Dragging the shutter is a basic photographic technique that is often put to highly creative use by the best wedding photojournalists. Whether depicting the bride mid-whir during a dance, or documenting a child bounding down the aisle at the church, dragging the shutter helps produce images that contain a sense of motion and bring an added dose of festivity to what, for some, already feels like a whirlwind day.
When photographers “drag” the shutter by slowing down its speed, they effectively lengthen the exposure in order to create a motion effect. Optionally, a burst of flash can then freeze the primary subject in the foreground.
By keeping the shutter open that fraction of a second longer during a flash photograph, the camera is able to pick up more ambient light from the background, producing a warmer photo with more distant detail. Otherwise, in poorly lit rooms in which wedding events are often held, such as reception and catering halls, you can end up with photos of people who look like they’re in a pitch-black cave.
The overall result is a more dynamic photo, with more storytelling possibilities. “Dragging the shutter definitely conveys the movement and dancing going on at weddings,” says award-winning photographer Justin Ide. “Otherwise, you blast them with the flash and they’re completely frozen in time,” resulting in a more static image.
Face it: There’s a reason they call it a “wedding party” and that’s because, once the music starts, most attendees—from grandmas and grandpas down to the flower girls—take it as a cue to get down.
With all the spinning, shaking and gyrating that comes with the dancing, WPJA members often drag the shutter to show the movement of the partiers. Used with a flash, this produces a sort of controlled blurring of the background, while keeping a sharp focus on the primary subject.
Ide, a Boston-based photographer, oftentimes uses this technique during the dancing sequence of weddings, especially during traditional circular dances like the Jewish or Greek horas. “I think it adds to the festive nature of what’s happening,” he says. “I do it primarily during dancing, because it adds to the emotion and to the fact that a lot is going on.”
During the circle dance, when everyone’s moving from left to right in concentric circles, Ide usually rotates with the subject he’s trying to shoot, panning his camera by moving it laterally across the overall scene, to increase the background blur and to sharpen the subject. For his WPJA award-winning image, he moved from left-to-right while the bride was moving right-to-left. That allowed him to freeze her with the flash, leaving the partygoers along the side reduced to a blur.
Ide points out that the key to taking these photos is using the rear-curtain sync feature on the camera, whereby the flash goes off at the end of the exposure, rather than at the beginning of it. That allows the camera to record the motion and then freezing it at the end with a pop of the flash.
Conversely, with the front-curtain sync, where the flash goes off first and then the camera picks up motion, the motion can distort the moment you are trying to freeze.
Dragging the shutter can allow you to use the blur to your advantage, creating the effect of the subject crossing your path. This helps capture a sense of movement, an effect commonly seen in professional photographs of auto racing. Otherwise, shooting a photo at an adequate speed to stop the action produces an image that lacks that same dynamic atmosphere.
Of course, the greater focal length of a long lens increases the likelihood of noticeable camera shake and motion blur at slower shutter speeds, which sometimes may be creatively desirable. Generally speaking, a 50mm lens should be used with a shutter speed no slower than 1/50th sec for a sharp image. Going slower than that will probably yield that motion blur, whether desired or not. A 24mm lens has the same effect at about 1/25th second; a 100mm lens at 1/100th sec. George Weir, a wedding photographer based in Lancaster, PA, generally tries to get the shutter speed down to 1/15 of a second or slower with his 24mm wide lens, or down to at least 1/60 of a second with a longer lens, to create maximum blur.
During a typical wedding day, Weir finds it useful to drag the shutter to add motion at the bride’s home when she's walking to and fro, getting ready for the big day, and while members of the wedding party come down the aisle.
Weir’s award-wining photo from a recent WPJA contest was captured at St. John the Baptist Church in New York, as he hunched down below the front pew, staying out of the way during the ceremony. When the bride and groom were about to exchange their vows, the ring bearer began his approach. Weir panned the camera as the ring bearer was walking, capturing an image that blurred the guests, while catching the little boy’s intent focus on his job at hand. “It’s a total grab shot,” Weir notes. “I think and shoot it. It’s instinctive to drag the camera across.”
In post-production, Weir made sure to leave the motion-filled backdrop alone in order to preserve the atmosphere of the picture and add to the story contained in the shot. “If you crop the picture and just get a vertical shot, you get no sense of place,” he says.
Panning the camera across the scene with a slow shutter speed also turns any light source, be it candles or light bulbs, into streaks of light, which can create some cool effects. Twisting the camera in a circle during a long exposure produces circular streaks of light. Another trick to try is zooming in or out while the shutter is open, which can create some funky effects but can be difficult to nail down as planned.
Dragging the shutter at an especially slow speed of one second or more can produce some dramatic images that can really capture the ambiance of the room. Using a tripod, such photos record the furniture, decorations and other static objects while blurring the motion of the scene together.
Jennifer Sanford, a Portland, OR-based wedding photographer, usually tries to capture the overall mood of the reception by getting an image of the entire room, preferably from overhead. By opening up the shutter and mounting the camera on a tripod, she can get some psychedelic blurs worked into the photos, especially when the lighting inside is poor, as it usually is.
“It really makes a difference between my photos and the photos a guest might take,” she says.
When the guests started dancing at one wedding she documented, a photo from the balcony captured a circular blur with the bride and groom in the middle. By borrowing some direct light from a videographer who was documenting the wedding, it gave her enough light on the newlywed couple.
“I was on the balcony and originally planned setting off my flash very subtly to freeze some of the subjects, when I saw some of his light,” Sanford says of her award winning shot.
Dragging the shutter is certainly a much-used staple for ensuring that enough ambient light can enter the pictures. “I practically always drag the shutter at the reception since it brings more detail into the background,” says Sanford.
But beyond that, this technique has the potential for overuse, adding blurs and lines that can give guests a bit of motion sickness if there aren’t enough photos to slow down the day. Dragging the shutter to add a more artistic touch should be used in modest measures, providing a nice contrast to the action photos that capture a freeze frame of, say, dancers in midair or a quick kiss between the bride and groom.
Also, despite all your practice and skill, taking photos using a technique with so many moving parts can inevitably lead to some throwaways because results will vary. So, are you willing to gamble on a moment the couple expects to see? It may be a good idea and a safe bet to pass on dragging the shutter for some of the wedding’s most poignant moments.
“Keep it simple,” Weir advises, “and don’t overdo it.” And always remember: The skill of true wedding photojournalists is measured by what techniques they employ in-camera.
—by Paul Ziobro for the Wedding Photojournalist Association