iPhone photo trick: Take stunning long exposure pics with no extra apps or equipment


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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The iPhone 11 Pro’s triple camera array takes some of the best images you can get from a phone, and even the iPhone SE‘s single camera captures amazing images that belie its affordable price. But hidden inside these phones, specifically ones launched after the iPhone 6, is a creative trick that lets you transform your everyday images into dreamy long exposure shots.

Read: iPhone 12 Pro Max camera: Why this pro photographer is super excited

A long exposure photograph is any image where the shutter has been intentionally left open long enough to blur the motion in the image. Look up pictures of waterfalls and you’ll undoubtedly see images where the raging torrent of water has been smoothed out into this otherworldly flow — that’s a long exposure image. 

To take this sort of image with a DSLR camera, you usually need a tripod to keep the camera steady and a filter that blocks out light. This is often required because leaving the shutter open for a second or more can let in too much light that the image becomes too bright.

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A standard image taken with the iPhone 11 Pro (left) and the same image, with the long exposure mode enabled (right). 


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The iPhone uses a different and much more cunning technique, however, that doesn’t require extra equipment. It uses Live Photos, a feature that turns a still image into a short animation by recording a few seconds of video when you fire the shutter. 

By analyzing which objects are moving, the iPhone captures the movement and blurs it. It’s also able to recognize what isn’t moving (a rock or a wall, for example) and attempts to keep those objects sharp and in focus. It’s a brilliant method because it lets you capture long exposure images in even bright mid-day sun without using a tripod or filter. Take that, DSLRs. 

Here’s how you can get started.

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The rushing water makes for an attractive blurred subject, while the rocks remain static and sharp.


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Know what makes a good long exposure shot

Not everything works as a long exposure image. A close-up of a flower blowing in the breeze will just become a blurry mess, while a picture of a static car will just remain, well, static. 

What you need is a scene where there are both static and moving elements. Waterfalls are common subjects as the rushing water will be blurred while the rocks all around will remain solid. Any body of water, really, would be a good subject to experiment with. 

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The standard shot (left) looks like any old, forgettable snap from a Disney park. But a long exposure (right) transforms it into an ethereal image that really shows off the movement in the scene.


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You can also try busy city streets (remember your social distancing!). The long exposure effect would keep the buildings and roads sharp and fixed in the image, but the people walking all around will be blurred into ghostly figures, which would look atmospheric and dramatic. 

Turn on Live Photos

Getting a long exposure image requires the movement that’s recorded in a Live Photo, so it’s critical that the mode is activated when shooting. It’s located in the top right of the screen in the camera (when held in portrait orientation) or the top left (in landscape orientation). You’ll see an icon of two circles surrounded by a third dotted circle. If there’s no line through it, then Live Photos is activated. If there’s a line through it, tap the icon and you’ll see the message “Live” appear on-screen in a little yellow box. 

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Make sure this icon doesn’t have a line through it.


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Keep steady

Although the iPhone doesn’t require a tripod to get a good long exposure image, you’ll get the best results if you keep the phone as steady as possible while it’s taking the Live image. I suggest resting the phone against a wall or some other fixed surface while shooting. If you have to hold the phone in your hand, I find that tucking my elbows in toward my body and holding my breath helps decrease motion blur while taking the shot. 

It’s a good idea to take multiple shots too, hammering the shutter button while you hold the position. This way you’ll increase your chances of capturing at least one image that’s stable enough to produce an attractive long exposure.

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Swipe up on your Live Photo in the gallery and activate the ‘Long Exposure’ effect.


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Create the long exposure

Once you captured your Live Images, it’s time to transform it into the actual long exposure. Open the image you’ve settled on in your gallery and swipe up. This will bring up a panel called “Effects” where you can loop the motion in the video into gifs. Swipe to the end of the effects panel though and you’ll see one called Long Exposure. Tap it. 

It’ll take a second or two, but you’ll quickly see how any motion in your shot has been blurred into the dreamy effect you’re after. You can then zoom in to check that it’s still nice and sharp. Feel free to apply the same effect to others photos you took of the same scene, just in case they worked out better. 

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I didn’t intend to make this shot a long exposure when I first took it, but because it was a Live Photo, I was able to go back later and turn the long exposure mode on.


Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Check your library

Before you dash out to find your nearest waterfall, have a look through your library to see if you already have images that would work. The great thing about using the iPhone’s long exposure tool is that you don’t need to use it while you’re shooting. You can go back and apply it to any long exposure image you’ve taken up until now. 

Perhaps you visited Niagara falls or Havasu Falls in Arizona a few years ago and you happened to have Live Photos activated when taking your shots. You can swipe up and activate long exposure on any of those shots. You can even go into your “Live Photos” album in your gallery to see all the shots you’ve got on your phone that can be transformed into long exposures. My advice? Put a good podcast on, settle into a comfy chair and see what dreamy shots you can dig out of your library. 



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