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

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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:

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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…

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Take care, and happy clicking,
=Matthew Saville=