Shot at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, CA on a Canon 40D with a
24-70mm f/2.8L USM at ISO 100, f/16, 5 second shutter

From photography 101, most of us have learned that motion blur is created with a slow shutter speed.  Some of the most interesting photographs include night shots of traffic, large crowds walking through a large public space, or people moving on the dance floor.

This techinique is called, among other titles, “dragging the shutter” or “timelapse photography.”  You almost always need a tripod to eliminate the camera shake that accompanies low shutters and to keep the non-moving objects crisp.(The exception to this is when you have your subjects in a dark area, and there are lights in the distant background.  In this situation, as we’ll describe further in another entry, the flash from the camera should freeze your subjects, and you are free to move the camera around to blur the background and create streaks of light from the background lights… but we’ll save that discussion for another day.)

The rest of the time, you’ll need a tripod, a flash unit, and the following steps:

Place the camera on a stable tripod – You can always use a different height setting, thought it can be challenging setting up and composing the shot. So, for simplicity sake, keep the camera at eye level. (Our studio uses the SLIK 615-315 Professional Photo/video Tripod)

Go Manual – Remember that cameras tend to forget how to think at night time. If you are relying on your cameras sensor to get a properly exposed image at night, your night shot will turn out like day time shots. The in camera metering was reading 2 or more full stops under exposed for both of the pictures below, and that is fine, ignore it!

Set your aperture – Bring down the aperture as low as possible based on your composition. For these shots below, we wanted to keep the background somewhat in focus, but not fully crisp, so we shot them around F4.

Lower the ISO – Keep your ISO as low as possible. Unless absolutely necessary, we never shoot time-lapse shots above 100-200 ISO. Why? Because shooting time lapse shots already adds grain to the picture in and of itself. In addition, you want to have the ability to further adjust your exposure in post production. If you shoot at 100 ISO RAW, you can raise/drop the exposure by 1-2 full stops without destroying the picture.

Slow the shutter – Slow down the shutter to 1-2 seconds, or however long you need to get the proper effect. Don’t keep the shutter open too long, or your streaks of light will just become bright spots in the image.

Wait for the moment – Wait for traffic or any other moving light that you want to streak through the scene (and wait for foot traffic to clear, as you want to avoid ghosts in your image).

Use a timer or cable release – Put your camera on a 2 second timer or use a cable release (such as the SLIK 615-315 Professional Photo/video Tripod with Panhead). This eliminates camera shake from pushing down the shutter release button.

Use your flash – Fire away using your on or off camera flash (such as Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash. Ideally use an off camera flash to get better lighting results or diffuse the light by bouncing it off a nearby object or utilizing a light diffuser (such as the Gary Fong Lightsphere).

Test your settings – Experiment a few times and adjust the flash up and down to get the right exposure on your subjects. Make sure that you keep your flash on rear curtain sync to increase the freezing effect that the flash has on your subjects.

Freeze and fire – Tell your subjects to freeze! Then fire away and create your masterpiece.

I will be writing more entries on slow shutter techniques in the future, so keep your eyes pealed.