The Method in Your Madness – #1: Life’s a Drag
Dragging Your Shutter To Create Movement
Images and words by Rob Mynard
Welcome gentle readers to what we hope will be the first in a series of posts focusing on different photographic techniques to help build your bag of tricks. Today I want to talk about dragging your shutter.
In it’s simplest form the shutter drag is a technique using a slower shutter speed to balance your flash power with a much lower ambient light but also acts as the backbone for a range of techniques from showing movement in your images to light painting. There are a couple of different ways to achieve this effect so I’m going to go from personal experience and talk about how I use it in the work I do as a wedding photographer.
The first time I noticed shutter drag was in the work of pioneering skateboard photographer J. Grant Brittain and it was directly responsible for me getting my first camera. Somehow he was able to freeze a skateboarder in mid air but you could actually see the movement. It was some kind of Voodoo magic! I suddenly realized there was more to cameras than holiday snaps, and perhaps – if I could harness this – it would take the pressure off just how bad I was at painting.
Broadly speaking, under a certain speed, your shutter has no effect on how your flash affects the exposure. Traditionally you would set your Aperture, ISO and Flash Power to give a correct exposure on your subject and then vary your Shutter Speed to allow in the desired ambient background. Done well the effect should be unnoticed (think of all those beautiful shots of newlyweds in front of a glorious sunset), done badly it looks like a low budget green screen effect (think of all those terrible shots of newlyweds in front of an awful sunset).
But I’m not looking for a balanced portrait. I’m shooting people dancing and I want that feeling of movement so it’s gonna get nerdy and specific. To do this I move my camera as my subject moves so I need to start with a specific shutter speed based on the distance I’m moving – through testing I know this to be ½ a second for the look I want – but then I lose that key variable. I favor manual off camera flash and want to keep flash output constant too so I don’t have to keep going over and changing it. People dancing at a wedding generally frown at being asked to dance closer to my flash, and I don’t wanna shoot frowny people, so unfortunately I lose control over the distance between my speedlight and my subject. This means I’ll need to ride my Aperture and ISO to control my flash exposure and I don’t like changing ISO either because I’m a frightened dinosaur and ISO is the meteor of change. So aperture it is.
For my usual setup, I set my shutter to ½ second, my ISO to 200 (my lowest) and then test shoot across the dance floor without my flash changing my aperture until my background is suitable dark. By keeping my backgrounds dark it helps to give a good separation between my subject and the room and makes the dance floor seem like it’s own little world, but also helps keep a consistency as I change aperture, as this would normally affect the background exposure. I then have my partner – or worst case scenario, a chair – stand in the middle of the dance floor as I set my speedlights manually to get them exposed “correctly”. From here I can usually ride my aperture by a stop or so either side to cover most of the dance floor. Then set my camera to front curtain sync (so the flash will pop at the start of my exposure), line up my shot, press the button and dance along with the music.
So go forth, drag your shutter and dance like nobody’s watching.