Motion & "Dragging" the Shutter

July 11, 2011  •  Leave a Comment

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In the perpetual quest that - on a good day could be called "defining your photographic vision," and on a bad day called, "why on earth did I even make that photograph?," I've discovered something that I love in image making: motion. You bet - there's a lot to be said for stopping every pixel dead in its tracks and freezing a moment in time forever... love that, too. But more and more I'm liking the dynamic element a well-shot motion frame provides.
 
I don't know how many of you out there routinely use a flash in your outdoor photography, but I sure do. The venerable Nikon SB-800 is mounted on my D3S nearly all the time - either via the SC-29 sync chord (allowing you to position the flash virtually anywhere in a 5-6 foot radius but still have it physically connected to the camera), or mounted right onto the hot shoe of the camera itself. I have other flashes like the SB-600 and SB-900, but haven't built that rapport with it quite yet... the SB-800 is my tried and true flash-companion.
 
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Using a flash to help make images with motion is a lot o fun. I usually shoot in "Slow Sync" mode. This essentially allows the camera to better mix ambient light with flash and helps avoid that black background resulting from allowing the flash to provide all the light. With Slow Sync, you can use TTL exposure, then kick in some light at the end to add sharp detail. Sometimes this isn't what I want - but when I'm looking for an image that brings that sense of motion into play, it's exactly what I want. Here's how it works:
 
If you have people dancing on the lawn and the light is fading, you can do a couple different things: 1) Put the camera on Regular flash mode, setting its minimum shutter speed to something like 1/60 second, then taking the picture. What will happen is the camera will let the flash provide most of the light because it's already pretty dark and not much ambient light will come in at 1/60 second.
 
Something else to try, though, is to "drag the shutter" by putting the camera on "Slow Sync" and kicking the ISO (in this case 1600) to get a shutter speed you want ... like 1/25 second @ƒ5.6. This allows in enough ambient light to show the not-dark yet background, and also allows the motion trail from the dancers to show in the frame, creating a that soft blur of action. When the flash fires during the exposure it then freezes that moment resulting the soft, blurry trail of ambient lit motion with the "bang" of the strobe to provide enough sharp detail to avoid a completely blurry image. If the image below had been made with a straight flash setting, the background would have lost the beautiful color in the clouds and there would have been three, highly-illuminated (nuked) figures against a dark background. Not quite the effect I was after.
 
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In the Flash section of one of Thom Hogan's excellent field guides he said something pretty elementary but profound. Essentially, a flash isn't a magic wand that you slap on the camera and everything magically turns out perfectly. I couldn't agree more. Don't be afraid to experiment with it to learn what results you do and don't like. This will help remove the mindset of "always having to follow the rules" allowing the much more fun, "how can I be creative here?" space. In photography, the whole game is how you use light. Trust me - it's a lot more fun to learn and grow by trying new things than it is to attempt to memorize every step in a rule book. Have fun.
 
 
 

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