How to Shutter Drag: Adding light trails and movement to reception photos

November 11, 2020

For Photographers

How to Shutter Drag

How to shutter drag a.k.a. dragging the shutter, creating motion, those crazy light trail thingys

I am sure you have seen them, those dance party photos that look like a blur of motion and light. They almost make you feel like you are at the party! It probably one of the things other photographers ask me the most about. Maybe you have no idea how to do it or maybe you kind of get it but they never turn out right. Either way I am going to share my tips and tricks on how to create these fun receptions photos and hopefully it will help you out!

This trick is a great one to add to your bag for those extra crazy over the top receptions to help you capture that party mood. Its also a great way to get more creative during reception time when you might have a bit to much dance floor time in your timeline (you know what I’m talking about lol).

I am going to break this down in four parts:

  1. What is Dragging the Shutter
  2. What gear do you need
  3. Settings and Shooting
  4. Tips and Troubleshooting

Onward!

How to shutter drag

1. What is Dragging the Shutter

Lets talk about shutter speed, if you dont have an idea what shutter speed or how to adjust yours, stop here and go learn to shoot on manual. This is essential to leaning this technique!

The shutter speed is the length of time your camera’s shutter is open, letting light in and exposing it to your camera sensor (or on to your film if you kick it old school). When you drag the shutter you are holding the camera’s shutter open for an extended period of time. Manuel shooters will know that when you shoot at a low (or slow as some would say) shutter speed you can get blurry photos. That is what we are doing here, just on purpose… for art, ya know. My goal when I shoot receptions is to capture the subjects first and the movement second. The trick is finding the right balance between your setting to capture the subject and motion but not overdo it.

Wedding Reception party photos dragging the shutter

2. What gear do you need?

You can use this technique with pretty minimum gear. You need:

  1. A camera with a hot shoe and manual mode.
  2. A wide-angle lens, 35mm – 24mm is best.
  3. A speedlite flash
  4. Editing software to edit your photos afterwards.
How to shutter drag

3. Settings and Shooting

My settings are chosen to achieve the look I want and be able to capture my subjects. These are not hard and fast rules and there is no right way to use this technique. Feel free to use this as a starting point and experiment with different setting combinations!

Start by attaching your speedlite to the hot shoe of your camera and setting your camera to manual. Attach your wide-angle lens and make sure it’s set to AF.

Camera Settings

Iso: Set it around 800-1000 to start and adjust for the amount of ambient light in the room. Higher if you want more ambient background light, lower if you want a darker more contrasting look.

Shutter Speed: Drop your shutter down low. I usually find around 1/6th of a second to be a good starting point. The longer your shutter is open, the more light gets in, the longer the trails will be. Sometimes less is more and too much muddies up the photos. I never go over 1 second for receptions shots.

Flash sync setting: Somewhere in the recesses of your camera menu there is the option to change your flash sync between front curtain sync or rear (second) curtain sync. With front curtain the flash fires as soon as the shutter opens and “freezes” your subject. The remainder of your exposure is used to capture light trails. This works well for me on dance floors because when I see something happening I only have a second to capturing it and getting the subject doing their crazy dance moves is my priority! Rear curtain fires the flash at the end of the exposure. It also works but its more of a wild card. Start with front but experiment with rear as well to get a different look.

Aperture (F-stop): This is the key here! To get super crisp light trails you need a super high aperture, I usually start at f16 and open up to f14/f12 if I’m not getting the brightness in the trails I want.

So now you are at F16, that’s nuts, how will you capture anything there won’t be any light! This is when we add in our trusty speedlite!

Speedlite Settings

Main Settings: You can set your speedlite to manual or TTL, whatever you are more comfortable with. I find TTL to be just fine for this but will switch to manual if I need more control.

Zoom: The zoom on your flash controls how narrow or dispersed the light coming out of the flash head is. If your flash has this option, set it on the highest number possible. Anywhere from 85mm or even up to 135mm if you have that option. This is not necessary so don’t worry if you don’t have the option to zoom, but it creates a more focused beam of light.

Where do I point this thing: This is the fun part. If you are using any kind of diffuser remove it and point the bare flash directly at your subject.

Now that your all set up its time to shoot! Focus on your subject and press the shutter button. Your flash will fire immediately. The moment after your flash goes off move your camera. Turn it up, turn it down, spin it around, give it a twist. Then check what you got! You only have a split second to do it and it will probably take a few tries to get the hang of it. People will probably look at your like your a bit crazy jerking your camera around but its worth it and its fun!

How to shutter drag

4. Tips and Troubleshooting

Hardly getting any trails: If you can see your subject properly exposed and you aren’t getting trails, or long enough trails, make your shutter speed long. Also, take a look around the room, where are the lights? You will want to twist your camera in that direction to capture the light from them after your flash goes off.

Everything is a messy blur: There can be two things here. Most likely your shutter is too long so try making that shorter first. If that doesn’t work you might need to lower your ISO. I find that in really well-lit reception spaces I often have to do this.

I’m getting trails but my subject it blown out: Your flash is to bright. Lower your flash power.

My trails don’t look like defined trails: This technique works best in spaces with string lights or chandeliers. When you twist your camera to capture trails aim it toward these if they are available. If they aren’t you can still get some cool effects but not the skinny dotted or line trails.

Having trouble focusing on the subject in dark receptions: Turn on your focus assist beam on your flash for a little extra focus help in super dark receptions. If it’s not firing you may need to change your autofocus setting to AF-S (Nikon) or One-Shot (Canon) for the assist beam to work.

Other Tips:

  • You don’t need to be at a reception to practice or use this technique, all you need is a subject and some string lights!
  • Try shorter and longer shutter speeds to get different trailing looks.
  • Take regular receptions photos too! I usually include 10-15 of these types of shots into my final gallery if there was a good party and the lights were right.
  • I found that twisting or pulling my camera down is the best way to keep trails around the subject and not overtop of the center of the image
  • When using this technique at weddings try not to blast subjects in the face when they are looking straight into the camera. No one likes that without a warning! That’s why I usually pull this trick out at the end of the night and guests are good and saucy, people are usually not paying too much attention to what I am doing.
  • These are fun to edit in black and white and color so try both!
  • You can get cool effects in all spaces but some will definitely be better than others. Dark spaces lit mostly by string lights will get the best effect.

Well that’s it! I hope it helped and you have as much fun making these as I do! If you create anything awesome with what you learned please tag me on Insta a @wildjunephoto so I can see! If you have any additional questions contact me directly or leave a comment below! Cheers!

how to get light trails in photos