Dragging the Shutter

On 10/10/2010, I shot a wedding (as did almost every other wedding photographer). All evening, I had a curious observer peeking over my shoulder. He eventually mustered up the courage to ask me a question,  “How do you get the background to look so bright, when using flash?” I briefly explained and went back to work. After the reception, he stuck around and I showed him in detail how to incorporate the ambient light with the flash.

Have you ever taken a photo using the flash and your subject in the foreground is well exposed; but your background is non-existent or barely visible? Were you happy with that look? Or did you want an even balance of light between your foreground and background?

There are dozens of flash attachments on the market that bounce the light in all directions, which may remedy this problem if you’re indoors where the walls and ceiling are close. What if you don’t own a flash modifier? What if you’re in a cathedral or gymnasium, where walls are too far away? What happens if you’re outside?

I was taught to call it “dragging the shutter”; but you may hear of it as “key shifting” and some of the old guys call it “flash and burn”. Nonetheless, it’s all about controlling the shutter speed to achieve the preferred balance between your flash and your ambient light. This can be used anytime of the day to achieve different effects and even indoors no matter the size of the room.

How to experiment with “dragging the shutter”

It’s very simple to do and it doesn’t matter if you use your built in flash or a studio strobe light. Our method will be exposure bracketing.

Here are the steps:

  • Set your camera to M(Manual) only,  (don’t use shutter or priority mode).
  • Set your ISO to the lowest sensitivity.
  • Set your shutter to 1/200 or the cameras fastest sync speed (check your manual).
  • Frame up your shot
  • Spot meter the brightest object in the frame and adjust the aperture until that bright spot is at least 4 stops underexposed. This should give you a complete black photo.

To help you with the last step. If you’re indoors, you will probably want to start at f5.6. If you’re outside, start at f/22 if after sunrise and before sunset. If it’s very bright outside and contrasty, you will want to attempt this completely in the shade, or attach an neutral density filter and/or a polarizing filter to your lens to cut the light down.

  • Snap the first photo without the flash. Is the photo complete black? If yes, good. If not, then close the iris until you reach black.
  • Turn the flash on, take another photo with the same settings. You should have a lit subject against a black background. Depending on how close the foreground subject is to the flash, you may have to adjust power on the strobe, or adjust the flash exposure compensation in your camera to achieve proper exposure on the subject.
  • Now, take a series of photos; but after each take, slow the shutter speed 1 stop. For example. 1/200, 1/100, 1/50, 1/25, 1/13, 1/6, 1/3, etc.

Do this technique a few times. When you feel comfortable, play around with wider apertures, longer shutters, and higher ISO’s. I do recommend bracketing your exposures. It’s an excellent way to practice and if you do it daily, you will quickly memorize what combination of settings work best in various environments. You will turn yourself into a walking, talking exposure meter.


  • Kristen B

    Thank Peter!!! What a great explanation!

  • Wow thats pretty neat ! I was wondering though, how would you apply this to a subject thats not stationary? e.g. if you’re photographing people, how would you accommodate the long shutter speed and not have them blur out from moving ?

  • Brandon

    I agree this was a great explanation…and the examples were very useful. But I am with MIRAZ with the question of applying this to people or other subjects that have a possibility of moving.

  • Fantastic. I did this on Sunday. We were in a gym with 100 kids. I needed the whole gym to have light. It worked great. Nice example too. Thank you.

  • Lauren

    @Miraz & Brandon – I think (and I could be wrong) that the example above was for illustration purposes. If you wanted a faster shutter speed, you would just have to widen your aperture and use a higher ISO so that you could adjust to a faster shutter speed.

  • Chris from Cali

    Thank you! I’ve heard this term before but it didn’t click until I read the explanation and saw your examples. Off to practice.

  • elizabethhalford

    @Lauren: Speeding up the shutter would be taking it out of the realm of ‘dragging the shutter’. If you want to drag the shutter with moving subjects, include some flash power to freeze their motion and allow for a slow enough shutter that the light can flood the scene before the shutter closes.

  • Peter Pechacek

    @ Melissa Excellent, I’m glad to hear it worked out.

  • Peter Pechacek

    @ Miraz and Brandon, your question is an excellent topic for another post. You have some options with flash and movement. Let me see if I can make this short, when shooting movement with a dragging shutter, you need to pan with your main subject so they will be sharp. This will blur your background and imply movement. The other option is to NOT pan and stay still while your subject moves, the flash will fire, freezing your subject; but your subject will also have motion blur trail that was caught by the ambient light (It’s quite beautiful if done right). This is also a great effect to show movement and I thinks it’s better than to just freeze everything when someone is dancing, running, etc. The only trick with the latter option is you should program your camera to rear curtain sync, aka 2nd curtain sync. This enables the flash to fire right before the shutter closes, catching the last bit of movement. I’ll explain on another day, just trust me for now. 2nd curtain sync better for movement. I’ll do a specific post soon and show examples of everything.

  • Hi Peter,

    I’d LOVE a post on that as well! Maybe next week? :)

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us all!

  • Peter Pechacek

    @ Loni, haha, not this week, but soon.