Dragging the Shutter

kelly_0319gmcBored with the studio I decided to head out into the night to put a little excitement back in my life and work. In the old days we often used a technique called; Dragging the Shutter. This is an excellent way to add depth to your low light environments. Usually any sturdy tripod and a speedlight or strobe is all that is required. Your camera will need to be capable of long exposures and a cable release could come in extremely handy, but a self timer should be a suitable substitute in the event you do not have a cable release.

We have all seen outdoor night shots taken with a flash that look as though they were shot in a black hole. By Dragging the Shutter I am allowing my speedlight to expose the model and leaving the shutter open longer to expose the background. By balancing your flash with available – ambient light, you can manipulate the final outcome of the photo. I am referring to as “blended light” because we are using two or more light sources and types of lights as well. This process of blending light will allow for infinite interpretation, which opens the door to your own creativity.



Balancing light with camera settings.

kelly_0292What we are really doing here is blending light to create a mood. We’re blending the light from our speedlight on our subject, along with the available ambient light on background.

We have four major considerations or settings to allow for: Aperture, ISO, Distance and Power. The distance between your light source to your subject should make perfect sense to you already. With your strobes set on manual. The closer you position the light, the brighter the light is on your subject. Just as we increase or decrease the lights output power will affect the light on the subject. In most cases the distance of your background is well out of the range of your “subject” light source..

The shutter speed should be considered a critical, independent component of our lighting blend. The shutter speed will only affect ambient light hitting our subject and not the strobes light falling on our subject. You do need to carefully select your shutter speed to control the background components. For example; clouds, the ocean, or nearby traffic will move, causing a motion blur effect. Sometime this is desirable and sometimes it is not. Faster shutter speeds allow us to freeze our background components, but this will also affect the light illuminating your backgrounds. You may have to compromise your shot carefully when considering the shutter speed you are intending on using in a Dragging the Shutter situation.

To illustrate this I put together four examples in a parking garage overlooking San Jose (below). You can easily see the effect of my setting on the final image and how the lighting blends at slower shutter speeds. This is also a great little test to determine your general settings for the any long exposure.


The 20 second exposure is not going to work for me at all. The ambient in the parking garage overpowered the speedlight’s on my beautiful model – in time. I am OK with the “dusk” look in the sky and on the buildings in the background but more depth would greatly improve this shot. Had I been able to find a corner that was completely dark this may have worked for me.

The 1/8th second exposure; my model looks great, but where is the background? Our shutter was not open long enough to properly expose the background in this example.

Kelly is an exceptional model, but it would ridicules of me to assume that she can hold a pose for 20 seconds without the slightest movement. Even if she could pose “perfectly” still for 20 seconds, the wind will still blow her hair and clothing. I included this shot as a bad example of what can – will happen. As the artist you are going to need to take responsibility for your model and her pose. Give the girl a break and give her something to lean against. This will minimize your subjects movement, while also insuring a greater chance for a successful shot.

The 6 and 10 second exposures are much closer to what I had hoped to capture that night. I decided to go with an exposure between 4 and 6 second for the rest of the night. 10 seconds still seems to be encroaching on the “ridicules” side of the exposure range, IMHO..

LightingSetupLet’s take a closer look at the thought process I used to create the images for this article. First I evaluate the scene and try to decide how I want it to look in my finished image. This will give me a starting point for my aperture and exposure times.

  • I want to consider my models placement within the scene. Providing her with something to lean against will greatly improve your chances of success with very long exposure times. As I mentioned before, It would be foolish to assume that any human is not going to move at all during a long exposure!
  • My next major consideration is how do I intend to light my model? Lighting placement is a critical consideration when working with professional models. You must flatter the model and create a visual pleasing image. In this situation I also needed to ensure my speedlight was not going to spill onto the glass block wall and ruin my reflection. A gridded beauty dish was my obvious choice. A piece of black matte board deflected the light away from the wall, when placed a few inches off the glass block wall.
  • Finally the light output from the Speedlight’s on the subject come into play. I needed to light the model in such a way to not make my Speedlight obvious. I ended up using iTTL to control the speedlight, along with exposure compensation of – ½ stop. I stood – shot over the top of my beauty dish.

kelly_0268 copyDragging the shutter at speeds as low as 1/8th of a second is commonly considered about the slowest you want to go, but remember; Rules are made to be broken. There are several ways to do anything in photography, but we all share one consistent; Light. It’s the way we record the light that sets us apart in this art forum and so it’s OK to experiment, set new boundaries and brake rules.

I wanted to capitalize on the look and feel of a night shot. I also did not what the speedlight to overpower the scene – detectible on my model. Using my speedlight’s off camera would provide the natural lighting look, that I felt this scene required. I decided iTTL radio triggers would be my best option.

With my speedlight positionable as the scene dictates, I used my cameras exposure compensation to control my critical exposure on the model. My 6 seconds exposure did not affect the light on my model by my speedlight. In this example the speedlight could have affected my background, but with careful placement I was able to overcome this.


kelly_0298 Back in the old days of Kodachrome, we all have to deal with Reciprocity Failure when making long exposures. With today’s digital cameras this is usually not a major concern. White balance however, will affect night work in several different directions all at once. You have heard me referring to this as Blending the Light, several time throughout this article and now let’s take a closer look into white balance and the considerations involved with this.

My most important factor in this image is my model Kelly. I needed too truly represent her color as close as possible. Because Kelly’s prime light source is a strobe, I manually set my cameras white balance on Day Light. The background light sources were; Tungsten, Halogen, Neon and Florescent, plus my speedlight, which of course is day light balanced. The light hitting my model is day light and all of the other light sources in the background should shift towards their native spectrum.

Trust me on this point. Always expose for the Model or get ready to pay your models MUCH more and get ready to hear about the “ugly light” affecting your models perceived appearance for the rest of your life. The background color shift was not as of a concern as the exposure on Kelly, I was after the mood and blur, so I had an easier time.


DDP_0655 copy LightingSetupLighting this shot: Lighting was actually very simple. I used a modified version of the Glamour Lighting pattern. In the correct Glamour Lighting pattern, you would place both light sources above and below each other. I positioned my beauty day at about waist level, aimed upwards. Than my gridded Speedlight approximately four inches above Kelly’s eye level, aimed downwards. The speedlights were positioned 45° opposing each other and not stacked as you would typically use in the Glamour Lighting pattern. This shot was exposed for 6 seconds at f-5.6, and at ISO 100.

Throughout all of my lighting tutorials you hear me refer to “a modified version of the Glamour Lighting pattern (Paramount/Butterfly). This is what I am referring to. I love this setup and commonly use this setup along with an accent, hair light or edge light.

kelly_0334cIf my assignment had been to shoot a store front, my background would have been critical and my model less critical. If both had been critical I would have shot Kelly on a green screen and “Shopped” her into the background image. The ideal situation would have been to find “complete” shade. If I could have posed Kelly, in front of something absent of all light except for strobes, the exposure length would not have been a factor and I would have attempted a longer exposure. Given an area unlit by the ambient light and relying only my speedlight to exposure the model.

We would have had to go for a longer exposure time, as that in my 20 second example above.

After finding something comfortable for my model to lean against, I could freeze her with strobes and expose the “mood” of my background with 6 seconds exposure. Two city buses zipped through that intersection within that time and accounted for the motion blur.