The very first technique example that I wrote about on the original dg28 site was a portrait made using flash and blur. When I went through the statistics for my website "flash and blur" was the most searched phrase.

Coincidentally, I spent some time on the recent London Strobist group meet up showing some of the others a few simple ways to make pictures with the Christmas lights on the trees in the centre where we were playing.

This example makes use of having a zoom lens. It really would be a feet of skill to do this one with a prime lens!


I wouldn't necessarily call this a great picture, but the whole point of events like this is to play with ideas and develop techniques that you can call on at a later date when it really matters.

We were shooting on a balcony which overlooks the concourse of a very trendy shopping centre where every tree is decked out with lights. My subject was very simply lit with my ultra-portable lighting kit:

  • Vivitar 285 HV flash unit
  • Lumedyne Tiny Cycler battery pack and cable
  • Manfrotto 001B stand and Light-tite head
  • Elinchrom shoot through 1 metre umbrella
  • Pocket Wizard Plus transmitter and receiver
  • All held in a small Domke sling bag

The head is pointing directly at him from just above his eye level and from an angle of forty degrees from the axis of the lens. The flash is about three metres from the subject with the head zoomed to it's widest setting. It is important to keep the power down if the lights in the background aren't all that strong. Too much flash power means stopping the lens down a long way which in turn often means having to hand hold the camera for more than a second - which is my personal cut off point for making this kind of technique controllable. Much more than a second and you really struggle to keep the composition right.

The question about first and second curtain flash synch' always comes up when I am demonstrating this technique - I never use second curtain. Why? well it is simple. The positioning of the subject in the frame is vital. By selecting first curtain synch' you ensure that you get the subject where you want them. It is really difficult to judge where the subject will be by the time the flash fires at the end of a relatively long exposure with second curtain synch'.

This particular image was shot using the zoom on the lens to create the blurred light path from the point sources of light. It is much the same idea as those pictures you see of car tail lights on a long exposure from a motorway bridge except in this case it is the camera, or more precisely the focal length of the lens, that is moving. My first guess would always be to start with the lens zoomed out, focus on the subject and then zoom the lens in as soon as the flash has fired freezing the subject. This was using a Canon 70-200 f2.8L IS lens - starting at 70mm and zooming in to 200 mm.

Let us talk about exposures: It was dark! The subject was in almost total darkness and so there was no light on him to affect the exposure. The lights in the background were relatively bright and I wanted the exposure to be 1 second. I tried a frame at f5.6 and the lights were too bright. I know from experience that blurring lights reduces their brightness by between one and two f-stops. This picture was eventually shot at f6.7 with the Vivitar flash on 1/4 power. It took some fiddling with the flash to subject distance to get everything right. I tried several frames with different zooming speeds and the ideal seems to be zooming as slowly as the length of the exposure will let you.

Panning the camera, rotating the camera or moving yourself towards the subject all give different effects but the point here is that at Christmas or Diwali or Hanukkah or any other festival where ther are lights we have a chance to make some fun pictures.

December 2008 ©Neil Turner


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