Using Rear Curtain Sync Effectively

Michael Lewis (, the National Geographic photographer, told us, "I don't do a lot of rear curtain, but it's a great technique for conveying a sense of motion."

An effective use of rear curtain sync by Michael Lewis, using an Olympus E-1 (Copyright Michael Lewis.)

Michael shared with us how he took this photo for Harley Davidson's 100th anniversary. "It's very hard to do something like that with a camera on a tripod," he explains. "It's a hand hold situation that works best if you are able to fix your focus on the moving subject. Start with the subject before you shoot—that's what keeps the subject clearly focused. Keep moving with the subject and then pick the moment you want to hit the shutter.

"The shutter speed has to be within a range that will give you a bit of blur but not a lot—somewhere between 1/15 and 1/8 second. Gauge it to match the speed of the subject," he advises. "Make sure the strobe isn't overpowering. Match the ambient light as much as possible, so light is even and pleasing." The Harley photo was taken at 1/5-second shutter speed, f 5.6, ISO equivalency of 100 with exposure compensation at -2/3.

John Isaac (the photojournalist and coauthor with his wife Jeannette Isaac of Endangered Peoples from Sierra Club) generally eschews flash because he doesn't like its artificiality. However, he will sometimes use second (rear) curtain sync not so much for action butto throw just a little extra light onto a subject. "That way," he explained, "the picture looks natural because it is calculated to the available light. I'll underexpose and then use the second curtain sync. The flash comes in atthe last part of the exposure after the ambient light is exposed and the flash goes in and you get a frozen moment."

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