Draggin’ The Christmas Tree

I hope this post finds everyone well. I apologize for not getting this posted on Friday. I apparently am so sweet, that I have attracted the flu and have been busy passing it onto other members of the family. Usually, this time of year you hear someone say, “Pass the eggnog.” Well around here we are saying, “Pass the Z-Pack!” I don’t get sick much and at times like this it reminds me how glad I’m am to dodge all of the coughing and sneezing people out buying all of their Christmas crap, only to stand in line at the post office for two hours to mail them up north. Life in Florida, what can I tell you. Anyway, on with the post.

Two of the most common questions that I get are: 1) What does “Dragging the shutter mean?” and 2) “How do I photograph Christmas lights?” I thought since our two foot, ready made out of the box, takes two seconds to assemble Christmas tree is up, this would make a great show and tell for both of these subjects in one.

First, let’s talk a little about what “shutter drag” or “dragging the shutter” means. Most of the time you will hear about the camera’s max sync speed for your flash. This is usually either 1/200, or 1/250 of a second. This means that if the shutter speed on the camera goes faster than this, the flash will not register in the exposure. I know some of you are asking about “FP Sync” or “HyperSync”. We’ll save that for another post. The camera’s sync speed comes into play more apparent when you are trying to photograph with flash outside on a sunny day. If anyone has tried this, you know the dance that you have to play with your ISO and f stop to get the look that you want. But, just because the camera will sync to a 1/250 of a second, doesn’t mean that you always have to. Depending on the look that you are going for, it might be better to slow it down a few notches. We are using the flash as a “fill flash” because the lights on the tree aren’t powerful enough to get the detail in all of the spaces of the tree. This is why we are tied to a sync speed of 1/250 or slower. Let me explain with some photos:

 Photographed at 1/250, max sync speed for my Nikon.

Look at the photo above. Do you see anything strange going on? Check out the bulbs. See it yet? The bulbs aren’t glowing. If you think of it, is this what you see with your eyes when you see Christmas lights? At least with my eyes, I see them more of a bright, glowing, filling the tree with different colors. Lights such as this are considered “ambient light” meaning that they are always on and part of the ambient lighting in the room. What controls the look of the ambient light in a room when using a flash set up such as this is the shutter speed. Here is the question you have to ask yourself, “How do I want the bulbs to look?” The faster the shutter speed, the less time that the ambient light has to expose on the sensor. This explains why the bulbs are dimly lit. These are not powerful lights, so an adjustment will need to be made to make them glow. Check out the next photo:

 Photographed at ¼ of a second.

Now the bulbs on the tree look as if I see them with my eyes. They are glowing and you can see some of the color being casted onto the tree. By purposely slowing down the shutter or “dragging the shutter” we are allowing more time for the ambient light of the bulbs to burn onto the sensor. This also works outside if you are photographing a whole house that has been decorated. Try one photograph at 1/250 and one at ¼ of a second and see which you like better. When I first got started in this profession, no one would give me a straight answer. They might say, “Well, Son you need to drag it just a bit.” So, I’m standing there with my camera thinking to myself…”What the hell does that mean?” I hope that this will save you some scratching of the head and pondering in space.

OK, time for a real life example. My wife “volunteered” me to photograph all of the volunteers of her church. I thought this is easy, how many can there be? Well after I got everything set up, I asked the question and I got a simple answer of, “Only 180 people.” $&*#&$^$^#&*# – Thanks Hunny! Since this is the Christmas time of year, they wanted a Christmas tree in the photo. The first thing that came to my mind was dragging the shutter so the bulbs on the tree would look lit in the photos. We got the make shift background arranged and got the tree in place and I took a test photo. This is what I got:

 My wife praying for her life! Photographed at 1/15 of a second.

This photo was lit with two flashes. The first flash was in a shoot through umbrella to camera left, on a 45° angle to the subject and down. We were in a really cramped space for the photo shoot, so I wanted to light the other side of the subject so it wouldn’t go into shadow. It’s a great idea, but one really big problem. There wasn’t any room for the umbrella. I attacked the problem “Larry the Cable Guy” style. (Of, course people are standing in line ready to have their photo taken and watching this whole parade go on. I was good, I didn’t swear, not even once!) I put the flash on a stand and put the wide angle diffuser down over the front of the flash. I put the flash so it would be just out of the frame and pointed it at the wall/ceiling joint of the room, bare bulb. The flash is no longer my light source, the wall and ceiling is. When the light bounces off the wall/ceiling, this is a much bigger light source than the bare flash itself and will give me softer light.

Once everything was set, it all went quickly. We photographed everyone in 45 minutes. Since I’m a manual camera and manual flash kind of guy, all of my photos are EXACTLY the same. No screwing around with exposure or flash compensation. The only time that I made a slight adjustment was when someone wearing a black outfit showed up. I boosted the flash power by one stop and that gave me some great separation, so they weren’t just floating heads!

I hope this article help shed some light on this creative tool. The best thing, it’s FREE! Finally, something that is free! All kidding aside, we wish you and your family a safe and healthy Holiday Season. Take care…

Until Next Time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. Thanks for all this good information.

    Wishing you and your Family all the Best for the Holiday Season and the New Year.

    C. McYule

  2. Great information and thanks for the “how to” portion. Looking forward to trying this out myself. Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year to you and your family. Carol E.


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