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How to Drag the Shutter for Creative Portrait Photography

Drag the shutter for creative portraits

Once you’ve spent a while doing portrait photography, you may find yourself in a creative rut. You’ll want to keep shooting, but you’ll struggle to come up with new ideas to take your portraits to the next level.

That’s when it can be a good idea to try a more experimental technique. The results won’t be conventional, but avoiding conventions can sometimes be good, especially when you’re looking to break down barriers to creativity.

Now, there are a lot of great techniques that allow you to add visual interest to your images at the time of capture, including multiple exposures, multiple flash exposures, and placing objects in front of your lens. But in today’s article, I want to discuss a different approach, called dragging the shutter. It requires a flash, but it’s very easy to do, and it results in beautiful ghostly images:

Dragging the shutter for creative portrait photos
Dragging the shutter when using flash is an easy and fun technique, and it’s guaranteed to add some interesting effects to your photos.
Canon 5D Mark III | EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro | 50mm | f/9 | 1s | ISO 100

So how does the shutter-dragging technique work? Let me show you how I capture creative portraits in my studio:

What is dragging the shutter?

While it might sound complicated, dragging the shutter simply involves using a slower shutter speed than you normally would – while also firing off a flash.

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

Dragging the shutter for creative portrait photos
On the left, you can see the image with just flash. On the right, the shutter speed was changed to 1s, which allowed the camera to record the flash’s modeling light throughout the exposure.
Canon 5D Mark III | EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro | 50mm | f/9 | 1/60s (left), 1s (right) | ISO 100

By slowing your shutter speed down and firing the flash, your camera will record both the artificial (flash) light as well as the ambient light. You will still freeze anything lit by the flash, but anything lit by the ambient will also be recorded. And if your subject is moving, it’ll appear as a ghostly blur in the image.

Note: Because your shutter speed will be allowing ambient light to reach the camera sensor, your exposure will be brighter than when only using flash.

How to drag the shutter

As I emphasized above, dragging the shutter is pretty easy to do! Here’s what I recommend:

What you need

Dragging the shutter for creative portrait photos
The images displayed throughout this article were made with a medium-sized modifier on a strobe and a white reflector.

You don’t need much equipment to use a shutter-dragging technique. A basic setup will require:

  • A camera with manual settings
  • A flash

If you’re in a dark studio, you’ll need your flash to have a modeling light, which comes on most strobes. Alternatively, if you prefer to work with flashes that don’t have modeling lights (e.g., speedlights), you can use some other source of ambient light, such as window lights.

The step-by-step process

Dragging the shutter for creative portrait photos
Canon 5D Mark III | EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro | 50mm | f/9 | 1.6s | ISO 100

For a technique with complicated-looking results, setting up the shutter-dragging approach and getting started is quite straightforward! Here’s what I recommend:

Step 1: Light and pose your subject as desired. Because the flash will record this pose, treat it as you would a normal shot. Yes, the well-lit and carefully posed subject won’t be the only element featured in your photo, but it’ll be the main focus, so you want to get it right.

Step 2: Choose your aperture. You can choose this 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 portrait photos
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.
Canon 5D Markk III | EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro | 50mm | f/9 | 1s (left) 2.5s (left) | ISO 100

Step 4: Make sure your subject knows to change their pose as soon as the flash fires. Then ask them to hold that second pose until the shutter closes again. (They don’t have to hold the second pose; feel free to experiment with different approaches here! It’s just one way to do it effectively.)

Dragging the shutter for creative portrait photos
You are not limited to one movement. Here, the subject move her head to each side on a verbal cue.
Canon 5D Mark III | EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro | 50mm | f/9 |2.5s | ISO 100

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 will be 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 portrait photos
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.
Canon 5D Mark III | EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro | 50mm | f/9 | 1s | ISO 100

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 slowly 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 images!

Dragging the shutter for creative portrait photos
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 portrait photos
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.
Canon 5D Mark III | EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro | 50mm | f/9 | 1.6s | ISO 100

There is so much that you can do when dragging the shutter like this. Instead of your subject moving their head, 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. If you come up with an interesting idea, give it a try and see what comes out.

In the end

Dragging the shutter for creative portrait photos
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.
Canon 5D Mark III | EF 50mm f/2.5 Macro | 50mm | f/9 | 1s | ISO 100

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.

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