Street photography: how to remove distracting elements with long exposures

Remove distractions with long exposure photography
(Image credit: Kim)

There are many elements you can control when taking photographs, including adjusting and optimizing the aperture (opens in new tab), ISO (opens in new tab) and shutter speed (opens in new tab). There are also plenty of factors you can't control, especially when shooting outdoors. 

When you're shooting famous buildings or busy places, people, cars or even birds can become unwanted distractions, dominating the frame and drawing attention away from the architecture you are trying to focus upon.

The best travel camera (opens in new tab) is ideal for shooting city scenes

To focus solely on your subject means you might either spend a long time waiting for the all-clear or lots of extra work using photo editing software (opens in new tab), so what do you do when other elements in the frame make your photograph appear unbalanced? 

Long exposure is a great approach for removing distracting subjects. Long exposure is one method that has been used in countless genres of photography as a creative tool – this is often how city lights or nature images are artfully staged. 

In this case, the intention is not to present basic picture elements in a specific aesthetic way or to change them creatively but to eliminate these distractions. The goal is to create a balanced photograph without crowds so that the focus is on the main elements. You can use ND filters for long exposure photography during the day, which is what we're going to look at in more detail here.

Before & after

Before: Distraction In this busy environment, people have wandered into the frame. The shot appears cluttered and the viewer’s attention is drawn away from the architecture and towards other elements (Image credit: Future)
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Final: Balance and focus The impressive architecture is now the main focus of the image. Using simple photographic techniques, we have created a balanced photograph (Image credit: Future)
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Shooting steps

1. Get the right equipment

(Image credit: Future)
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A tripod (opens in new tab) and camera remote (opens in new tab) minimizes the risk of blurry images. Do not forget to pack your neutral density filters and use a camera phone (opens in new tab) as a timer. Make sure your camera batteries are charged as long exposure times require a lot of energy.

2. Compose your shot

(Image credit: Future)
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Walk around the subject to find a suitable angle of view. Avoid using sections where distracting elements such as parked cars may be placed as this method isn’t effective at removing subjects permanently within the scene.

3. Switch to manual

(Image credit: Future)
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Set your camera to manual exposure mode (opens in new tab). It is also advisable to deactivate the image stabilization function, as the system tries to compensate for shake that does not exist. If you keep it active, it may result in unwanted blur in your photograph.

4. Focus point

Architecture

(Image credit: Future)

Set the focus manually on the subject and remember to check that you have deactivated the automatic focus. Find a focus point within your scene that is clearly visible and cannot be obscured or blocked by moving subjects.

5. Attach ND filter

(Image credit: Future)
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Mount the neutral density filter but take care not to accidentally adjust the focus point as you do so. Here, ND slide-in filters are easier to handle than circular filters, as they are attached in advance using a holder in front of the lens.

6. Calculate exposure time

(Image credit: Future)
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Set your exposure time in Bulb mode and use your phone as a timer. Most busy scenes require an exposure duration of at least three minutes to achieve clear results. Finally, press the remote shutter release button to shoot your image.


After reading this article, you might also like:

Photography cheat sheet: what is metering? (opens in new tab)
The best camera for street photography (opens in new tab)
Blur skies for easy long exposures in Photoshop (opens in new tab)

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Kim Bunermann
Technique Editor

Kim is the Technique Editor of Digital Photographer Magazine. She specializes in architecture, still life and product photography and has a Master's degree in Photography and Media with a distinction from the FH Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences in Germany. While studying, Kim came to the UK for an exchange term at the London College of Communication. She settled in the UK and began her career path by joining Future. Kim focuses on tutorials and creative techniques, and particularly enjoys interviewing inspiring photographers who concentrate on a range of fascinating subjects including women in photography, the climate crisis; the planet, its precious creatures and the environment.

With contributions from