The Whip Pan: A Creative Off-Camera Flash Night Portrait Technique

Don’t get me wrong, natural light and golden hour are gorgeous and a huge part of what we do. But, in addition to these types of photographs, we have built our name on imagery that differs from the typical wedding or couples photograph. Our studio (Lin and Jirsa Photography) has become known for unique and epic environmental portraits. While almost every client wants golden hour imagery, these stand-out epics help draw clients to our brand in the first place. 

In this article, I want to show you a technique we call the “whip pan.” It’s a nighttime portrait technique that works very well in city-based locations where you have background lights that can be used for effect. This technique not only creates unique imagery but is also one of those “tricks” that can really wow a client when pulled off. 

The following article contains excerpts from our video workshop, “Unscripted | Photo Shoot BTS, Season 1,” on SLR Lounge. In this Premium Workshop, you will see us capture real engagements and weddings, get a glimpse of our camera settings, and hear our client communication and posing directions. 

Here’s how to execute the whip pan in seven simple steps. 

1. Place The Camera On A Tripod

The whip pan technique requires a bit of precision, especially if you need to create a composite in post using multiple images (more on that later). First, set up your tripod, securely place your camera on it, and make sure the horizon is level in your viewfinder. Next, frame and compose your shot. The background should have enough points of light to create interesting light streaks when you pan the camera left and right, which brings us to one last item; be sure to loosen the lock on your ball head for horizontal panning movement.

2. Select Ambient Exposure With Shutter (Recommended: 1″ to 2″)

(Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 35mm f/1.4 at f/5, 1-second shutter speed, ISO 100, 5500K; color temperature adjusted during post-production to 3000K – as seen on the right)

The “whip pan” technique uses slow shutter speeds (usually 1″ to 2″) and quick camera movements to capture motion blur in a scene; therefore, when adjusting your settings to dial in ambient exposure, slow the shutter speed to approximately 1″ to 2″ and then set the aperture and ISO accordingly. Unfortunately, there is no one-setting-fits-all for these types of shots, but you can see our settings in the image above.

For more information on shooting in low light situations, check out these behind-the-scenes videos from one of our nighttime engagement sessions.

3. Place Off-Camera Flash To Add A Backlight

Next, add an off-camera flash to backlight the subjects and separate them from the background. In the image above, I placed the flash close to the subjects and angled the light toward the male subject’s white shirt to bounce a little extra light back onto both subjects, which helped define their features in the final image.

Using a flash also helps counter the slow shutter speed as it freezes your subjects in place. You can make the artistic decision to add a full CTO gel to the flash or not, but we chose to add a gel to warm the couple’s skin tone in-camera and then “cool” the overall image in post-production, resulting in a blue-ish background and a couple with normal skin tones (see the final image in step seven below).

4. Pose Subject(s)

There are a number of poses you can direct your subjects into (see the video above for a quick overview of our Foundation Posing Framework), but you should consider the mood and purpose of the image before deciding on any particular one. For our whip pan image, we chose a closed pose because this technique draws extra attention to the lights and to the environment in general. It would probably look awkward if the subjects were asked to look directly into the camera. This epic shot is more about the scene and less about the couple’s expressions.

Once you have posed your subjects for the shot, let them know to stand still as the slow shutter speed will increase the chances of capturing movement within the image, which could leave the subjects looking out of focus. 

5. Plate Shot

(Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 35mm f/1.4 at f/7.1, 1-second shutter speed, ISO 100)

One of the shots you’ll need to take is a plate shot, which is used as a “clean” shot of the scene, without motion blur or other distractions (see above). In a worst-case scenario, we can use plate shots and blend them with motion images in Photoshop to create a composite that matches our vision.

6. Capture Image With Whip Pan (Left/Right In Quick Motion With Slow Shutter)

Position your subjects within the frame and then press the shutter button. With the shutter still open, pan the camera to the left and right. The slow shutter speed combined with the panning motion should result in long lines of light that reach across the image. It’s worth noting that the slower the shutter speed, the longer the light streaks will be. 

7. Create A Composite Image In Photoshop (If Necessary)

If you can nail the shot in camera, great. If not, create a composite by combining the images (your plate shot as well as your whip pan shot) and masking the layers in Photoshop. You can find more information on how to create a composite image in post here. Be sure to create a soft transition between the photos in order to make the composite less obvious.

Tip: Place your couple in an area where the lights will not blend over them (black background). That way, the slow shutter speed and whip pan motion will blur the lights in the background while the flash freezes the couple.

Final image:

(Final image – above: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 35mm f/1.4 at f/7.1, 1-second shutter speed, ISO 100)

To learn more useful tips and strengthen your foundation of photography education, consider becoming an SLR Lounge Premium Member and receive access to hundreds of gold standard lighting, postproduction, and posing tutorials. The images used in this article are from our workshop, “Unscripted | Photo Shoot BTS – Season 1.”

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