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How I started dragging the shutter--while moving my camera--at weddings

Caution: Before you attempt the technique described in this article at a real, live wedding, make sure you've shot all the standard wedding pictures--or that somebody else has that covered. It's important to make sure you've taken the pictures that are expected of you before you do the unexpected.




"Shoot," she said

It started in the mid-80s. My friend Barbara was getting married. We were both photographers, and she knew I liked street photography. She invited me to her wedding and encouraged me to bring my Leica M3 to her wedding and shoot away. Another photographer, a well-known wedding pro in the New York area, would do the standard shots. My role was to "get something weird, wonderful, and different."


And now for something completely different: I must have held the shutter down for a couple of seconds here. The bride and groom loved the lively, impressionistic quality the long exposure gave this scene.


I jumped at the opportunity. I'd recently discovered Garry Winogrand's Stock Photography book, where he used a flash and a long exposure when photographing indoor rodeos in Texas, and the sense of motion and excitement that this technique evoked intrigued me. Would a similar technique work at a Jewish wedding in New York?

The technique is a commonly used one: Dragging the shutter. Most commonly, this means combining the flash exposure with a longer shutter speed to balance the ambient light with the flash output. However, it's typically done with the subject told to stand still. My twist was to drag the shutter while both the camera and the subject moved.

What does a rodeo have in common with a Jewish wedding?

And so there I was shooting in a dark reception hall with my Leica loaded with Ilford HP5 film, and decked out with a 35mm f/3.5 Summaron lens, and a Vivitar 283 flash. (A modern equivalent might be the Ricoh GR Digital with its optical finder and Sunpack 383 flash.) I wasn't interested in the ceremony itself, but instead wanted to capture the excitement on the dance floor during the reception. Since this was an Orthodox Jewish wedding, I knew that the dancing, with men and women dancing in separate circles, could get quite frenetic and crazy, and wanted to capture that feeling.

I used shutter speeds ranging from 1/8 sec to Bulb (probably 2-3 seconds). My main challenge was dodging the videographer and trying not to step on the pro's toes. I had a brief discussion with him at the beginning of the wedding, making sure he knew that I was shooting at the bride's request, and that he should let me know if I'm getting in his way. Fortunately, he was using a radio slave, so my flash wouldn't set off his slave flashes.

So, what's the fuss?

What's so great about dragging the shutter and moving the camera? The most successful shots have an ethereal, almost surrealistic quality to them. There is more motion and excitement that I feel more accurately depicts the controlled chaos that often goes on at weddings where there's a lot of wild dancing.

It was in the days before LCD screens and chimping, and so I really had no idea if I was getting anything good. But after processing the film I knew I'd found a technique that produced dynamic, exciting photos. More importantly, the bride and groom loved them. In the intervening years, dragging the shutter while moving the camera has been adopted by photojournalists, sports photographers, and yes, wedding photographers, as another tool in their creative arsenals.


Surrealistic scene: Dragging the shutter can be controlled to a point--but when it's more than a second, the magic of losing control takes over. The strange, dreamlike elements in this scene reminded the bride of a Chagal painting!


But as with many offbeat techniques, this technique has a lot of gotchas. Here are some tips to help you anticipate problems and avoid issues that could mess up your shots.

1. Use a rangefinder camera. With an SLR, you are working blind during the time the shutter is open and the mirror is up; a rangefinder lets you see what's happening during the exposure. With exposures that can end up around a second in duration, this is important. Of course any Leica M will do (and the forthcoming Digital Leica M, expected this fall, will help if you're all-digital). Also, the Ricoh GR Digital, when used with its viewfinder, could be an ideal camera for this purpose.

2. Use slow film or ISO setting. The idea is to allow fluid motion into your photos, which you'll achieve if you can shoot at slow shutter speeds.

3. Choose a shutter speed 1/8 second or slower. Anything faster won't look deliberate. It will look like a mistake.

4. Watch for harsh points of light. They will appear as white streaks in your photos and could distract the eye.

5. Meter the ambient light. While you can set your flash's output, ambient light is something you can't change...but you can control. I choose the aperture I want and let the shutter speed fall where it may.

6. Move your camera while shooting. Get in the circle and dance while you're taking pictures. Twist the camera while the shutter's open. Try different things, study the effect. Remember this is an experimental approach, so experiment!

7. Soften the light Use a bounce card or diffusion panel in front of your flash to soften its harshness. It will give your pictures a more painterly look. Also, there's no rule that says the flash must stay on the camera. Handheld, wireless flash can add another dimension (literally) to your results.

8. Be polite. If you're not the assigned wedding pro, make sure the photographer is using radio remotes to fire his flashes. If he's using light-activated remotes, coordinate with him or her so your flash doesn't fire his units when he needs them.

Subtle touch: At a particularly frenetic moment during the dancing at a wedding reception, the videographer's light lit the groom's head, and a quick 1/8-second exposure and first-curtain flash turned it into a veil of light.


Finally, discuss this technique with the couple in advance. You don't want to deliver something they aren't expecting; make sure they understand that this is unconventional. Show samples If they say "do it," you can let your creative juices flow but if not, stick to the standard formula.

If you're breaking into the field, include some of these kinds of photos in your portfolio as a way of demonstrating your creativity. You might even want to try offering your services to an established studio. While I don't suggest that you can make a career out of doing this technique exclusively, it could certainly spice up the selection of shots you show your brides and grooms.

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