Digital Photo Academy

Learn How To Use Your Digital Camera

Dragging The Shutter


Digital Photo Academy and LivinginHD present a free monthly series of photography webinars on Your host, John Bentham answers many questions live during the webinars. Additional questions and answers are posted here on You can also view the archived webinars for reference.



Steve, of Wilmette, IL  asked: The most interesting thing to me [in the webinar] was how to capture that well-lit close-up image while still allowing the background to remain visible and not totally blacked out. I′ve accomplished this in the past by “accident” not understanding what I was doing!

Steve’ question is about a technique called Dragging the Shutter.



Photo by Douglas Carver, DPA Instructor New York

This photo by Douglas Carver has a real sense of whimsy and fun, which plays into the father and son image. The effect is from combining flash with a slow shutter speed in just the right balance.

To accomplish this you need to be out of sync with the correct camera sync speed. And its much easier to achieve the result you desire using a fast lens. A full time f2.8 (or faster), not a Floating Aperture Kit lens that comes with most cameras. It’s also easier to use an external On-camera flash as opposed to a Pop Up internal flash.

The first thing to do is determine a correct ambient exposure for the scene (NO FLASH, turn the flash unit off). This applies when shooting indoor, outdoor, low light or bright light. This will give you the correct exposure for the existing light before introducing flash. Once you determine the ambient exposure you dial that into the camera. I find the best way is to switch to Manual mode. This way you know the exposure wont change. Especially since many cameras default to a Flash Sync Shutter Speed (1/60 or 1/250) when you power up a Flash in an auto camera mode (A, S, TV, P etc) thus overriding your settings.

Then you turn on your Dedicated Flash and set it to AUTO TTL. (Must be a Dedicated Flash unit). Typically On-Camera external flash units are too efficient (overpowered) and must be dialed down. Power down the output but still keep the flash on Auto. Depending on the flash (manufacturer) this is done differently. Most have a power setting on the back panel where you dial power up or down by 1/3 stops. I find -2/3 power is a good starting point. Because the Flash, Camera and lens are all electronically linked the flash will output the correct amount of light to shoot at your camera settings, in this case f2.8, 1/20 sec, 800 ISO. Sensors in the flash determine the person in the foreground is getting the correct amount of light without being overexposed. If you are using a Pop-Up internal flash you may still be able to adjust the flash output, usually through the camera menu.



Photo by Hinda Schuman, DPA Instructor Philadelphia

This photo is similar in technique but shot in a brighter setting, with more ambient light, which gives it a more overall brightness and less stark look, full of beautiful rich colors and tones.

The flash is not lighting the background, the ambient light is exposing the BG via the slow shutter speed combined with wide aperture. Take an initial test exposure with the flash on. If the flash is too hot on your foreground subject you dial it down another third stop. Keep taking test frames, and adjusting your flash output until the flash exposure on the foreground is even with the ambient exposure in the background. As you can see from the samples attached here you can play with motion and shutter speed to give yourself more or less blur. The longer the shutter speed the more blur and ghosting at the edges. Less movement of the camera and of the subject will give you less blur.



Photo by Jon Canfield, DPA Instructor Seattle


Jon’s photo of the boy jumping is indicative of what we imagine childhood should be, just packed full of fun, and never slowing down for anything. The slow shutter technique used here accentuates the fast movement of the kid.

In the two Bentham samples below of the biker in a bar, the shutter speed is relatively slow but there is no blur because neither the camera or the subject moved very much during the exposure. Both photos were shot at f2.8, 1/20 Sec, 800 ISO, with no exposure change between the two. Photo on left is without Flash, Photo on right is shot with flash. The only difference is the added flash on the right.



Photo by John Bentham, DPA Instructor New York


In the following photo of the Drag Queen, shot at f2.8, 1/8 sec at 400 ISO there is significantly more blur because of subject and camera motion during the exposure.


Photo by John Bentham, DPA Instructor New York


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Anyone can submit photographs for inclusion in the DPA, LiHD Webinar, Online Photo Class Series. If you would like to submit your photographs for an upcoming webinar, please read the following. Each webinar has a specific theme or topic. First go to, Tip of the Day, to determine the theme for the next webinar. Then review the submission requirements below and submit your photographs to Note that webinars are edited and formatted days in advance, thus please submit your photos at least a week in advance of the webinar, late submissions can not be added. Photographs are chosen, and edited, for their applicability to the webinar theme, artistic and technical merit, and content length. If your photograph is NOT chosen, it will be archived and may appear in a more appropriate future webinar.

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