Second Curtain Flash and the Nostalgia of Now

Illustration for article titled Second Curtain Flash and the Nostalgia of Now

What does our time look like? Maybe a little like this. A nighttime scene, with ghost images. Lights streaking through the air, and painted across our very own selves. Our time looks like an in-camera photo effect.


I have a thousand shots like this. You probably do too. Where lights seems to drift through the frame. People and objects in motion might have a transparent quality. It's distinctive and familiar, a common camera setting. It's called the second curtain flash, and it's going to be one of the definitive photo styles of the first decade of this new century.

Second curtain flash (or the second shutter flash, or simply the slow sync flash) is when you set the flash to fire as the shutter is closing, rather than when it's opening. It's an easy effect. And you see it all the time now, although less so than a few years ago. But prior to the advent of the digital camera, you rarely saw it at all.


What happened?

Sometime around 2003 we all bought Canons and Nikons that fired the flash on the second curtain as a preset. That was pretty new. Most film point and shoots didn't do that, and SLRs took some know-how to get the effect.

But then along came all those digital point-and-shoots, and second curtain was just built in. It was in just about every digital camera by every manufacturer. And so we all started taking these pictures. (It helped to be really high.)

One of Instagram's greatest tricks is letting us tap into fake nostalgia by giving us filters that make our photos look as if they were taken decades ago, rather than moments. We see those washed out hues, sepia tones and yellow tints, and they remind us of an earlier era.


In the same way that Kodachrome and Polaroid colors evoke a certain time period, I bet we're going to look back on second curtain flash shots, and have them remind us of this era. You'll see those ghostly lights and be like, "oh yeah! I remember those. Good times. What ever did we call that decade, again?"

You can keep up with Mat Honan, the author of this post, on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.


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The single most important use for second curtain (rear) flash is to shoot long shutter speeds of moving subjects and have the streaks lead UP TO the flash moment. This places the flash at the end of the trails like a head of a comet.

Second curtain and rear curtain are terms for flash that pops at the END of the shutter time. Flash shots can be first curtain (the default on every camera I've owned) and still have long shutter times gathering streaks.

Streaks carry information about the direction of time. If the flash on a moving car were to happen at the first curtain, you'd end up with the flash shot of the car with headlight or tail light streaks moving forward in time from that image. The intuitive look of such shots is that the car is zipping backwards.

I don't know of a single instance of second curtain flash being the default setting on any camera at all, and challenge the writer to produce such a beast by model number and spec sheet. Many, however, had rear curtain flash as an option.