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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials In Focus: Built-in Flash Techniques- Part5

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. Find out how to utilise the second-curtain sync mode in this article. (Reported by: Teppei Kohno)

Car with light trails

FL: 18mm (28mm equivalent)/ Manual exposure (f/3.5, 1 sec)/ ISO 400/ WB: Auto
Flash Exposure Compensation: EV-0.7

Second-curtain sync flash lets you achieve effects not possible with first-curtain sync

Your camera is set to first-curtain sync by default, which means that the built-in flash fires immediately after exposure starts. When you try to capture light trails, they appear toward the front of the car, making the car look like it is reversing. 

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.

Negative example: First-curtain sync

Car with light trails in front

Light trails are captured toward the front of the car like the car is reversing.

Good example: Second-curtain sync

Car with light trails behind

The light from the car’s headlights is captured toward the back of the car like the car is advancing.


Step-by-step: How to capture both the car and light trails using second-curtain sync flash

Shooting diagram

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 camera to manual exposure mode.
D: Exposure settings:  Shutter speed: 1/2 to 1 second, maximum aperture, ISO Auto
E: Change your flash setting to "Second-Curtain Sync". (Click for detailed instructions)
F: Test shoot and lower your shutter speed if the light trails are too short. (Here's what to look out for.)

More detailed explanations are as follows:


Equipment and shooting position - Wide-angle lens, tripod, low angle

- Shooting from a low-angle with a wide-angle lens helps to better capture the movement of the car speeding away.
- To avoid camera shake causing unwanted blur, use a tripod.

Haven't got a tripod yet? Here's How To Find The Right Tripod For Your Photography


Exposure settings - M mode, slow shutter, maximum aperture

- Exposure mode: Manual, as you will need to set the f-number and shutter speed yourself.
- Shutter speed: 1/2 sec to 1 sec as a guideline. This should achieve longer light trails, although it also depends on how fast the car is moving.
- Aperture: Maximum, because you are shooting at night.
- ISO speed: Auto. Let the camera make the necessary adjustments.


Setting your camera to second-curtain sync

*Note: Actual procedure might differ depending on your camera model. When in doubt, check the user manual.

1. Press the flash button on your camera. The following menu should appear.

Flash on/off menu

Press the MENU button.

2. In the menu that appears, select “Shutter sync”.

Built-in flash settings menu

You can also reach this screen by pressing the MENU button -->Shoot menu-->Flash control-->Built-in flash settings.

3. Select “2nd curtain”.

Shutter sync setting menu

It's good practice to revert the settings to "1st curtain" after shooting—if not, you might forget and accidentally shoot in this mode the next time!


Finding the right shutter speed

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. 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 or not the flash fires at the best composition when the vehicle approaches depends mostly on the speed of the vehicle, but in general, a shutter speed of around 1/2 to 1 second should work.

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

Light trail, no car
Shot at 1 second

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.

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

Very shot light trails
Shot at 1/15 sec

The light trails are too short as the shutter speed was set too fast. With a fast shutter speed, it is easier to time the flash when the car enters the frame. However, the light trails will be short and lack dynamism.


Note: Don't be a nuisance to regular traffic!

This kind of flash photography can be distracting to drivers, especially if you are going to shoot close to the vehicles and fire your flash repeatedly. It’s probably best 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.


For more night photography shooting tips, check out:
Useful Camera Functions for Capturing Nightscapes with a Difference
One Location, Two Looks: Abstract Nightscapes – Tranquillity vs. Vibrancy
Standard Technique Using Light Trails
Night Photography Tip: How to Use a Remote Switch to Prevent Camera Shake


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Teppei Kohno

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.

Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation