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