Creative use of second curtain sync

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My husband and I frequent a local bar, who last weekend featured a Judas Priest tribute band. We’re both big fans of Priest, so we were enthusiastic to attend. I asked the bar manager beforehand if it would be okay for me to take photos while the band played. Not every band, and not every establishment, appreciates flash photography during shows. But he gave me permission, which made me happy because it gave me a chance to play with second curtain sync.

As you may know, the camera’s shutter operates with two curtains. When you press the shutter button, the first curtain opens to reveal the sensor and expose the shot, then the second curtain follows to hide the sensor and end the shot. The lag time between the first curtain and the second curtain depends on the shutter speed – a longer shutter speed, naturally, results in a longer delay between the first curtain opening and the second curtain closing. Normally when you use a flash, it is synchronized to fire when the first shutter opens at the beginning of the exposure. This freezes any motion that may be present, either due to the subject moving, or the photographer introducing motion. With second curtain sync, the flash fires when the second shutter begins to close, at the end of the exposure. When used with a longer exposure time, second curtain sync shows the subject in focus on top of background motion blur. This is because all of the motion is exposed to the camera’s sensor while the shutter is open, and the flash fires at the very end to freeze the subject.

In a situation such as the band at the bar, the use of normal flash tends to bleed out all of the great colors and effects that are generated by the lighting arrangements. Here’s a series, shot hand-held with no flash. The ISO is cranked right up to 4000, and even 5000, and the aperture is 2.8. Even with image stabilization, a high ISO and a fast lens, the shots are still blurry. I could only get the shutter speed up to 1/8th of a second, when the rule of thumb is that the slowest you should shoot is 1/60th when shooting hand-held. But I love the colors!

Now, this shot was taken WITH a flash, at ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/60.

It’s fine. It froze the action, captured the band, caught the crowd enjoying the music. But it’s flat. You get no colors from the lights. No drama. No appeal.

So, I switched to 2nd curtain sync, and shot hand-held at f/5.6, ISO 200, and a shutter speed of 2 whole seconds. And got this:

I looked at it on the back of my camera, said, “Oh COOL!” and kept shooting. I could have reduced the shutter speed to around a second or so, but honestly the band members weren’t moving around a whole lot and I liked the ghosting effect that the slow shutter gave me.

Obviously, this is a very dramatic application of this particular effect. But I think it worked for the venue, and the band. Really, I just had a good time playing around with it.

Mark Wallace provides an exceptional video on the topic, so if you’re looking for more detailed information on second curtain sync, go watch it! And if you’ve played around with second curtain sync, we’d love to see your results! Share with us on our Facebook Page, our Google+ Community, or our Flickr Group.

All images copyright Tiffany Joyce.

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  • Lorenzo Ali

    Great tip for someone who finds using flash a bit scary. Looking forward to trying this out!

  • GM Studio

    Thaks for sharing :) Second curtain flash photography can lead to very beautiful and creative effect.

  • Erran Stewart-Photography

    I use this trick in my work and love the effects! Nice blog post :)

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