Day 214 “Dragging the Shutter” explained (hopefully)

The theme for August is “dragging the shutter” which is a powerful concept to master when you’re trying to avoid that blown-out flash look you get when you use a flash in a dark room. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the reason most people hate using their flash. But your flash can be your best friend. You just need to know how to work with it.

The basic concept behind this technique is that you allow more ambient light into your image by using a slower shutter speed (hence the term “dragging the shutter”). The only problem with this is now you’ve introduced the potential for noticeable camera shake. Not to worry. By using a flash, you can freeze your subject and still pick up enough ambient light to light the background. No more blown out faces with black backgrounds!

Let’s start with some example photos

To start, I set my camera to f/4, ISO 200, shutter speed of 1/200s and took a photo without using any flash.

Pitch black (except for a little bit of window light) as we would expect.

Then I attached my Nikon SB-900 external flash and took the photo again. I kept the same settings (f/4, ISO 200, shutter speed of 1/200s). The only difference is I used my flash for this one:

Aaaahhh, much better.

Next I took a series of photos, again using my flash, but I changed my shutter speed in each shot.

Here’s the settings I used, top left to bottom right, all at f/4 ISO 200:

1) 1/200s
2) 1/160s
3) 1/100s
4) 1/60s
5) 1/40s
6) 1/25s
7) 1/15s
8) 1/10s
9) 1/6s
10) 1/4s
11) 0.4s
12) 0.6s

One thing I’ve always struggled with, as I teach myself the ins and outs of flash photography, is how do I meter for ambient light and then use flash without getting an overexposed image. I found this article to be really helpful in explaining how to deal with this concern. As I inspected my group of photos above, I found it interesting that the bear looks pretty much the same throughout most of the photos. The slower shutter speed just seems to add in more ambient light (hence the brighter background and overall warmth of the photo) without causing overexposure of the bear.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of darkest photo (1/200s) and the final photo I chose (0.4s):

Here’s the final image (0.4s, f/4, ISO 200):

Not a very captivating image (pretty terrible actually) but it illustrates the point of how dragging the shutter can be a really useful technique to master.

Have you been experimenting with dragging the shutter or any other flash tricks?

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