Long Exposure Photography Tips – Detroit

I’ve lived in Metro Detroit my whole life. So, I might be a little biased when I say that Detroit is my favorite city. Having traveled a bit in my lifetime so far, I’ve yet to encounter any city that comes close to the uniqueness of Detroit and the hospitality of her people. Detroiters love their city, passionately. It is one of the aspects of Detroit, that I truly love.

The last few years, Detroit has experienced a revival which has seen the restoration and re-purposing of some of the classic Art Deco sky scrapers, new developments, new shops, and awesome restaurants finding their way downtown. This, coupled with the creation of a veritable sports mecca right in the thick of it all, has played a big role in giving the people of Metro Detroit a reason to head back to Downtown Detroit as a destination. It is such a contrast from where we were as a city, only 20 years ago.

This “new life”, has provided photographers a much more active city with more subjects to photograph. More activity can be both a benefit as well as a challenge to your photography endeavors. This factor definitely makes for a more enjoyable and interesting experience.

For the purposes of this article, I’m unsurprisingly going to concentrate primarily on long exposure opportunities within the city. Not only is it my favorite style of photography; experimentation with long exposures, has taught me quite a lot about… well.. everything in photography. Using light, over time, to burn an image onto the “film”, really gets into the principles of taking photos. How light, and time affect an image. It can also teach us, the hard way about principles like diffraction and where not to focus.

As you stick around here, you’ll find that long-exposure photography is a technique in photography that I employ quite a lot. You might even say it’s my schtick. There’s just something special to me about capturing more than just a single moment in time in a single photo. This ability, which allows the light and motion of the scene to paint itself collectively into a single frame, is something which has always appealed to me. There is really nothing else like it! In my view, the notion of even giving water & clouds a more surreal appearance than you’d find in a quicker exposure, allows for a more artistic interpretation of reality.

Before anything else, let’s get started with our tour of great Detroit locations where you can hone your skill with long-exposures!

The first spot on our tour, is Belle Isle Park’s Sunset Point.

While there is a lot of interesting subjects throughout Belle Isle, Sunset Point is one of the most obvious choices. To me, it lives up to it’s name and is the very best vantage point in Metro Detroit to catch a sunset for two main reasons. First? Simply because it’s an interesting scene. The second reason is because it provides a low unobstructed horizon, which gives you a larger window of opportunity to capture interesting light and color and a bigger likelihood of… Drama.

Sunset Point is also an excellent vantage point for blue hour, and night shots of the Windsor-Detroit skyline. To give you an visual representation of what you can expect, all of the following photos are taken from Sunset Point. As you’ll see it provides a wide range of potential scenes and photographic implementations.

Long exposure photo of Detroit and Windsor at sunset
If you get lucky, Sunset Point will truly live up to it’s name!
Detroit and Windsor skyline on a cloudy day.
If a sunset isn’t in the cards, don’t pack up and leave. You can still get awesome shots here!
Detroit and Windsor skyline at night.
If you don’t get a sunset, but are determined to get a shot. Wait it out until the night falls! This was taken on a very hazy and fairly calm December evening.
Windsor Ontario's Walker Whiskey Distillery
Don’t forget to look to the left! Some cool shots of Windsor’s great spots can be had. This is a shot of the Walker Whiskey Distillery in Windsor Ontario.


{Want to learn more about Belle Isle’s other opportunities? Check THIS out! -Link to Belle Isle Cornerstone-}

The second stop is across “the bridge”, in Dieppe Gardens from Windsor Ontario.

The scene from over in Windsor is similar in principle to what you would capture on Belle Isle. The main difference is that it provides much of a larger than life perspective of the Motor City Skyline. If you wish to capture this scene in one image, you’re going to need to bring along a wide angle lens. At least 18mm on an APS-C sensor or, 28mm on a Full-Frame sensor camera. The option to go wider than this will, at times, be appreciated though. From here you can also capture the sun setting behind Detroit. But, if you wish to have the sun visible in the frame, due to the perspective, your opportunity will go away a bit faster at Dieppe Park. Either way, some awesome scenes can be captured here. It is also, in my humble opinion, the best place to catch the Windsor-Detroit Fireworks show that happens every June. Dieppe Gardens, as you might guess, is also a wonderful spot for night-time photography of Detroit’s skyline.

Downtown Detroit from Dieppe Gardens in Windsor Ontario
One of my oldest and more favorite shots of Downtown Detroit from Dieppe Gardens.
Blue hour shot of Detroit Skyline from Windsor
A very long exposure shot of Detroit from Windsor.  This was taken with a 10 stop ND filter.  It was getting fairly dark at this point as the sun had set.  The next photo will show you the difference in scenes when you take off the filter.  This shot required 3 minutes of exposure time.
Downtown Detroit as seen from Windsor's Dieppe Gardens
After I removed my ND filter, I took a 21 second exposure of the exact same scene. This will give you some idea of the effect 2 minutes and 39 seconds can make on a photo.


Our third stop is Campus Martius, right in the heart of the Woodward corridor.

Of our resurgent downtown area, Campus Martius is right in the heart of it all. In the more distant past, this park was several acres and was always a place for the locals and visitors to gather. In the 90’s the park was removed to accommodate larger roads in and out of the downtown area. The new park was re-dedicated in 2004 and has grown to become one of the most popular gathering places in Detroit.

This park, and the surrounding streets are a challenging spot to capture the motion of the city. Facing North on Woodward is one of our favorite spots to capture the lights of traffic passing by. The park itself is surrounded by skyscrapers and a traffic circle, and with the right wide angle perspective, one can capture some pretty dramatic scenes of the area. Another interesting challenge is to play around with the ice skaters on the rink in winter, and of course, we cannot forget Detroit’s Christmas tree which is always up around the holidays. During the holiday season, the park and the streets in the area are filled with lights and decoration adding much interest for your camera.

Northbound Woodward Ave in Downtown Detroit.
Facing North on Woodward, with Campus Martius right behind you, is a great spot to wait and capture a bus rolling by.
Detroit's Campus Martius Skate Park in Winter
The Campus Martius park, surrounding streets, and buildings provide a lot of subject matter in a very small area.


The Z-Deck is located right next to the popular Belt Alleyway. On the roof of the parking structure, in particular, is the point of interest here. The last time we were here, there was open access to go up to the roof to capture the scenery of the city surrounding it. You can witness wide vistas heading in most directions, and nearly every direction is a great place to practice long exposures of the city in motion below.

The view of the Woodward corridor from Detroit's Z-Deck parking structure.
If you’re lucky, this vantage from the Z-Deck will include both the People Mover passing by, and traffic on the roads below.
A view of Gratiot as seen from Detroit's Z-Deck.
On the other side of the structure, you can enjoy a view of Gratiot heading out toward the East side.

Millendar Center

The Millendar Center parking deck is another favorite spot of ours to visit when we’re in Detroit to capture the city lights. On the lower levels, you can capture a very dramatic view of the GM Building (also known as the Renaissance Center). From this vantage, if you time it correctly, you can grab the streak of the People Mover as it heads to the Renaissance Center. On the opposite that end of the deck, up on the roof, is a great spot to capture a broad view facing Campus Martius and the very picturesque Wayne County Building heading North on Randolph. This is another great spot to capture the motion of traffic and the lights of the city both near and far.

The scene from the Millendar Center parking structure.
For this shot from the Millendar Center deck, I was patient and managed to capture both the people mover and traffic below, both streaking by.
Detroit's Iconic Renaissance Center
On the level of Millendar Center’s parking structure just above the People Mover stop, you can grab dramatic shots of the iconic Renaissance Center.  You’ll need a really wide angle lens, though.  This was shot at 11mm on a Canon APS-C camera.  If you have a full frame, that equates to 17.6mm.

Why I Learned Long-Exposure Photography.

As you become more familiar with the varying personas throughout the photographic community, you’ll find that some photographers like this style while, some simply don’t (particularly when it comes to the smoothing effects it can have on water). I do like it… a lot. In fact, this ability is one of the first notable factors which really drew me into photography as an art form. For me, it is a very personal choice which stems from within the depths of my childhood. You see, I can still remember the first time I saw a long exposure photo of a highway at night.

I was very young, and my grandmother had a magazine of some sort laying around the house which had this particular photo where the photographer had utilized this style to capture what I thought was a deeply captivating scene. I had never seen anything like it before. To me, even at a young age, it made a mundane, every day scene into an amazing painting of light. In this example, the photographer had employed a long exposure technique to allow lights of the cars zooming along on the freeway below to paint streaks into the film. From this point on, I was deeply intrigued by this particular nuance of photography. Because of this otherwise typical moment in the life of a curious child, I always have had a soft spot for long exposures. It is something I never forgot. It was not until many years later, however, until I had the opportunity and equipment necessary to begin my own experimentation with light painting.

What you can learn about long exposure photography, composition, and technique in the city.

All that being said, if long exposure photography is something you would like to learn or experiment with… I’d say that a busy city at night is one of the best places to learn. This is due to a few factors – the most obvious of which is the constant movement of the cars along the city streets. However, there’s a lot to learn about composition and exposure here as well. For composition, you’ll find that the geometry inherent within the dynamics of the city’s buildings, it’s streets, and the stationary lights found everywhere make for an almost infinite number of composition possibilities. It brings into light, the various details which can make or break an otherwise compelling image. For instance, knowing where to place your camera to capture the motion in a meaningful way; without distracting from the scene by doing something like unwittingly placing your camera too close to an overwhelming light blasting down from above (yes I’ve done this). You’ll also need to figure out how much shutter time you will need, and which aperture is best for allowing for long enough light trails all while not over exposing the other light sources nearby. This is a technique which really digs into the science of photography as well as the art form.

What you’ll need to get started.

The good news, is that learning in this fashion is fun and can be done, as mentioned above, with any camera that allows you to hold the shutter open for 5-30 seconds. You’ll also need a sturdy tripod. A remote release is also nice but, most cameras these days can be triggered with a timer delay which will be good enough if you are not planning on stacking multiple images into one scene. Even some mobile phones these days are capable of time-exposures. However, I do recommend a dedicated camera which affords the flexibility of changing lenses, like a dSLR or Mirrorless. Even the most affordable interchangeable lens cameras released in the last 5 years or so have sensors which produce images capable of being printed quite large. Many of the images on this site were taken with such a camera.

If you are interested in learning more about photography, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter! We plan on providing many different tips, tricks, and even our favorite locations to help you in your adventures in learning photography. We also hope to offer workshops and classes in the near future, so please stay tuned for that!

Happy shooting!


Various equipment used in this post:
(Click the link to be taken to Amazon to purchase the product or it’s equivalent.)

Canon EOS 6D Mark II

Canon EOS 6D

Canon EOS Rebel SL1 (100D)

Nikon D750

Canon 24-105 F4L

Nikkor 24-120 F4

Sigma 17-70 F2.8/4 C

Tokina 11-16 F2.8 (Version 1)

ICE 10 Stop ND Filter

MeFOTO Backpacker Tripod

Nothing in the world is more exciting to a photographer than, the perfect light at the perfect moment. However, if this convergence of events happened all the time, perfect light might become imperfect, and the amazing could become mundane. Since the perfect scene is dictated by nature... a travel photographer must make the best use of the opportunity at hand. Attempting to make the mundane, extraordinary with creativity and a variety of techniques. This pretty much sums up my experience with nature and scenic photography. Which forces me to do my best to make the most of the opportunities at hand... regardless of what mother nature has planned. I look forward to sharing our adventures in Michigan, and showing off the beauty of our mitten-shaped corner of the world. While also sharing some of my knowledge of photography, which might be helpful in your adventures.

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