Using Shutter Drag, Strobes, and Gels for Creative Effect by Amy Elizabeth

35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.
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Written by Amy Elizabeth

Today, I’m going to walk you through a creative process I use with shutter drag, artificial lights, and gels to create the images you see in this post.

I’m honestly not even sure what to call the technique used in these images, but the equipment I use for them consists of a strobe, a continuous light, a black backdrop, and flash gels.

Using Shutter Drag, Strobes, and Gels for Creative Effect
Using Shutter Drag, Strobes, and Gels for Creative Effect
35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.

So, yes, there’s a lot of artificial light involved, but don’t let that scare you off.

I meet too many photographers who seem to shy away from artificial light. Photography literally (actually literally) means “drawing with light,” and, as photographers, our job is to become masters of light.

For years, I touted myself as a “natural light photographer,” but, honestly, it was because I was scared of artificial lighting.

I didn’t understand it, and didn’t want to because it felt too fussy and complicated.

But those of us who love film know that low ISO limitations of film equate to needing more light than a digital photographer. And being an in-home, lifestyle film photographer, I quickly found myself brushing up against the limits of indoor light (especially on grey, winter days).

My love of in-home photography and my love of film felt rather incompatible until I took the leap and purchased a strobe light.

35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.
35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.
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Understanding Strobes

If you’re unfamiliar with strobes, think back to school portraits, sitting on the stool, feet positioned on the tape, chin tilted just so, and the flash freezing your awkwardly adorable school-kid smile for posterity. That flash is what photographers call a strobe, and it’s exactly what I was afraid of.

Let me just tell you now, photographers needn’t be afraid of light. Ever. Light is our friend, and if you love photography, you will quickly fall in love with anything that produces light. Trust me.

Long story short, I fell in love with my strobe and took it to all in-home sessions.

But during the pandemic, I wasn’t booking in-home sessions, so I kept my strobe set up in my basement, and as I began to really embrace self-portraits, it became an indispensable tool for creating at any given moment inspiration struck.

If you haven’t shot with a strobe, know this: the strobe serves a singular purpose, and it’s to flash quickly, thereby freezing motion.

I often shoot at 1/60 of a second even with fast-moving kids, because the strobe will freeze the motion and the slower shutter speed will let in a bit more ambient light.

35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.
35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.

Adding in Continuous Light

The other side of this coin is that the strobe isn’t meant for slow shutters and capturing motion, which I was finding myself doing quite a bit for my self-portraits.

So what’s the tool to use in that case?

A continuous light that turns on and emits constant light instead of the flashing strobe.

But knowing I just wanted to use the continuous light for personal work, I bought the cheapest one I could find on Amazon.

35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.
35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.

Combining a Strobe with Continuous Light for Shutter Drag

Using these two kinds of artificial light together creates a shutter drag situation.

Shutter drag is when you use a flash to freeze motion, but then your shutter stays open after the flash has fired, capturing anything lit by the continuous light.

35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.
35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.
35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.

Adding in Gels

How I came to own the flash gels is ironically, completely unrelated to lighting. I bought them as a cheap alternative to filters for the trichrome photography experiment I undertook for a past Shoot It With Film article.

One day, I looked at them and realized I could use these flash gels on my actual flashes, which, for some reason, hadn’t been apparent to me until that moment. (Classic)

I took binder clips and attached the blue gel to the strobe and cut the red gel down to size and slipped it into the continuous light.

35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.

My Setup and Settings

At this point, I didn’t do any metering, I just guessed on powers. I turned the strobe up to about 1/16 power and the continuous light on the lowest setting and convinced my middle son to get into my studio and bust out his very Scandinavian “blue steel” look for me.

I used a black backdrop for these because I wanted the subject to pop. I didn’t want the background reflecting light back onto the frame.

Keep in mind if you use a lighter backdrop, it will bounce light back onto the negative and “erase” some of the effects of the colored light, for better or worse.

For these images of my son, I set the camera for about one second exposure, took the shot (so the strobe fired and froze his initial position in the blue color), and then intentionally moved my camera so the continuous red light would catch the movement of my subject within the frame.

For many of these, I started with my son in one corner and moved the camera so he ended up in the opposite corner. I wanted the light to sweep across, giving the effect of motion even though my subject was still.

Photography lighting diagram with a continuous light and strobe
35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.
35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.

Using this Method for Self Portraits

I then took the same lighting and settings and shot a roll of self-portraits. A one second exposure, the strobe with the blue gel on 1/16th power, and the continuous light with the red gel on its lowest setting.

The difference is that I couldn’t move the camera, I had to move my body. So I held my pose until the strobe fired and then moved around, whether it be spinning or hair flicking, or falling.

I will admit that moving the subject felt more difficult than moving the camera, but it’s what was necessary with self-portraits.

I kept the blue on the strobe and the red on the continuous light, so the blue pop of the strobe froze my initial position and the red continuous light caught the movement afterward.

35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.
35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.

A Few Notes

After shooting a few more rolls with this technique (all images around 1-2 seconds long), I learned a few things.

First of all, be sure to turn the strobe higher than the continuous light. Because when you freeze your motion, you will want the strobe color to overshadow the color of the continuous light.

I have learned I think I prefer the cool color to be on the strobe and the warm to be on the continuous light.

The cool color tends to be more subtle, so when it’s placed on the strobe, it allows the frozen motion to retain some of its realistic coloring. Then the continuous warm light catches the motion in a fiery way.

Because the cool color is more subtle and the warm one overpowering, it means the light source with the cool gel needs to be turned up, lest it be completely overwhelmed by the warm light.

But the most important lesson has been to play, play, play. Because every time I do these, they turn out differently.

So I try to tell myself to let go of expectations, move past the failures, and embrace any bits of magic I’m lucky enough to capture.

35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.
35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.
35mm film image with a portrait lit in blue light and a streak of movement in red.

Thank you so much, Amy! Amy is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out her other articles here, including Self-Portraits on Film: Tips to Get You Started and An Introduction to Cross-Processing Film!

To see more of Amy’s work, be sure to visit her on her website and Instagram! Amy also shares tips and tutorials for shooting film over on her IGTV channel. Go check it out!

Leave your questions about using shutter drag, strobes, and gels with your film photography for creative effect below in the comments!

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Amy Elizabeth

Amy Elizabeth is a regular contributor for Shoot It With Film. Find her other articles here, such as How To Develop Black and White Film at Home and Scanning Film Negatives with a DSLR.

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Great work love the images they look similar to some images I see of grace Jones at the tim walker exhibition at the V&A.

Oh interesting! That’s quite the comparison!

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