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How to Use the Harris Shutter Effect (The Easy Way!)

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The Harris Shutter effect was created by Robert Harris of Kodak.

He made the effect by re-exposing the same piece of film three times. He did it through three different coloured filters while keeping the camera steady.

The three colours used were red, green and blue (the colours of the light spectrum). In the areas where no movement takes place, these three colours combine to reproduce the original colour.

You notice that the Harris shutter technique originates from the times of film photography. The good news is that you can reproduce it in the era of the digital camera!

Why You Should use the Harris Shutter Effect

The technique is a lot of fun to play around with when you’ve got some spare time. It is an easy way to impress friends with your images.

This effect can be used in any situation where you can keep the camera steady. It is a great way to show movement in a photo.

With the advent of Photoshop and digital cameras, the whole thing can be done a lot easier and without the use of filters.

This post will show you how to produce photos like the one below. We are going to adjust the red, blue and green colours in post-processing.

Colorful smoke made using the harris shutter effect

How to use the Harris Shutter Effect

All the photographer has to do is to take three colour photos of a scene involving a small amount of movement and an object that remains constant.

In my example above, I used the rising smoke out of a glass jar. The jar is the constant, and the smoke is the movement. For this effect to work best, the photos should be taken in quick succession like the ones below.

Scenes involving bikers or pedestrians walking on the street are also suitable. If you are in nature, waves, waterfalls or rivers are great subjects for this method too.

Triptych of smoke coming out of a glass jar

Step by Step Guide

After completing the shot, choose three suitable photos. Then you want to open the first image in Photoshop or the free program I like to use: GIMP. It’s not as good as Photoshop but, in many ways, does much the same thing and is ideal for what we’re going to do here.

We are going to change the red, blue and green colours in.

First, go to ‘Colors’ and select ‘Color Balance’. Boost the red level while completely removing the green and blue level from that image. This is layer number 1.

Creating the harris shutter effect in gimp

Next, go to ‘File’ and select ‘Open as Layers…’. Select the second photo. Repeat the step above but, this time, remove the red and blue levels while boosting the green.

Creating the harris shutter effect in gimp

Finally, repeat the steps above for the blue channel.

Creating the harris shutter effect in gimp

At this point you will only be able to see the blue photo so, to merge all three photos into one, you’ll need to open the layers dialogue. To do this, it’s usually ‘Ctrl-L’ or ‘Cmd-L’.

Once open, select the first of the two top layers and go to the dropdown box next to ‘Mode:’. Select ‘Addition’ as demonstrated below. Repeat for both.

This will allow you to see all three photos at the same time as one image, completing the method.

Creating the harris shutter effect in gimpCreating the harris shutter effect in gimp

Now all you have to do is to save it in the desired image format, and you’re finished.

Colorful smoke rising from a glass jar

Harris effect of colorful hands pouring colorful water into a glass

Conclusion

The technique invented by Robert Harris is a great way to add an exciting twist to your images. It’s easy to recreate it with a digital camera and a good way to improve your photography and editing skills.

Examples of Harris Shutter Effect

Harris Shutter effect is one of the topics we cover in our creative photography course, Wow Factor Photography. Below are some of the photos taken by our students. If you’d like to learn more, check out the course here.

Harris shutter effect by Hallie Young
Harris shutter effect by Hallie Young
Harris shutter effect by Kenneth Loen
Harris shutter effect by Kenneth Loen
Harris shutter effect by Kenneth Loean
Harris shutter effect by Kenneth Loean
Harris shutter effect by Rob Mason
Harris shutter effect by Rob Mason

 

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16 comments
  1. Interesting.
    I’ve done the same thing using a slightly different method:
    In Photoshop (or whatever), I split each shot into R, G and B channels and save each channel for each shot.
    Then I load the R-channel from shot-1 (say), the G-channel from shot-2 and the B-channel from shot-3 into a new file and combine them.

    1. hi micheal. i am new to photoshop. i just wanted to know how do i save them as different channels and how do i load them up and combine them. thanks if u recommend a video tutorial somewhere it would be great

  2. Great how to. However I cannot seem to get the lighting right for a sharp image. I have experimented with pouring water from a jug and steam from a saucepan. Thanks

  3. Hey! How do i keep the background the same and only have the moving areas colored like you do in the photos? When i change the color balance on each photo, the entire photo changes color and not just the smoke Can you help me please?
    Tx
    Greisha

    1. Hi Greisha, thanks for the comment. The whole photo is supposed to change colour, and when you combine all 3, the 3 colours of the spectrum will overlap to create the original colour. For the main photo, the background is black because that’s how I wanted it, but for the photo where I poured the water into the glass, the background changed colour when i tried this effect. Give it a go and show us the photo when you’re done. Thanks, Josh.

  4. Help!
    Everytime I merge the 3 in Gimp, the jar comes out bright white, like its been overexposed! I tried masking it, but it looked a bit fake.

  5. Hello Joshua,
    I like your article and the effect. Although commonly referred to as a “Harris Shutter” effect, that original technique involved only a SINGLE exposure, dropping a red, green, blue filter strip in front of the lens set on “B”. There is a blocking card before the first filter and after the last to stop light coming in. This meant the lens captured red, transitioning into green, green, transition into blue, then blue which created a continuous rainbow smear for any moving specular reflection or white object. The R, G, B filters were chosen to be neutral gray in combination, so the rest of the image was unaffected.
    Using multiple exposures and combining them – through printing in the “olden times” and digitally today as you show – is a different effect as it doesn’t have the continuity of the moving image. We used to (in the olden days) call it a tricolor print or similar names Of course your method produces beautiful, creative pictures in its own right and can be extended to blend lots of images of different colors and even different subjects. I love your choice of the smoke. Your work and technique are very nice. Waterfalls and ripples and sun reflections of seawater are also good topics. Smeared cars are less to my personal liking.

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