Night Lights with SHUTTER


Robson Swish. Camera mounted on windshield with slow 2 second exposure. Shot on Vancouver's Robson Street shopping district for Mazda.

Robson Swish. Camera mounted on windshield with slow 2 second exposure. Shot on Vancouver’s Robson Street shopping district for Mazda.

Nighttime is a wonderful opportunity to experiment with your camera’s SHUTTER controls.

SHUTTER speed controls motion capture and can be used to freeze or blur the action. FAST photographers can take advantage of the night to experiment with a number of really cool SHUTTER techniques; Panning, Zooming, Dragging and Burning-in. In each case the the SHUTTER speed is set to a very slow duration, usually below 1/15th second or even in the order of minutes. Each technique brings a unique and different emotional or design impact to your image. Practicing each approach will help you understand your camera and photographer’s eye and assure that when the perfect opportunity arises that you are FAST and ready.

DSLR Tip:  The image “Robson Swish” required a camera with a tripod mount which could be screwed into a suction cup mounting “rig”, available from movie production rental shops, as well a radio remote trigger to take the exposure on command.

Compact Digital TIP:  If your camera has a tripod mount you can create a similar “rig” with special clamps or retail version suction cups. Set the camera timer to take the picture after a waiting interval. (You should always add a secure leash in case the camera mount lets go and the rig falls off. This is more for protection of your car and other people not just to save your camera!)

Smartphone Users!

There is an article devoted to getting these SHUTTER effects with your smart phone here!

Honest Ed's. Tripod with 1 second shutter speed to let cars "drag" headlights while freezing the sign lights in place.

Honest Ed’s. Tripod with 1 second shutter speed to let cars “drag” headlights while freezing the sign lights in place.

Honest Ed’s is a typical night shot with SHUTTER controls used to add interest.

The simplest way to add interest to a night shot is to secure the camera so it doesn’t move and set the SHUTTER as slow as possible while maintaining a proper exposure. The idea is to make sure that the detail that is not moving is readable and balanced with the time it takes to create a cool looking” light streak”. If you look at the light “drags” you can see that they have a beginning and end because the exposure time was just long enough to capture a car moving about 2 feet.

Smartphone Tip:  You can pull off a shot like this by holding your phone against a steady surface (A wall, bench or fire hydrant would do fine.) to prevent movement and taking the picture just like you would normally. The dark situation will force the camera to hold the shutter open long enough to create the streaky light drag effect.

Compact Digital TIP:   Carry a bean bag or similar item to create an instant soft mount. (A scarf or rolled up jacket could work in a pinch too, just be careful not to block the lens.) Check out your camera scene modes. Try Candle-light, Night and Fireworks settings and see what looks best.

Note:  All digital cameras will offer you an image preview or review so vary your settings and approach until you find what looks best. You can always delete what didn’t work later on.


Mount Royal Cross. Tripod mounted camera with 4 second exposure while panning the camera.

Mount Royal Cross. Tripod mounted camera with 4 second exposure while panning the camera.

It’s possible to combine these SHUTTER techniques to easily create a unique image.

This image was shot on film though it is even easier with a digital camera when you are familiar with image editing tools that come with every digital camera, even smartphones have Apps! Montreal, Canada has a very famous Cross that over looks the city from the top of Mount Royal. The photographer used a telephoto lens to create a drag effect by framing the Cross in the viewfinder where it will appear to finish it’s movement. On exposure the camera was held briefly in place to burn-in the image and then the camera is panned up and right to drag the light streaks across the image. The film had been previously exposed with shots of the full moon on a tripod and then rewound back so the film could be re-exposed. Of course this would be very simple with photo manipulation. The point is that with a little planning you can create something truly unique by shooting FAST.


This gallery offers some other examples and variations of these techniques at work.

  Shoot FAST
 …Geo
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