Half-week homework: Shutter drag for motion blur

If, as a photographer, you start to move into developing some of the more specialized branches of the skill tree, you may have the following eureka moment: not only can you manipulate your camera to incorporate external motion into your images, you can also physically manipulate your camera to add motion on the receiving end!

Slowing your shutter speed while using your flash is referred to as “dragging the shutter.” (This is what the “slow sync” flash mode is for, but it should be done manually for more extreme effects.) The flash allows you to freeze a sharp base image, while the long shutter speed allows you to expose a dark background more fully or (as is relevant here) introduce interesting blurred effects.

Here’s the specific technique for you to try this week:

  • This effect is usually more effective at night, but you can pull it off in the sunshine if you’re determined.
  • Get close to a subject, which you’ll freeze with your flash.
  • Manually slow your shutter speed. You’ll need to experiment to match the content of the photo, but I had the best luck with shutter speeds between 1/15″ and 1/4″.
  • You can set your flash to Slow Sync mode if you’d like, but as long as you’re manually setting your aperture it shouldn’t matter. You can also set it to Rear Curtain Sync if you want it to flash at the end of your exposure instead.
  • While your camera is exposing, move it and/or yourself. You’ll probably be able to get more controlled blur if you do the moving, as your whole body can function as a sort of gimbal.
  • Start moving before you press the shutter speed. Pressing and then moving tends to either eat up your time with stillness or ruin your blur as you move jerkily in an attempt to reach peak velocity immediately. Get your smooth momentum established, then squeeze the shutter at the moment the shot you want frozen is lined up.
  • This may take a few tries. Practice and think outside the box!

See below for inspiration and thoughts on the process, then come back to our Facebook page or Instagram and post your best shots, tagged #mymikescamera #halfweekhomework. Let’s get loooooopy! (Sometimes literally—I almost fell over after taking the shots you see in the video below.)

The blur you introduce can be linear or radial. Here’s a comparison, using the same subject.

This is a great way to capture the feeling of a concert—always a difficult task—or to blast a normal scene into outer space. Check out the homage to Jacob’s Ladder below, as well as the long-exposure astrophotography effect you can get using the sky’s light between the leaves.

Since there are infinite exceptions and variations to any technique, note that you can create interesting results without the flash part if your subject is sufficiently-lit. The picture of Denver’s Capitol was made by zooming in during the exposure, and the other one is a variety of neon lights, captured while moving the camera very precisely.

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