First and second curtain flash in plain english

The wonderful world of flash is truly never ending. If you’ve ever been to Strobist, you may have experienced the mind-boggling amount of information there about flash photography and not known where on earth to begin. One of the most important things to get to know if you want to use flash photography at events like weddings is the difference between first and second curtain flash.

First, an explanation of your camera’s shutter. Most of us think of this as being a shutter –>  but today’s DSLR cameras no longer have shutters like that. In fact, if you’re a digital photographer, your shutter looks like lengthwise bars called ‘curtains’. Watch the video below for a description of how these curtains behave:

Now that the way your shutter works hopefully makes a bit more sense, let’s talk about the impact this can have on your flash photography. In your camera, you will have menu options for controlling your flash unit. On a 5D, for example, you can access this area in: menu > external speedlite control > flash functions settings > shutter sync. On a 7D, it’s here: menu > flash control > external flash function settings > shutter sync. You’ll notice that on a camera which has a pop up flash (a 5D does not), the option for second curtain flash isn’t selectable, but it is when the Speedlite is attached. This is because you can only shoot in first curtain flash with a pop-up.

So what do these options mean? In that menu area, you’ll see the option of ‘first curtain’, ‘second curtain’ and ‘high speed’ flash settings. They are:

  • First Curtain – with this, the flash fires at the beginning of the exposure, in sync with the first curtain movement.
  • Second Curtain – with this, the flash fires at the end of the exposure, in sync with the second curtain movement.
  • High Speed – with this setting, you can shoot at faster than normal shutter speeds while using your flash. In the above video, I briefly touched on sync speed being no greater than 1/250 unless you want to see the shutter in your photo. With this selected, you can use higher shutter speeds which means that in full daylight, particularly in backlit photography, you can still get beautiful fuzzy bokeh in the background with wide open apertures and fast shutter speeds. Click here to read more about that from Canon.
I particularly wanted to write this post to describe how you can utilize second/rear curtain flash in your photography. The default setting is to shoot in first curtain, but you can get some really fun results with show shutter speeds and second curtain flash.


This award winning photo by Justin Ide was taken on film. Not only did he utilize a slow shutter and rear curtain flash, he moved along with his subject during the exposure. This kept her in total focus while the rest of the scene was blurred.

The first dance can be the biggest challenge for many new photographers. You’ve got lots of difficult elements working against you. First, it’s dark. Second, the subjects are usually moving quite quickly at that moment you really want to capture most. Third, the dance is so brief that you’re really crunched to get results fast and fourth, you don’t get another shot at it. An option you have is to use flash and slow shutter speeds {again, also called ‘second curtain’ or ‘rear curtain’ or ‘dragging the shutter’}.  When photographers slow down their shutter, they effectively lengthen the exposure in order to create a motion effect. An added burst of flash can then freeze the subject in the foreground. This creates more storytelling possibilities.

When you have a couple whirling around the dance floor, you have two options: freeze their motion completely with first curtain flash which will cause the viewer to think “oh, they’re obviously dancing, just look at that frozen pose” or you can use a slower shutter speed (1/30th or slower) and add a burst of light just at the end to not only freeze the subject (giving you a nice sharp image of them) but also, you’ll have the trail of motion that goes with it. With this, the viewer is let in on the story and can definitely know what was going on there. Another way to describe it is like this: when you fire the flash with the first curtain, the flash fires and then the camera captures the rest of the action. With rear curtain, the camera captures the motion andthen the flash freezes the subject. I wish I had some examples, but I’ve never personally experimented with this although I absolutely will be the next time I have the opportunity!

This could also be great with the garter/bouquet toss shots but I would have your second shooter doing the continuous high speed shooting so you don’t miss any of the action. It’s likely that with slow sync flash photography, you’ll only get one or two shots in before the moment is gone.


Night Portraits

Used with permission from photographer Rob Andrew

There are lots of situations where you might want to take photos at night but it can be really difficult, especially where you have people in the foreground. If you have a point and shoot camera, you’ll have settings for night shooting but when you graduate to a DSLR, you’re left wondering how to set your camera to do this. The answer is in understanding flash as well as how it relates to your shutter speed which hopefully you get by now! I found this photo from photographer Rob Andrew and this is what he had to say about his approach to this particular night portrait:

“You can get away with a slower shutter than usual when using flash because your subject will be frozen by the fast flash burst. So, with my camera in manual mode, I like to set my ISO and shutter speed until the background is looking good, then set my flash to second curtain sync and ETTL mode and let it do its own thing to light my subject. I usually diffuse it with an omnibounce.”


At night, there can be so many beautiful lights and moods you want to capture in your photography, but shooting in auto just won’t do it justice. One of my biggest frustrations early in my explorations was not being able to take photos that conveyed the exact way a scene looked to the naked eye. Somehow, the camera always sucked the ambiance and mood right out of a scene and I gave up in frustration. When a scene is still (like on the right) you can always use a tripod and extremely slow shutter, but where people are involved, it gets a bit more complicated. This is where freezing their motion with flash will transform your photography.

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  • Susan Jemesen

    Thanks so much Elizabeth, I have been trying to find someone to explain this in simple terms.  Once again u come to the rescue. x

  • Thanks Elisabeth. :-)

  • I agree! It’s great to have a very clear set of instructions to follow. I’ve tried this loads of times with no success. I’m inspired now to have another go!

  • Great info

  • Dalin Rodrigues

    Amazing explanation. I have been pondering why after 1/250th was my images coming out with a black blurry bar on them. Thank you so much for sharing. You must have been with me in spirit.

  • That’s some serious simple English. Thanks for this :) 
    I shall try this soon.

  • I agree with the rest. This was a great video explanation and was put in “user friendly” terms that we all can understand.

    By the way, has anyone (except your hubby) told you how beautiful you are? You should get a photog friend to shoot you and post some pics on your blog.   :-)

  • Anonymous

    Hey, you’ve just made my day! (and I’ve already had a pretty awesome day)

  • Hilde Haugen

    Thanks a lot for this explanation!  I’ve read about this before, but I did not quite understand. But in Plain English, it gets simple! I’d love to experiment with this in the future!

  • Avpdan

    with the advent of DSLR we went from a leaf shutter to curtain shutter. 35mm camera’s mostly had curtains,  the leaf shutters were in the lens, example Hasselblad, so you could syn the flash at any speed including 500th sec.  The curtain works differently as is described above.

  • Yury


  • OncomingWedgie

    I know you posted this a while back, but I’m a new photographer and this was one of the first links that came up in my search. Thank you so much for your explanation. It was really really helpful.