Dragging The Shutter: Balancing Fill Flash With Ambient Light

Wedding receptions are notoriously dimly lit places that make use of a flash a must. In this shot, I wanted to balance the ambient light from the stage with my flash to create more depth to the image. EOS-1D X, EF 24-70 f/2.8L II. 600EX-RT Speedlite. 1/60, f/2.8, ISO 800.

Wedding receptions are notoriously dimly lit places that make use of a flash a must. In this shot, I wanted to balance the ambient light from the stage with my flash to create more depth to the image. EOS-1D X, EF 24-70 f/2.8L II. 600EX-RT Speedlite. 1/60, f/2.8, ISO 800. Photo by Rick Berk/kNot Photography

Shooting indoors with a flash can challenge the best of photographers. Many times, the goal is simply to create enough light to illuminate your subject, and background be damned.  The results, however, tend to be less than pleasing when we allow the flash to be the only light source.  Assuming there is some ambient light in the room, adjusting the settings in your camera can help allow that ambient light into your exposure and create more depth in your image.

Most cameras typically sync with a flash at around 1/200 or 1/250 of a second.  While this speed is fine for the flash alone, it is generally too fast a shutter speed to allow ambient light to factor into the exposure. This creates images with a brightly lit subject and a very dark background.  To allow more ambient light in, you’ll want to slow your shutter down.  Putting the camera into Manual mode will allow you to adjust your shutter speed to do this.  You can then also open your aperture as wide as it can go to allow as much light as possible into the scene.  This technique is typically known as “dragging the shutter”.

The problem with dragging the shutter is that if the shutter speed is too slow, any movement can cause a ghost image, ruining the shot.  So you’ll need to keep the shutter speed fast enough to avoid that.  This may not allow enough ambient light in, so you have one last option to allow more light in.  Adjusting the ISO.  By raising the ISO speed, you make the camera’s imaging sensor more sensitive to light, allowing that ambient light to show in the image.

For the image above, the stage lighting for the band created a nice background light, but my flash was too powerful and my shutter speed too fast at the maximum sync speed of 1/250. By slowing down the shutter speed to 1/60, I gained two stops of light sensitivity.  I also raised the ISO to 800 to allow the sensor to be even more sensitive.  This allowed the flash to illuminate the bride and groom, and the stage lighting to show brightly in the background.

Another way to do this is to change the shooting mode on your camera. For most cameras, shooting in Program or Automatic means the camera will treat the flash as the only light source, and disregard the ambient light for exposure. However, if you change the mode on your camera to Aperture Priority, the camera then sets the exposure based on the ambient lighting, and flash is simply treated as fill.  The one caveat with this is that the camera could choose a shutter speed that is too slow to safely hand-hold, creating ghosting or blur in your image.  You’ll want to keep an eye on the shutter speed, and if necessary, raise the ISO to give you a faster shutter speed.  Many cameras also have a setting, allowing you set a minimum shutter speed when using flash in Aperture Priority mode to help avoid ghosting.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

  • Heidi Zech

    Have seen it at 1/60s, no hurt in using rear anyway. Plus, my hand might be the shaky one.

  • Melissa Hall


  • Milju Varghese

    How can take fast shutter speed pictures with flash??

  • If you are shooting that low shutter speed and aperture won’t the flash still be too bright. I was out in the late evening sky was almost night dark blue. I tired to get that in the shot but the flash killed it. IS there a way around that?

  • The issue with what you’re trying to do is that the night sky has almost no light, as you mentioned. There has to be some amount of ambient light that the camera can pick up, as with the stage lights in the shot I used in my example. The slow shutter speed picks up that light, but the flash, set on E-TTL, will properly expose the subjects in the foreground. When set on E-TTL, the flash regulates its output so that it doesn’t overexpose.

  • Thanks. So if I was in TTL instead of trying to do it manually I had a better chance? Oh, one more thing if something a subject and you want the ambient reading. Do you usually set your camera in shutter priority to see what aperture you can get?

  • Yes, if you were in TTL the flash would automatically regulate the light output for the aperture and available light in the scene. I don’t typically use Shutter Priority to see what aperture I can get. Typically if I’m in a situation like this, I know I need to be wide open or close to it. If the ambient light is brighter, then yes, I will use Shutter Priority to set the shutter speed and let the camera handle the aperture.

  • Desmond Downs

    1.) Most cameras “can” synch with flash at speeds “up to” 1/200th/250th sec, but that doesn’t mean the camera will choose that speed. It will depend on what you have your minimum shutter speed set to for flash in your menu.
    2.) Program mode, automatic mode AND aperture priority mode will behave the same. But not all cameras will behave as if flash is the only light source. Newer bodies will adjust to simply have the flash as “fill”. The camera programs are like the difference between Windows XP and Windows Vista, newer cameras are more like a Mac OS with their reliability 🙂
    3.) Manual is definitely the safest way to shoot in these situations but a simple adjustment like setting flash to “slow synch” can get very different results compared to the blanket statement that the camera will behave as if the flash is the only light source.

  • Program, Automatic, and Aperture Priority most definitely do NOT all behave the same. Program and AUTO both treat the flash as the main source of light on most cameras. Definitely they do on Canon cameras at the time I wrote the article. I worked as a Canon technical specialist and trainer for EOS Products and am intimately familiar with how the functions work in various situations.

  • jamesapril

    I use a diffuser on the flash unit itself and put it on extremely low power. That gives enough flash to light up the shadows without blowing out the highlights.

  • Akay

    ThanX for the info. I’m a novice inspite of many years with the equipment.
    In the pic above you used Canon 600, what was its setting.
    I have Canon 580, 5D III and 24-105 f/4.0. Could I achieve same/similar results ? At what settings?
    I RARELY use flash because I know nothing about how to use it. Therefore whenever I use it I create disastrous pics.

  • Akay

    Dear Mr. Berk
    Will you approve use of Canon 50 f/1.8 for such situations ? I don’t have 24-70 f/2.8 and nor do I have plans to buy it !

  • Akay

    As an afterthought I realised that if the article a piece of gem , most comments are nuggets of pure gold.

  • A 50mm f/1.8 will work fine.

  • Akay

    ThanX a ton.
    That’s what i adore about good teachers like U, adapting according individual student !

Some Older Comments

  • Darlene Hildebrandt June 6, 2013 06:34 am

    sorry I meant 1/15th of a second!!

  • Darlene Hildebrandt June 6, 2013 06:34 am

    @khurram yes that's true but in low light conditions you will just end up with a black background which is what is being avoided here by dragging the shutter. Also if you take the flash off camera that high speed sync will not work unless you have a remote trigger that is also TTL or the flash will communicate with the camera directly.

    @rick, how high was the ceiling? I've bounced off 20 footers that were wood beams, no problem.

    @manny he's said a few times it's in ETTL so the camera determines the flash output based on the aperture the camera is set to.

    @nikko yes that's what I usually do it Shutter priority and set it to about 1/5th of a second. I actually like the motion blur it creates, I also use rear curtain sync as mentioned earlier so the blur is behind them.

  • Andrew June 6, 2013 04:54 am

    Would be really interested to hear which metering mode you used and which part of the scene you metered from for this image

  • Manny May 27, 2013 01:02 pm

    i've tried this but got nowhere near the effect. what's the flash power? is it on full power, or 1/2 when you are in manual?

  • Rick Berk April 15, 2013 03:19 am

    @Kenny, flash was aimed at the couple, no bounce (ceiling was too high), on E-TTL mode.

  • Kenny April 13, 2013 04:25 pm

    Were you using TTL? Is the flash point directly at the couple or bounce ?

  • Khurram February 22, 2013 04:12 pm

    Very nice article.
    One thing i would like to add. If you have an external flash (Canon 480, 580 or 600 EX), you can turn on the high speed sync without worrying about the limited sync speed of 1/200 or 1/250 for builtin flash.

  • Brian February 22, 2013 11:59 am

    Good article with simple but understanable logiic a few tips worth remembering

  • Dinesh Arya February 22, 2013 04:38 am

    Great Article!
    Great Information...immediately experimented. got sucessful distictly different shots. Thanks a lot.

  • Eric Matson February 22, 2013 02:48 am

    Spot on! Too many folks run shy of M mode and fill-flash compositions, thinking it takes too long to execute a shot. They forget that the latest generations of digital DSLRs (Canon certainly) make M mode pretty quick and easy via their "null meter" indicator in the viewfinder. All it takes for confidence building is some practice in non-critical situations!

  • timgray February 19, 2013 02:52 am

    To the guys that is saying that ISO is analog gain after the fact. That is flat out wrong. changing ISO changes the sensitivity of the sensor by changing the charge pump voltage in a CCD to increase it's sensitivity. "BOOSTED" ISO is done post processing.

  • reggie February 18, 2013 10:39 pm

    The light from the flash looks soft and blends so well. Was it used with any modifier and was it on the camera?

  • Scottc February 18, 2013 09:55 pm

    Interesting technique, I rarely use a flash and it's use is something I can improve on.

    I've used this technique by accident a few times without really knowing what I was doing.


  • Agro February 18, 2013 12:26 pm

    Solid, great advice. I used the same principle here outdoor:


  • Dave February 18, 2013 05:17 am

    I wish people would stop saying increasing ISO makes the sensor more sensitive. It doesn't. Increasing ISO adds analog gain to the signal after it has been recorded. It is a form of post processing.

  • Richel February 18, 2013 05:14 am

    Thanks for the great article. I have heard about this technique before but never understood how or why it worked. Thanks for explaining it!

  • Nikko February 17, 2013 06:27 pm

    Some good tips, but I would've thought the easiest way would be to actually use the camera in Shutter speed priority mode and select the shutter speed you're comfortable with (and the flash in ETTL).

  • Jay February 17, 2013 01:06 pm

    To avoid white balance conflicts perhaps a gel on the flash?

  • Average Joe February 17, 2013 09:35 am

    Really great advice! I never would've guessed the shutter speed could change so much with this. Now I want to try this out! Thanks for the great article, Rick!

  • Ryan Jensen February 17, 2013 04:02 am

    One other thing you can use, if your camera supports it, is rear-curtain sync, which causes your flash to fire just before the shutter closes. That way, if there is any motion blur it looks naturally "behind" the subjects.

  • gnslngr45 February 17, 2013 03:57 am

    I definitely plan to use this in the near future. Love the results.


  • Steve Rubelmann February 17, 2013 03:06 am

    Hmm...that sounds way too simple. I will try that next chance I get. Here I am trying to master this stuff and going full manual and I could just leave it on auto. Thanks for the advice.

  • Rick Berk February 17, 2013 02:55 am

    Should have mentioned. I simply leave it on E-TTL and let the camera determine the exposure.

  • Steve Rubelmann February 17, 2013 02:48 am

    Great information. I wish the author had passed on his flash setting. The EX600 is a quite powerful flash and if left on full power, would probably washed out the subject. I have (unsuccessfully) experimented with my EX430 on Manual and lowering the output, but I can't get the effect I want. I used to do this with my Canon A-1 and Sunpak 422, but can't seem to get the EX430 to pay attention to me. Thanks for another great article on your great website.

  • Rick Berk February 17, 2013 01:46 am

    Thanks Paul. Sports are a whole different story, since freezing the action is paramount. Sometimes its a choice between a blurry picture or a flash-heavy exposure. I used to use wireless flash to light basketball, placing two off-camera speedlites in the corners of the court (usually mounted in the stands) to create a nicer quality of light than simple on-camera flash.

  • Paul Moyer February 17, 2013 01:43 am

    Nice article. I can really relate to the issue of trying to take a quality picture without ghosting or to high of an iso. This is especially difficult for me in indoor sporting events.

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