The Secret iPhone Feature That Lets You Take Stunning Long-Exposure Photos

Use Live Photos to take gorgeous long-exposure shots, with no extra apps or equipment needed.

Andrew Lanxon Editor At Large, Lead Photographer, Europe
Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
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  • Shortlisted for British Photography Awards 2022, Commended in Landscape Photographer of the Year 2022
Andrew Lanxon
4 min read
an outdoor scene by a river
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If you've seen artistic photos of waterfalls or rivers, then you'll no doubt have seen long-exposure shots where the water is intentionally blurred to look silky-smooth while the surroundings -- the rocks and trees -- remain pin-sharp. It's a great technique to give the impression of motion in a still image, and it used to be something you'd need a DSLR with filters and a tripod to take. But a neat feature built right into your iPhone's camera can create these gorgeous photos.

You don't even need the latest iPhone 15 Pro or Pro Max to take advantage of this feature. It works on any iPhone launched after the iPhone 6.

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Read more: Take Your Best-Ever Photos With Your iPhone

The technique 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. This lets you capture long-exposure images in even bright midday sun without using a tripod or filter. Take that, DSLRs. 

A comparison image of a sea jetty with and without the long exposure effect

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

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

Here's how you can do it.

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 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 surrounding rocks will remain solid. Any body of water, really, would be a good subject to experiment with. 

An example image from a Disney park showing the long exposure effect

The standard shot (left) looks like any old 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.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

You can also try busy city streets. The long-exposure effect keeps the buildings and roads sharp and fixed in the image, but the people walking all around will be blurred into ghostly figures, which looks atmospheric and dramatic. 

This weekend's brilliant aurora borealis events are also a great opportunity for long-exposure photos. Because the lights are shifting so quickly, a long-exposure photo may capture reds and greens that our eyes might not even see. 

Turn on Live Photos

Getting a long-exposure image requires the movement that's recorded in a Live Photo, so it's critical that that 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 onscreen in a little yellow box. 

An image showing the Live Photos button on the iPhone 11's camera screen

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

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

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.

Create the long exposure

Once you've captured your Live image, it's time to transform it into the actual long exposure. Start by opening your image in the gallery app. In the top left you'll see a small icon saying Live with a small downward-pointing arrow next to it. Tap the arrow and you'll have the option to turn the image into a looping GIF, a bouncing GIF that plays forwards then backwards or, down at the bottom, a long exposure. 

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 other photos you took of the same scene, just in case they worked out better. 

If you happen to still be on iOS 14 or older, 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. But you really should update your phone to a more recent version.   

Image of a castle next a lake using the long exposure effect

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 Lanxon/CNET

Make long-exposure photos from existing Live images

If you don't have a view of auroras in the night sky, have a look through your library to see if you already have other images that would work for long-exposure photos. 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 Live image you've taken up until now. 

Perhaps you visited Niagara Falls in New York or Havasu Falls in Arizona a few years ago and you happened to have had 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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