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Built-in Flash Techniques #5: Fast, Furious Light Trails with Second-Curtain Sync

Shoot with a slow shutter speed and the light from a moving car’s head - and tail lights will appear as light trails. If you use your flash in combination you will capture not only the light trails, but the car body as well, producing a phenomenal shot that looks like a scene from a sci-fi movie. You will, of course, have properly set your flash. In this article I will explain how to utilize the Second-Curtain Sync mode (also known as slow sync flash). (Reported by: Teppei Kohno)

EOS 760D/ EF-S18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM/ FL: 18mm (28mm equivalent)/ Manual exposure (f/3.5, 1 sec)/ ISO 400/ WB: Auto
Flash Exposure Compensation: EV-0.7


Capture both the car and light trails using Second-Curtain Sync flash

*Shooting Procedure
A: Set your lens as wide-angled as possible.
B: Use a tripod to position your camera as low as possible.
C: Set your shutter speed to 1 sec.
D: Use maximum aperture and set ISO speed to AUTO.
E: Change your flash setting to Second-Curtain Sync.
F: Test shoot and lower your shutter speed if the light trails are too short.


Using a slow shutter speed and built-in flash, you can capture both the light trails and the car speeding away into the night. Shots taken with the normal settings for the built-in flash, however, will show light trails toward the front of the car, making the car look like it is reversing, as the camera is set to First-Curtain Sync by default, and the built-in flash fires immediately after exposure starts.

To shoot light trails behind the car like it is moving forward, the built-in flash has to be set to Second-Curtain Sync. The flash will fire right before the shutter closes, and you will capture light trails behind the car.

Adjust the f-number and shutter speed yourself for this shot, by setting the shooting mode to Manual. As a guide, use a shutter speed of 1/2 sec-1 sec., depending on how fast the car is moving, to capture longer light trails. At these shutter speeds you will get blurred images if you hand-hold the camera, so mount your camera securely on a tripod. Because this is a night shot, use maximum aperture and achieve your desired brightness for the shot by setting the ISO speed to AUTO, letting the camera make the necessary adjustments.

I recommend you compose your shot from a low angle with wide-angled lens, to capture the movement of the car speeding away. Please note this kind of flash photography will probably will be a nuisanse to regular traffic, so it would be better to use your buddy’s car as a subject. That way you can shoot as much as you want until you get the hang of it.


Negative example: First-Curtain Sync

Good example: Second-Curtain Sync


Both examples: EOS 760D/ EF-S18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM/ FL: 24mm (38mm equivalent)/ WB: Auto

Left:  Manual exposure (f/5, 0.8 sec)/ ISO 100
First-Curtain Sync. Light trails are captured toward the front of the car like the car is reversing.

Right: Manual exposure (f/4.5, 1/5 sec)/ ISO 400
Second-Curtain Sync. Light from the car’s headlights are captured toward the back of the car like the car is advancing.



Getting to grips with timing your flash

Negative example (1): Shutter speed was set too slow

Negative example (2): Shutter speed was set too fast


Both examples:EOS 760D/ EF-S18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM/ ISO 400/ WB: Auto

Left: FL: 38mm (60mm equivalent)/ Manual exposure (f/8, 1 sec)
The flash timing was too late as the shutter speed was set too slow. Only light trails are captured as a result since the flash fired after the car exited the frame.

Rght:  FL: 24mm (38mm equivalent)/ Manual exposure (f/2.8, 1/15 sec)
The light trails are too short as the shutter speed was set too fast. It is easier to time the flash when the car enters the frame with fast shutter speeds, but the light trails will be short and lack dynamism.


With Second-Curtain Sync flash, it takes time for the flash to fire after you press the shutter button, so it is more difficult to capture the car at your desired position than when you use the normal flash. Timing the flash depends on the speed of the moving car, so the trick to getting beautiful light trails in the frame is to release the shutter when the car is 3-4m away from entering the frame. Whether the flash fires at the best composition when the vehicle approaches or not depends mostly on the speed of the vehicle. As the proverb goes: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again."


Setting your *EOS 760D to Second-Curtain Sync

1. Bring up the quick menu

Press the [Q] button to display Quick Control screen and highlight “Built-in flash settings” (encircled).


2. Select Flash mode

Select “1st-curtain” under “Normal flash firing” from the built-in flash settings. Press [INFO.] to bring up the detailed settings.


3. Select "2nd Curtain"

Set “Shutter sync.” to “2nd curtain”. Revert the settings after shooting.


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EF-S18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM

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Teppei Kohno


Born in Tokyo in 1976, Kohno graduated with a Social Work degree from the Department of Sociology of Meiji Gakuin University, and apprenticed with photographer Masato Terauchi. He contributed to the first issue of photography magazine PHaT PHOTO and became an independent photographer after that, in 2003. The author of many books, Kohno not only shoots all sorts of commercial photographs, but also writes prolifically for camera and other magazines.