

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 use Live Photos. 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, independently of the 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 use a remote shutter release to avoid camera shake when pressing the shutter release.

All the camera apps I mentioned in this blog post come with a companion Apple Watch app that you can use as a remote shutter release. With 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, invest a few bucks for a Bluetooth remote shutter release. Here are a few such Bluetooth Remote Shutters on Amazon.

Which camera app do you recommend to take 30-second long exposure photo with iPhone

For taking a long exposure of 30 seconds or longer with iPhone, I'd recommend Slow Shutter Cam App. It comes with a bulb mode that allows you to keep the shutter open as long as you need.

What's the best camera app for long exposure photography 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:

  • It supports different shooting modes to cover different aspects of long exposure photography on iPhone
  • It works with all three lenses of the latest iPhone models and even runs on older iPhone models.
  • You can freely adjust the shutter speed and even set it to bulb mode. That mode allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you want.

As a convenience, here's the link to the Slow Shutter Cam App review again.

Are there any alternatives to the camera apps you recommend in this post?

I recommend the three-camera apps in this blog post because I use them myself quite often. Of course, there are other alternatives, and I even tried some of them but always returned to the three apps in this blog post. Either because these long exposure camera apps didn't have a feature I needed or the results were not what I expected. But as a courtesy, here are other camera apps I know of that'll help you to take long exposure photos on your iPhone.

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 ideas to try 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 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 some impressive long exposures with iPhone together.

For additional inspiration for taking a long exposure with iPhone, you may want to check the other blog posts about long exposure photos with iPhone, including tutorials and some photo spots.