What is shutter dragging?

Jun 24, 2023

Daniela Bowker

Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.

What is shutter dragging?

Jun 24, 2023

Daniela Bowker

Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.

Join the Discussion

Share on:

Have you ever seen a photo that has been taken in low light conditions, where the subject is sharp, but there are blurred lights in the background? It’s a favorite wedding dance floor shot. This effect is called shutter dragging. You achieve it using a combination of slow shutter speed and flash.

[Learn Photography: Aperture | Shutter Speed | ISO | Exposure Triangle | White Balance | Panning | Vinneting | TTL | More…]

YouTube video

In this article, we will take a look at the ins and outs of shutter dragging, from the equipment you need to the best times to try it.

What is shutter dragging?

Shutter dragging works by combining flash, which freezes your subject, with a slow shutter speed to capture motion blur. 

A pair of dancers captured in motion with motion blur following them from shutter dragging.
Easy Swing by Jonathan Vahsen on Flickr, under Creative Commons licence

When you are shooting in low light conditions, a slow shutter speed allows more light to reach the sensor to create an exposure. It also captures the movement of anything in the frame, which we call motion blur. If you don’t use a tripod when taking long exposure shots, they can be blurred from camera-shake, too. With shutter dragging, you deliberately introduce camera shake or motion blur into the shot for creative effect.

Shutter dragging is a two-step process for each exposure. First, the flash freezes your subject in the frame to make them sharp. Next, you move your camera while the shutter is still open to create light trails with background lights. It’s a great combination of sharp and soft.

An old name for shutter dragging is “bake and shake”. The flash “bakes” the subject, or sets in the frame. The camera movement is the “shake” element.

When do I want to use shutter dragging?

You can drag the shutter in lower light situations when you want to introduce a feeling of movement or dynamism to a photo. It can create drama or a sense of fun.

We have already mentioned wedding dance floors as a great time to try shutter dragging. But you can use it in lots of other situations, too.

Sports or action photography

Dragging the shutter can help to emphasise the movement of an athlete or anything else in motion in a photo, for example a bicycle or car.

Street photography

It looks very atmospheric when you use shutter dragging to photograph people or vehicles against city lights.

Portrait photography

You can produce very creative portraits using shutter dragging. 

Night photography

Cars, stars, or anything photographed at night using the shutter dragging technique can look terrific.

What equipment do I need for shutter dragging?

You don’t need much for shutter dragging:

  1. A camera with manual shooting mode
  2. A speedlight
  3. A lens – prime is best but not essential.

You will also need to be shooting in low-light conditions with obvious ambient light in the background.

Which camera settings are best for shutter dragging?

Put your lens in autofocus mode. Set your camera to manual mode. Your speedlight needs to be in TTL mode with front curtain sync. Front curtain sync ensures that your flash will fire at the beginning of your exposure. This makes it easier to capture a sharp subject. You can start to move the camera after the flash has gone off.

Set your exposure for the background of your shot, not your subject. 

Aperture

A smaller aperture will allow you to shoot with a slower shutter speed and keep plenty of your scene in focus. Start with an aperture of ƒ/16. You can widen it if you need to later.

ISO

It is preferable to keep your ISO as low as possible. If it’s too high, your image will be noisy. The exposure triangle means that your ISO will depend on the aperture and shutter speed you choose, but start with ISO 800.

Best Shutter speed for shutter dragging

A slow shutter speed is the critical element of shutter dragging. A good starting point is between a half and one second. You can always adjust this if you need to.

How to shutter drag

Subject placement is important for good results with shutter dragging. Your subject needs to be relatively close to your camera and flash. If the subject is too far from the flash, the flash will not be able to freeze the subject clearly in the shot. The background and ambient lights should be relatively far away from the subject. If the flash hits the background, it can have a negative impact on the final look.

A photo of a woman holding a camera with the background swirling behind her.
By Sarah Ris on Flickr, used under Creative Commons licence

When you’re ready, start shooting! When you release the shutter, the flash should fire, which will freeze your subject in the frame. Now use the rest of the exposure to move your camera and create some light trails from the ambient lights in the background. You can move your camera from side-to-side, up and down, or even rotate it. You will never achieve the same result twice, but keep experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t.

Wrapping up

Shutter dragging is a lot of fun, and might even be a little addictive. If you’re using it at a wedding or sporting event, make sure that you capture plenty of ‘regular’ photos, too. Otherwise, go and experiment!

Tips and troubleshooting

Shutter dragging is all about experimentation. But, sometimes you might get results that are disappointing, or don’t look right. If that happens to you, these tips and ideas might be helpful.

My light trails aren’t very long

If you think that your light trails are too short, you might need to extend your shutter speed.

My images are a bit blurry and confusing

First, try using a shorter shutter speed. If your shots are still too blurred, maybe lower your ISO a little.

My subject is blown-out

Your flash is probably a bit too powerful. Try reducing its power output.

The light trails are obscuring my subject

Dragging your camera across your subject can draw the light trails over them. Try spinning or twisting your camera instead.

Is shutter dragging good for different situations?

The flash freezes your subject, which means that you keep the camera still but let motion that’s happening in the background do the work. It might be traffic passing by, or a playground ride

Filed Under:

Tagged With:

Find this interesting? Share it with your friends!

Daniela Bowker

Daniela Bowker

Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.

Join the Discussion

DIYP Comment Policy
Be nice, be on-topic, no personal information or flames.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 responses to “What is shutter dragging?”

    1. DIYPhotography Avatar
      DIYPhotography

      Martin Wagner draaaaaaaaaag

  1. Mike Shwarts Avatar
    Mike Shwarts

    It isn’t just for moving subjects. It is also for balancing ambient light with flash/strobes.