Photography Lighting Techniques

Creative Shutter Drag Technique Combining Flash and Ambient Light

When Camera Movement Is a Creative Choice

Shutter drag or dragging the shutter is a flash technique. You can do it with speedlights or monolights and it can be used in a studio or on location, depending on the circumstances and the results that you’re after. I’m going to show you some images that use this technique, plus I’m going to throw in some drastic camera motion to create a really cool outcome.

We all learn very quickly that using electronic flash causes the light to fall off rapidly and that a single flash tends to make for a very dark background. When I was a newspaper photographer, I learned that I could brighten the dark backgrounds by setting my exposure for the subject and the flash and then lowering the shutter speed, aka creating shutter drag, which then allows more ambient light to be recorded. This works because the shutter speed has no effect on your flash exposure since the flash fires at a speed much faster than your camera.

In this photo below of two young cheerleaders I used direct flash, but set my shutter speed to 1/10th of a second. This was hand held.

cheerleaders in front of bonfire

In this photo of a house with Christmas lights, my camera is on a tripod for a 4 second exposure at f/8. Even though it is a wide angle shot, I needed f/8 for enough depth of field to keep the whole house in focus. The flash fired when I pressed the shutter and the 4 second exposure allowed the much dimmer Christmas lights to record.

house with Christmas lights taken with shutter drag

Similarly, this was an assignment I did for a rare Philadelphia Eagles playoff game. I was shooting in a bar.

Eagle fans cheering, shot with shutter drag

I had a flash on camera bouncing into a white card and a flash in the back of the bar. In order to not have completely dark spots in the bar, I shot at 1/8th of a second to allow the ambient light to fill in the dark areas that weren’t lit by the strobes.

You can also get a little creative with shutter drag. Here are two shots of a small town parade after dark. This was in a rural setting with almost no ambient light, so shooting at 1/10th of a second to pick up as much ambient as possible also recorded the streaks from the few lights that did exist in the scene.

colorguard girl marching with flag, shot with shutter drag
Saxophone player in marching band, shot with shutter drag

So basically what’s happening in all of these shots is that the shutter opens and begins recording the ambient light. The flash fires and lights the subject for an extremely brief period of time- that’s how you are able to get a sharp image of the subject. Then the camera continues to record ambient light until the shutter closes.

Model shot using shutter drag

That brings us to the first of our two images featured in my video.

This image was inspired by the movie The Fifth Element. My model had made this outfit as a Halloween costume so we decided to go sci-fi and futuristic with the shot:

sci fi model in front of orange background shot with shutter drag

To do this, I have a single beauty dish setup on camera right, with no modifier on the dish. I have a second strobe also on camera right, set low aiming up with a blue gel on it.

Digital rendering of studio setup

Behind the model on camera left is another strobe with an orange gel. This is dialed up brighter than I would normally do a rim, but we were going for a bit of a chaotic feel to the shot and I felt this would help. The light that you see on camera right and behind the model is a continuous light. In this case it’s a Lowell Tota light with a halogen bulb. This is the light that I am using for my ambient light to create the ghosting effect when I drag the shutter.

It is important to note that to make this work, you have to turn off all the lights in the room, including the modeling lights on your studio strobes. Otherwise they will be recorded as ambient light and will override your lighting.

We added a large piece of orange tulle and a fan on camera right to force it to blow around the model. The background is an orange seamless paper roll.

The shot was made with an 85mm f/1.8 lens set at f/16. The shutter speed was 1/5th of a second and the ISO was 100.

But here is the trick to using the shutter drag to get this motion effect: the shot is handheld, and as I am firing the trigger, I am moving the camera from side to side rapidly. This is a scenario where you need to shoot a ton of frames. It is an experiment all the way; the only guarantee with this technique is lots of bad shots, so you have to shoot until you get the good ones. It helps if you can shoot tethered so that you can see the images easily as you are shooting. I will usually set up my laptop cart just off to the side but within eye range so that I can peek at the images easily as I shoot. If you don’t shoot tethered, no worries,  just take breaks and review your images on the LCD screen

The final image required very little post production beyond the usual color, contrast, sharpening and, of course, removing of blemishes.

Second shot using shutter drag

The second image that I have for you is a portrait. You may have seen this one before on my website:

Closeup on Model with red background shot with shutter drag

This one was done with just two lights. A beauty dish placed on camera left with a sock diffuser and a halogen Lowell Tota-light on camera right to light the background. I went with a low camera angle on this one to create additional drama and placed the model in front of a dark red seamless paper backdrop.

Digital rendering of studio setup

The shot was made with an 85mm f/1.8 lens  set at f/10  The shutter speed was also 1/5th of a second and the ISO was 100.

Just like the previous shot, I was moving the camera from side to side rapidly as I took the photo.

This image also required very little post.

So there you go! You may have seen other tutorials about using shutter drag for outdoor portraits, but here is a way to use that same technique creatively in a studio setting.

As always, the possibilities are only limited by your own imagination.

I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman

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Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
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