Can you do long exposure photography without an ND filter? Yes!

Have you ever seen those photos where the water or clouds have motion blur, or are completely smoothed out? There is a cheap and easy way of achieving it with a filter but what if you can’t afford one? Let’s talk about options…

When I first started I was using a level entry camera and kit lens; the Nikon D5300 and the 18-55mm kit lens that comes with it as a part of a package.

I quickly discovered, because it was a budget camera, it had certain limitations. One big one was how it handled the dynamic range in a photo. This is the difference between the lightest part and the darkest part.

Nikon D5300 camera.

This is a great starter camera and still is, you just need to know the limitations of your camera, which is where this post comes in.

A preface: These examples were taken quite literally at the time I first started using a DSLR camera. These are not award-winning but I don’t think they are too bad for a novice to DSLR cameras, who was experimenting with different techniques.

I took both of the photos, on that D5300, the kit-lens and with no filters…

A long exposure of the sea, taken with budget DSLR camera and no ND filter.
A long exposure of the waves, taken with budget DSLR camera and no ND filter.

With photography, it is all about compromise and how far you are willing to push your settings to get the shot you want. So how did I get that softer water motion blur with no filter?

There were three parts that helped me. The first was figuring out what shutter speed created the most pleasing look in the waves. This took a lot of trial and error, on a lot of different mornings to figure a shutter-speed that worked well for the effect I wanted.

Both the photos above were taken with a 1.3 second shutter speed. I found, for my own taste, a 1 to 2.5 second shutter speed worked well for me, with my favourite being 1.3 seconds. I just like the way the waves look at that shutter speed.

So how do I maintain that shutter speed? That’s where the compromises kick in if you don’t have an ND filter. So here’s what I did…


I see a lot of people rock up to a sunrise just minutes before the sun comes up. The problem with that is that the sky is already bright and the dynamic range is already an issue for cheap cameras. Here’s the strange thing though… the colour in the sky is often there a long time BEFORE the sun peaks over the horizon.

My Nikon D5300 (and most basic cameras) really perform well around an hour to 30 minutes before sunrise.

Level entry cameras can really struggle when there is a big difference between the lightest parts of the image (the sky) and the darkest parts (the ground). What takes time, is figuring out how far you can push your camera to get the most out of it. What also takes time is knowing at what times your camera loves most and what scenes it handles well in those times.

In the pre-dawn light, everything is lovely and soft. There is much less dynamic range. When you couple that with the sky exploding in the reds and oranges of the pre-dawn light, I often wondered why people don’t arrive much earlier.

In the photo below, the dynamic range was quickly reaching the point that my camera would struggle, because the sky was rapidly getting much brighter than the ground. For my camera, this was the optimal moment to take the shot.

Sunrise and golden colours from a level-entry DSLR
The sun wasn’t due to rise for another 30 minutes when I took this

So tip 1 for basic cameras: Get there at least an hour before sunrise. You can have shutter speeds of 30 seconds or more (bulb mode) and the sky is so often beautiful at that time. You will find that your level entry camera will work much better in the pre-dawn dynamic range.

An hour before sunrise you could have 30-second exposures no problem. But as the sun gets closer to rising, the brightness increases and that time starts dropping quite quickly. I make sure my ISO is at the absolute minimum. Some cameras can go lower with the ISO than advertised. If yours can, try it and see if it is worth doing.

Your main control will be the F-stop number, called the aperture. Two of the photos above were shot at F22 because it was the only way to get the 1.3 seconds I needed for the look of the wave I wanted. Should you always shoot at those high F-stop numbers? No, it’s a compromise that needs talking about.

Every lens has a sweet-spot where at a certain F-stop range it is at its optimum sharpness. This is usually around F5 to F8. I think on my kit-lens it was F8 but on the lenses I use now, it’s around F5.6 to F6.3. DXO Mark is a brilliant website to check out for lens specs and sharpness tests.

I shot those photos above with the F-number so high because I needed the extra time those large F-numbers gave me, so I could get that 1.3 second exposure time and also get the most out of the dawn colours and light before it went too far.

Sometimes the light earlier was nicest (I could then shoot the 1.3 seconds I wanted at say, F4 or F6.3). As the sky got brighter I would keep raising the aperture until I could raise it no further. In some cases I got the shot at F6.3, other times, like above, the best shot ended up being when I clicked the shutter at F22.

I would lock in 1.3 seconds for the shutter speed and gradually increase the F-Stop number as the dawn sky grew brighter, always checking my cameras in-built exposure meter to make sure I wasn’t blowing out the highlights…

Using the camera's exposure meter
Use your camera’s exposure meter to keep everything exposed correctly

The inbuilt exposure meter would let me know if I was going overexposed. As the meter went further right (meaning I was starting to blow out the highlights, the brightest part of the image) I would raise my F-number to keep the exposure balanced and bring that meter back down towards ‘0’. This allowed me to keep the 1.3 second exposure time for as long as possible.

By shooting at F22, I’m sacrificing sharpness and introducing another problem; lens diffraction.

My nikon D5300 with 50mm F1.8 lens

As you increase the F-stop number, you lower the sharpness and reduce image quality because the camera is now struggling to get enough light in to give you a super sharp image.

I would never normally shoot landscapes past F11, but I’m usually around F8 because it is closer to the lenses optimal sharpness. I only ever use those high F-stop numbers when it is the only way to get the ‘look and feel’ of the shot I want.

At some point, and before the sun rises, you can go no higher and it simply isn’t possible to keep that 1.3 second exposure without an ND filter. What this shows though, it you can have a lot of fun before dawn and you can still have plenty of time to get the shot you want.

There is one other thing you could also try. The results are not quite as good but it is an option. You could take multiple images and blend them together in a programme like Photoshop. If you want to learn about this technique, check out this great tutorial on long exposure focus stacking.

Don’t forget, car trails at night can also be a lot of fun and basic cameras are great at capturing these because again, the dynamic range isn’t as challenging.

Car trails at night using a basic, level entry camera.
Car trails in Torquay, works well with budget cameras!

I usually shoot these around F13, ISO 100 and a 10-30 second exposure time.

I hope that helps. If you have any questions please ping me a message on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Simon Day

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