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Dragging the Shutter for Creative Portraits

dragging the shutter for creative portraits featured image

There are a lot of great techniques that allow you to add an element of movement or other visual interest to your images at the time of capture. Some of these include multiple exposures, multiple flash exposures and placing objects in front of your lens.

Dragging the shutter while using flash is another one of these techniques and it’s very easy to use.

Dragging the shutter for creative portraits.
Dragging the shutter when using flash is an easy and fun technique to add some interesting effects to your photos. EXIF: Canon 5D Mk III, EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro, 50mm, 1 sec, f/9, ISO 100, Manual Mode, Spot Metering.

Dragging the shutter

While it might sound complicated, dragging the shutter is simply using a slower shutter speed than you normally would while using flash.

With flash, your exposure is dictated by your aperture as the flash fires at a much, much faster speed than the sync speed on your camera.

Dragging the Shutter for Creative Portraits
On the left, you can see the image with just flash. On the right, the shutter speed was changed to 1 second allowing the camera to record the modelling light throughout the exposure. EXIF: Canon 5D Mk III, EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro, 50mm, 1/60 sec (Right: 1 sec), f/9, ISO 100, Manual Mode, Spot Metering.

By slowing your shutter speed down, you are allowing your camera to record ambient light as well. You will still freeze anything lit by the flash in the frame, but anything lit by the ambient will be recorded with any movement from either the subject or yourself.

Be aware that because your shutter speed is now allowing ambient light to record in your frame, your exposure will be brighter than it was with just the flash recording.

What you need

Dragging the shutter for creative portraits.
You don’t need much to use this technique. These images were made with a medium-sized modifier on a strobe and a white reflector.
  • A camera with manual settings
  • A flash with a modeling light if in a dark studio
  • Another ambient source of light if you don’t have a modeling light (i.e. speedlights).

How to set it up

Dragging the Shutter for Creative Portraits
For a technique whose results can seem complicated, setting it up and getting started is quite straightforward. EXIF: Canon 5D Mk III, EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro, 50mm, 1.6 sec, f/9, ISO 100, Manual Mode, Spot Metering.

Step 1: Light and pose your subject as desired. Because this is the pose that the flash is going to record, treat it as you would a normal shot as this will be the main focus of your image.

Step 2: Choose your aperture.

You can either choose your aperture based on the effect you want and set the flash power accordingly, or you can meter your flash and choose your aperture based on that reading.

Step 3: Choose a shutter speed slow enough to allow your subject to move after the flash has fired. This is variable and will depend on how your subject reacts to the technique and the end result that you want. Somewhere between half a second and one second is a good start when dragging the shutter.

Dragging the shutter for creative portraits.
Left: The shutter speed is 1 second. Right: A shutter speed of 2.5 seconds allowed for the subjects second pose to be recorded more clearly. EXIF: Canon 5D Mk III, EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro, 50mm, 1sec (Right: 2.5 sec), f/9, ISO 100, Manual Mode, Spot Metering.

Step 4: Make sure that your subject knows to change their pose as soon as the flash fires. Then hold that second pose (that’s one way to do it) until the shutter closes again.

Dragging the Shutter for Creative Portraits
You are not limited to one movement. Here the subject move her head to each side on a verbal cue. EXIF: Canon 5D Mk III, EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro, 50mm, 2.5 sec, f/9, ISO 100, Manual Mode, Spot Metering.

Step 5: Take a photo.

When the flash fires, it records the first pose your subject is in. After that, and after your subject moves, everything, including the movement and the second pose, is being recorded by the ambient light.

Step 6: Make adjustments.

Now that you have a test shot, you can evaluate how your image looks and adjust your shutter speed settings. Is your subject not moving fast enough or is the ambient not recording enough? Slow down your shutter speed. Is the ambient recording too much? Choose a faster shutter speed.

Dragging the Shutter for Creative Portraits
Once you have a shot, evaluate it on the back of the camera and make, or instruct your subject to make, any adjustments to help get the desired effect. EXIF: Canon 5D Mk III, EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro, 50mm, 1 sec, f/9, ISO 100, Manual Mode, Spot Metering.

You can also tweak any instructions you’ve given your subject.

If their poses are too close together, ask them to make sure they’re moving further from their initial position. Are they moving so slow that they’re not arriving at the second pose before the shutter closes? Let them know, and show them the back of the camera.

Since dragging the shutter like this relies on so many variables, communication between you and your subject is key.

Step 7: Take some more.

Dragging the shutter for creative portraits.
Dragging the shutter in this manner can be a tricky thing to get right. Keep going until you are sure you have something.

Dragging the shutter can be a very hit and miss technique. Take as many photos as you can to ensure that you get the result you are after.

Sometimes, magic happens and you might get it in the first few frames, but other times you’ll bang away at it for ages before everything seems to click. Since no two images will ever be the same, don’t be afraid to keep going until you’re confident with the result.

Step 8: Keep experimenting.

Dragging the Shutter for Creative Portraits
When the subject realized that this stool spins, she suggested we see what it looks like. Experimenting like this is a good way to find something new. EXIF: Canon 5D Mk III, EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro, 50mm, 1.6 sec, f/9, ISO 100, Manual Mode, Spot Metering.

There is so much that you can do with dragging the shutter like this. Instead of your subject moving their heads, have them hold their pose and cover their face with their hands once the flash has fired.

Instead of taking a second pose, have them keep moving their head for the duration of the exposure. Alternatively, instead of having your subject move, try moving the camera.

The choices are limitless. Not everything will work, but memory is cheap. Try it anyway and see what comes out.

In the end

Dragging the shutter for creative portraits.
Dragging the shutter is not a complicated technique, but it is one that offers a wealth of opportunities if you like the effects it can provide. EXIF: Canon 5D Mk III, EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro, 50mm, 1 sec, f/9, ISO 100, Manual Mode, Spot Metering.

Dragging the shutter with flash is a very easy technique to use, but it is unpredictable. That’s what makes it so fun. No matter what you do, no two images will be alike, so experiment a lot and see what you can come up with. If you have an idea that you don’t think will work, try it anyway. You’ll never know until you do.

Give this technique a try and share your results with us in the comments section below.

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John McIntire
John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.