How to Shutter Drag : Adding Light Trails and Movement to your Reception Photos

January 13, 2018


I have been asked tons of times by other photographers how I achieve those crazy lights in my wedding reception photos so I decided to do a little how to shutter drag blog post.

“What crazy lights? What do you mean shutter drag? I don’t understannnnd?”

Here are a few examples of what I mean!

How to shutter drag : getting light trails and movement in your reception photosHow to shutter drag : getting light trails and movement in your reception photosHow to shutter drag : getting light trails and movement in your reception photosHow to shutter drag : getting light trails and movement in your reception photos

Coolbeans right! It really can help bring your dance floor photos to life and is just a ton of fun to do!

Here is what you will need:

  • A speedlight (a.k.a a flash) mounted on your camera
  • A camera and the know how to operate it in manual mode
  • Your dance floor lens of choice, mine is my 35mm

First things first. Shutter dragging is basically when you slow the shutter down to let in more light. Most of you know that with slower shutter speeds come blurry photos, well you are correct.  You can get some cool photos by just slowing down your shutter but lots of times they become too blurry and your subject gets lost. This is where your handy dandy speedlight comes in. To capture your subjects and the light trails you need to slow your shutter speed down and use your flash to freeze your subject!

Here are my base camera settings, this is where I start and then adjust for the brightness of the room :

  • ISO : 800
  • Shutter : 1/2 of a second
  • Aperture : F16  <— yup you read that right, a stupidly high aperture is the key to killer light trails.
  • Camera set to Front Flash Sync (I have heard some people use Rear sync but I prefer to freeze my subjects first then capture light trails)

Flash Setting:

  • TTL or Manual, whichever you prefer. It doesn’t really matter.
  • Remove any kind of diffuser.
  • Set your flash zoom as high as it will go. My Nikon SB700 zoom would be set to 105mm even though I have a 35mm lens on. I usually shoot dance floors with a 35mm, this basically tricks my flash into thinking I have a 105mm lens on instead and it shoots out a beam of light instead of a wider spread of light. If your flash won’t let you adjust your zoom manually you may have your cameras diffuser or bounce card out, some flashes lock settings when these are out.
  • Point your flash head directly at your subjects, yup.

Now that you’re all set and geared up its time to give it shot! Now since you have your flash pointed directly at your subjects I should note that I really try not to flash people while they are looking directly at me. Most people on the dance floor aren’t usually paying attention to the photographer, they are just having a good time, so usually it’s not a problem but it is something to keep in mind!

So you find your subject and he is really cutting a rug on the dance floor, perfect. Pull up your camera and take the shot, the moment that flash goes off twist your camera. You should get something like this:


So whats happening here is you are freezing those awesome dance moves the moment your flash goes off, but your shutter is still open and that is when you move your camera around to capture the light trails. The longer your shutter is open, the longer time you have to capture trails. I find my sweet spot is just from 1/2 to 1 second but its fun to experiment with longer exposures as well. You also can experiment with moving your camera in different ways to get different looks. To try an keep the traits off my subjects face I usually twist, or putt the camera down, but it also kind of depends on where the lights are in the room!

How to shutter drag : getting light trails and movement in your reception photos

If your subjects look blown out, dial back the power of your flash. If your subjects are too dark, bump up the power of your flash. If everything is still too dark try opening up your aperture a few stops.

A few tips:

  • I always include a mix of shutter drag and regular dancing photos so my clients have both.
  • This technique works best when venues are lit with string lights, regular ballroom lights will give a blurred effect as well but the string lights really make it cool.
  • Again, try not to blast people in the face with flash lol. We don’t want to blind anyone!
  • I usually wait until the dance floor is really poppin to start the shutter dragging so the photos really have that parrrrtyyyy look…because they are really partying!
  • This technique can also make for some fun reception detail shots.

How to shutter drag : getting light trails and movement in your reception photos

So that’s it! I hope this is helpful and please let me know in the comments if there is something I can clarify more or if there are any questions!

Good luck capturing those dance floor shenanigans!