How to Drag your Shutter with Flash

How to Drag your Shutter with Flash | Mastin Labs

Learning to work with speedlights and strobes is a rabbit hole, and once you're in that tunnel, there's really no end in sight. You can just go and go and go. It's a wonderful journey, but if, like me, you can become a bit creatively obsessive, proceed with some caution. You may just end up having so much fun with lighting that it changes everything you currently know and do.

When I started getting into flash photography and off-camera lighting, it impacted everything and opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me. What I love about it is that this one tool gives you the ability to control the story of a photograph in all kinds of ways.

If you want to give off-camera lighting a go without diving full-on into the madness, dragging your shutter with a hand-held flash is a great place to start. Not to mention, this is a great skill to have in unideal lighting scenarios such as photographing at afterparties, events, or even in the streets.

Dragging the shutter and using a hand-held flash By Chris Daniels, edited with Mastin Labs Ilford PanF preset

The resulting images, especially if there is a lot of motion to what you're shooting, are often blurred movements and lines paired with other parts of the image in bright, crisp focus. There's a certain amount of unpredictability to it, and you'll rarely get the exact same image twice, which makes for a lot of fun and surprise!

Here's how to do it:


  • Camera
  • Flash or speedlight
  • Sync cord or wireless trigger

Note on sync cords vs. wireless triggers: There are pros and cons to using either of the options.

  • Wireless Trigger pros: The great thing about wireless triggers is, well, the fact that they're wireless.
  • Wireless Trigger cons: The downside is that because of the close proximity of the two triggers (one on your camera and the other on your hand-held flash), the signal can often get lost, which results in a misfire.
  • Sync Cord pros: Using a sync cord, your flash will fire every time. It's also nice that you don't have to bother with an additional electronic device. They're reliable and straightforward.
  • Sync Cord cons: You can often become tangled in the cord, especially if it's a longer one. The cord itself can become something to deal with, especially in a fast-paced shooting environment.

By Chris Daniels, edited with Mastin Labs Ektar 100 preset

For camera and light settings, the aim is to create a balance between the available ambient light and the light from your flash. The combination of these settings can vary greatly. The following is what I would recommend as a starting point:

APERTURE: Start out with an aperture of around f/8. The higher aperture allows for a greater area of focus, and while using this fast-paced shooting style, that is a good thing!

SHUTTER SPEED: Lower your shutter speed to achieve proper exposure. Don't worry if this takes you well below safe hand-held speeds. It's actually desirable in this scenario.

ISO: Your ISO settings for this style are really up to you. I find that I often shoot between 400 and 800 ISO while using this technique.

FLASH SETTINGS: Start out with lower power, around ⅛. The exact settings are so dependent on the scenario that you'll have to find what works best for you in your current environment. If your flash has a zoom feature, make sure that it's off.

HOLDING THE FLASH: One of the great benefits of this technique is that you can change the position of the flash by simply moving your arm. The general rule is to aim the flash at the subject at about a 45º angle. Shooting with one hand and positioning a flash with the other will take some practice, but you get used to it very quickly.

Hand-held flash 1/13 sec at f/14. By Chris Daniels, edited with Mastin Labs Ektar 100 preset


I recently used this technique in a fitness shoot, and it really saved my ass. The shoot was last-minute, low-budget and fast-paced. The new gym I was shooting in was a small space, with high ceilings and black walls and floors. There was one large slide-up door in the front that allowed some beautiful light in, but very little of that light made its way toward the back of the space, leaving only the dim fluorescents overhead. The lighting was not even. I was tasked with shooting candids of as many as twelve people during a real-time strength and aerobic workout.

That's a lot of moving parts, people, and settings to consider. There wasn't enough time, space, or budget to set up lighting for the entire area. The light was vastly different from the front of the space to the back, and I had to shoot many different scenarios, one after the other.

By Chris Daniels, edited with Mastin Labs Ektar 100 preset

Dragging my shutter and using a hand-held flash allowed me to work more easily between all of the different scenarios, usually adjusting only my aperture for the changes.

My settings for the entire shoot were:

  • APERTURE: f/10 — f/16
  • SHUTTER SPEED: 1/15 — 1/30
  • ISO: 800
  • FLASH SETTINGS: ⅛ power on a Canon 600 EX-RT

Here are some of the results:

Have you used this technique before? Join us on the Mastin Labs Facebook Community and tell us about it!