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How We Shot It

Dance Floor Motion Blur – How We Shot It

By Matthew Saville on July 15th 2013

Every wedding photographer ought to know how to create this type of image.  Even if it’s not your style, or if you only use the technique sparingly for a small number of photos, it is still an important technique to master!

The Photos




How We Shot It

The Lin & Jirsa Team created these three images, with photographer Ryan Hanson shooting on the Canon 5D Mk3 and myself working the Nikon D700.

The concept is simple-  capture the excitement and the action of the party by carefully combining crisp sharpness and crazy motion blur!

The trick is to not over-do it, to avoid completely ruining your images.  Too much blur and your image just becomes an abstract that looks more like a mistake than a creative choice…

So, let’s build this image from the ground up
First, before we start creating motion blur we should talk about wedding receptions and dance floors in general.  They’re very dark!  Usually we find ourselves with an ISO around 3200, an aperture around f/2.8, and a shutter speed around 1/100 sec. or 1/200 sec.  We’ll shoot 90% of our reception and dance floor images around this range, usually with 2-3 wireless flashes and one on-camera flash that is bounced off the ceiling of the venue.

Really, we only want to shoot with motion blur for a couple images very briefly, so we want to avoid messing up all our camera settings.  The quickest way to do this is change only three settings:  Your shutter speed of course, then your aperture, then your on-camera flash.

Shutter Speeds – 1/3-1/30 sec.
The best shutter speeds for this type of action blur are usually 1/3 sec. to1/30 sec.  With a flick of your wrist, you’ll get considerable motion blur even at the faster end around 1/20 sec or 1/30 sec; this is where we recommend starting out.

ISOs – 1600-3200
To compensate for such a slow shutter speed, we recommend leaving your ISO where it is and dialing your aperture instead.  Especially for Nikon users, because ISO control is a left-handed thing.  Usually, somewhere between f/5.6-f/8 is good, again depending on the ambient light overall.

On-Camera Flash – 1/32-1/128, straight-on
Finally, since you’ve closed your aperture by 3-4 stops and your on-camera flash probably can’t keep up with that, you might want to stop bouncing your flash off the ceiling and just point it straight forward.  This will make your light kinda harsh, but it will conserve your flash power.  Depending on which flash you have and how far away your subject is, try somewhere between 1/32 power and 1/128 power…

Avoid Ambient Light on Subjects
All of these settings should give you everything you need to create the shot, however we still need to talk about one more important aspect of the ambient light.  You need to look for opportunities where your subjects are dark with little or no ambient light shining on them, so that the flash is the only thing shining on them.  Otherwise, you’ll just be combining your flash with the ambient light, and your image will be over-exposed and half-blurry, half-sharp.  If there is a bright ambient light shining on the dance floor, try and maneuver around to the other side of your subjects so that it isn’t shining directly on them.

This way, you’ll get cool blurry lights around the edges of your image, with a relatively sharp subject towards the center.  If you’re still having trouble with your subjects blurring or “ghosting” even when you use flash, try raising your shutter speed to cut down on the ambient light.  Or if you don’t want to lose any blur, raise your aperture to f/8 or f/11 and bump up your on-camera flash by a stop or so.  Either way your goal is to cut down on the ambient light so that only your flash is shining on the subjects.

Wireless Flashes
What about remote, wireless flashes?  In this kind of situation, they really only act as an accent light, a sparkle that is cool to have in the background.

Edited To Add:  What About Rear-Curtain Sync?
A lot of people have asked about the flash curtain sync- whether the flash pops at the beginning of the exposure, or at the end.  The common belief is that using rear-curtain sync is better for these types of situations.  Actually, this type of situation can benefit from either option. you should simply experiment and see what you like.  Personally I just always leave my flash in rear-curtain sync, for all shooting conditions because it seems to help me reduce the amount of blinking shots I get when photographing groups.

Here’s what the original images will usually look like in a situation such as this- slightly fuzzy, sometimes over-exposed or under-exposed, …but hopefully capturing the excitement of the party:


The Post-Processing

Don’t obsess with perfect color correction for these types of crazy dance floor images; half the fun is having such awesome colors everywhere!  Of course in most cases you’ll want to represent skin tones relatively accurately, but don’t be afraid of a little tint, or a little bit of under-exposure or over-exposure.  The most important thing is to make the images pop; maybe drop the shadows / blacks down a bit and/or bump up the contrast, then maybe add a little bit of burning & dodging to emphasize the subjects and/or de-emphasize other areas in the image that are too bright or too dark.

And, there you have it!

Again, remember that you don’t want to over-do it.  These types of shots are fun and creative and artistic, but you probably don’t want to be shooting an entire wedding reception like this.  My personal rule is to shoot no more than 5 mins worth of dance floor action with this technique, and then I switch back to regular types of images with less blur and more even exposures…


Take care, and happy clicking,
=Matthew Saville=

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Joseph Prusa

    Great post

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  2. John

    This is a great thorough read on what is for me the most fun aspect of shooting a reception. Ironically the most helpful tip for me was not technical, but the tip about only shooting a few of these. I tend to overdo it and also trip up on my camera settings because I’m going back and forth so much. Talk about a “duh” moment!
    My only wish is that the detailed equipment specs and camera settings came with what type of diffuser (if any) is used on the on-camera speedlight. For some reason, this info seems to be left out of posts in most blogs of this type. Naturally I can assume it is not diffused when pointed at the ceiling, but is the pop-up bounce card in play? Also when pointed at the subject it is still a naked flash head? I’m guessing based on the “hard light” comment it is, but would love to see this info included in more posts of this type. Thanks for the info. Cheers.

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    • M. Saville

      Hey John,

      I think that the reason why a lot of times this on-camera flash information is left out is, there are so many different techniques that are perfectly acceptable, and they’re largely a matter of personal preference.

      Personally, I prefer to use no modifiers whatsoever, as often as possible. Whether I am bouncing my flash off the ceiling or pointing it straight forward at my subjects, I usually don’t use any sort of “tab”, card, fong-dong, etc.

      It depends, of course, on your subjects and the height of the ceiling. If you are dealing with subjects that have more deep set eyes, then you probably want to add some sort of diffusion to help put a “sparkle” in their eyes. Or if you’re dealing with a 40+ ft ceiling, you’re just not going to be able to bounce much at all, and you’ll want something even more helpful. (Like putting the “lid” on your tupperware diffuser.)

      As far as which tool you choose, in my opinion it is quite subjective. The lightsphere-type diffusers work great if you shoot at very ultra-wide angles like on dance floors, because they can throw light so evenly at such wide angles. Personally though, I just use a 6-8″ triangle of white craft foam, similar to the concept explained in the “better bounce card” video.

      Good luck and take care,

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  3. Jeff

    I’m wondering, if there’s little to no ambient light, where is the blur coming from? Thanks.

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  5. M. Saville

    Yes Ryan answered your question, folks. I will mention the “where the heck do you put it?” issue in a more extensive review of the system, coming soon…

    =Matthew Saville=

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  6. Nick G

    Where do you put the JrX when you have a hot-shoed flash already? I don’t mean what port do you connect it to (the PC), I mean where do you keep the damn thing? It always gets in my way. Do you have a trick?

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    • Nate

      If you are shooting with a bracket system for your flash, like this one… then your “on camera” flash will already be linked to a wireless trigger. That’s how i would do it.

      Matt, great post!

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    • Ryan H

      Hey Nick,

      I am the one who shot this wedding with Matt, when we are using on camera flash and the hot-shoe is taken I use a metal bracket like this…

      Matt though simply velcro’s his to his on camera flash, maybe throws a rubber band around as well for safety but either solution works, for the JrX system I think the velcro works, when im using Pocket Wizards they are a bit heavy to velcro.

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  7. Lauren

    Great post!

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  8. Anir

    Very informative, nice tips, thanks for sharing guys. Its helps a lot.

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