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High-speed sync portrait of horse farmer Tips & Tricks

In Broad Daylight: Flash in the Sun with High-Speed Sync

By Jon C. Haverstick on March 19th 2014

High-speed sync portrait of horse farmer

This is one of my favorite portraits of my dad – taken on his farm in Indiana a couple years ago. I love the drama of the Midwestern sunset and the warm light on Dad’s face.

The Problem and the Solution

Often our favorite images are a compromise of exposure. Shooting into the sun in the picture above, my camera would likely have rendered this image rather differently, left to its own devices.  To underexpose and retain the detail and color in the sky, Dad would have been a silhouette.  To expose properly for his face, the sky would have been an overexposed gray wash with no cloud detail.  The obvious solution was to underexpose to retain the detail in the sky, and light Dad with flash.

I wanted a shallow depth of field, so chose f/2.8 on my Nikkor 24-70mm lens. In hindsight, that probably wasn’t the best choice, but that’s what it was.  However, at my ISO of 200, that meant in order to underexpose the sky, I needed a shutter speed of 1/1250s.  And that’s typically a problem for flash since the maximum shutter speed for “normal” flash use tops out at around 1/250s. Enter “high-speed sync.”

REWIND: UNDERSTANDING FLASH SYNC SPEED AND HIGH SYNC SPEED]

 How Does High-Speed Sync Work?

Let’s look at a bit of background on flash synchronization and shutter speed to put this in context.  Our DSLR shutters consist of two “curtains” that when closed, prevent light from hitting the imaging sensor. When we make an exposure, the first curtain moves, and the second curtain follows – exposing the sensor to light for the duration of whatever shutter speed we’ve selected.

For most DSLR cameras, the maximum shutter speed at which the sensor is fully exposed to light when the flash fires is 1/200s to 1/250s. (For the sake of discussion, we’ll use 1/250s as our reference). Faster than that, and the second shutter curtain has already started to move across the sensor when the flash goes off.  So effectively, at speeds above 1/250s, we have a “slit” that moves across the sensor.  Flash exposure at speeds above 1/250s usually show a characteristic “shadow” of the shutter curtain on the sensor in the form of a darkened band covering part of the image.

illustration of shutter sync speed

So, when faced with the issue above–wanting to use a large aperture to control depth of field, resulting in a higher than 1/250s shutter speed — we resort to high-speed sync.  Certainly there are other ways to deal with this; e.g., a smaller aperture, or a neutral density filter on the lens.  Both have consequences that I don’t want to contend with, so I tend toward high-speed sync.

With high-speed sync enabled, the flash functions normally up to the typical maximum flash-sync shutter speed for your camera (i.e., 1/200s or 1/250s).  However, once you exceed the normal maximum flash sync shutter speed, your flash functions a little differently.  In essence, the flash “pulses” for the duration of the exposure, ensuring that the entire sensor is exposed evenly to the flash illumination.

There is a tradeoff – reduction of effective output.  Simply, in high-speed sync operation, your flash doesn’t provide as much light on your subject as it does at normal sync speeds. Ganging together multiple flashes can help – up to a point. Alternatively, positioning your flash closer to your subject than you might otherwise can compensate for some of the loss of output.

To capture this portrait of a beautiful medieval bride on horseback, with the sun setting directly behind her, at ISO 200, f/2.8, I needed a shutter speed of 1/5000s.  The image required three Nikon SB-800s on a stick; all working at 1/1 output, positioned just out of camera frame left.

High-Speed sync portrait of Medieval Bride on Horseback

Lighting diagram for high-speed sync portrait of medieval bride on horseback

In the following image, three Nikon SB-800s were positioned just out of frame camera left to light this pair of Indiana Air National Guard Warthog mechanics and offset the strong backlighting of the rising Hoosier sun.  Slightly underexposed at ISO 200; 1/2500s; f/4.5., the high shutter speed enabled me to retain the detail and saturation in the morning sky.

High-speed sync portrait of USAF A-10 Mechanics-JCHP

Lighting diagram for high-speed sync portrait of A-10 Mechanics

Gear Requirements

High-speed sync mode requires TTL–capable flashes.  Canon’s and Nikon’s infrared triggering systems will work in this situation, but are prone to interference–hence, misfiring–from bright sunlight.  My preference is the PocketWizard FlexTT5 / MiniTT1 TTL-compatible radio triggers. It’s an expensive solution, but in my experience working in bright sunlight, RF is more reliable than IR triggering.

Mounting multiple flashes for this scenario takes a bit of engineering. I built several DIY brackets before I discovered this inexpensive “Flashpoint Triple Bracket” that is more compact and less expensive than any I’ve cobbled together on my own. I now carry two of them.  It also helps to have good friends like Royce, Bob and Booker – each phenomenal photographers themselves – who are willing to stand in as VALs (voice-activated lightstands) when asked…

MB El Toro (D2x)-0239-jchp

High-speed sync portrait of MB Roadster

Stand Out from the Crowd

High-speed sync flash opens up entirely new realms of opportunity – shooting in conditions like mid-day sun in the image below (ISO 100; 1/1250s; f/5) that would have previously had me praying for clouds, or waiting until sunset or sunrise.  It’s not inexpensive to do, but it’s an invaluable option in my photography toolkit that sets me apart from other photographers.

CREDITS: All photographs shared by Jon Haverstick are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist

 

 

Jon C. Haverstick is a professional photographer based in Southern California, specializing in corporate / commercial photography, portrait and wedding photography, product photography and fine art automotive photography. He teaches photography, Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop, is an Adobe Community Professional and leads a regular Photoshop User Group, and loves getting up for work everyday!

Blog and Portfolio at: www.jonhaverstickstudio.com

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Barclay Berger

    Dumb question but when you group those flashes together in TTL mode are they all set to same channel and group?

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  2. Valters Bože

    Hello, could you explain how TTL works? I am shooting poolparty events in bright sun, using manual settings on two flashes (in HSS). I have to manually adjust flash whenever i move (thats like every minute). Do you think TTL could help me? I tried TTL with +3 and -3 and really couldnt tell difference and i think its shot at minimum. What imuo happens is the camera takes exposure that is lit already cause the sun is not always behind subject and thus doesnt really fire any power. I am shooting 100 ISO and auto shutter as the light amount changes with every photo. Do you think there could be automatic settings and TTL metering that would work and lessen the amount of manual work in such harsh conditions? In 4 hours of poolparty i can barely make 50 shots as its just a lot of time firing, readjusting flash..

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  3. Rob O

    Great article- one question. I shoot beach portraits on Maui and in the past when faced with this situation I have always bumped up ASA/ISO speed to achieve sync speeds of 1/250. I have had issues with noise in the shadows but now with my 6d the ability to shoot at these higher ISO without the introduction of too much noise is working pretty well. I like the idea of shooting at lower speeds but i really do not shoot in TTL mode that much- I mostly shoot in Manual. Having said that(I know I am driving a Ferrari like a skateboard), I spot meter a lot to help make my decisions and I am imagining in TTL mode I would be better off in full matrix metering. How do you meter when faced with this situation?

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    • Jon Haverstick

      Hi Rob,

      In this situation, I want to get the ISO as low as possible to keep my shutter speed as low as possible for the ambient exposure. The faster the shutter speed (in high speed sync situations), the more loss of light from the strobes. So, keeping the shutter speed as low as possible for the desired exposure gives me as much bang for the buck as I can get. That said, ISO 200 is the lowest ISO on my D3. I can use ND filters to bring down the shutter speed, or simply meter for the ambient without ND filters if it’s not too bright. Matrix is my preferred mode since I’m metering for the background exposure. I set my aperture as desire for the DOF I want, and then dial in my shutter speed to get the background exposure I want. I then dial in the power on the speedlights ’til my subject is properly exposed. I don’t shoot TTL flash. Everything is manual: manual exposure; manual control of flash power.

      Hope that helps!

      Jon

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  4. Ranalli

    Very good article. I knew a lot of this but it is always appreciated when someone puts together a well thought out and composed article like this.

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  5. Matthew Saville

    It is indeed important to note, of course, that all of this can also be accomplished by using an ND filter as well. There will be a similar necessity to increase flash power overall in order to compensate for the darker exposure, but it will be similar (or in some cases better than) the light loss that is caused by using HSS.

    As a landscape / nature photographer I find that I already have enough ND filters in my bag to accomplish this, which is why I stick with “ordinary” triggers (RadioPopper JRX) and cheaper, older hotshoe flashes. It saves you a hundred bucks or two per wireless flash in the end.

    The benefit of the Pocket Wizard TTL system in particular, compared to any other system that offers HSS, is that they have apparently engineered the “pop” of the flash for minimal light output loss. At 1/8000 sec, I believe, they claim that they get at least 1 stop MORE light output than any other HSS capable system. Pretty impressive!

    =Matt=

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  6. Jon C. Haverstick

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, folks! Glad to see there are others who appreciate the challenges of flash in bright ambient situations!
    article for SLR Lounge, so your feedback is greatly appreciated. The original draft of the article was much longer, and touched on some alternatives to the HSS method I described above with the PocketWizard MiniTT1/FlexTT5 system that I use with my SB-800s, but it turned out to be too long for this venue.

    I am a HUGE fan of HSS with infrared. Indoors, line of site becomes somewhat less of an issue for IR because there are usually enough surfaces for the IR light to bounce off of and trigger the receiving flashes. You still can’t put the flash behind a wall, or completely enclosed in a modifier and block the sensor, but with some careful placement, it generally works really well. I like it because it requires less gadgetry between the source and the flash. My personal configuration is the Nikon SU-800 Commander in the hotshoe (my cameras don’t have a pop-up flash to use in commander mode, and I don’t like to “waste” an SB-800 on the camera’s hotshoe. Nikon’s system is really easy to work with. I’ve not used Canon’s, but I presume it’s similar. And of course, it does support HSS.

    I’ve also used RadioPoppers, which gave me the same type of control and functionality with respect to HSS as my IR system with the SU-800, but again, adds bulk and additional possible failure points in the system.

    I was just at our local camera retailer the other day helping a friend shop for radio triggers, and she ended up purchasing the Phottix system. The sales guy demo’d it for us, and it’s VERY much like the SU-800 IR system in terms of menu function, but as an RF system, isn’t limited by some of the IR issues described above. She also bought one of the Phottix hotshoe flashes with the built-in receiver as a second flash. Seems pretty easy, but I’ve not tried it personally. I’d be curious to hear if anyone has any personal experience with this system.

    I see that Ian already responded to the comment regarding the use of ND filters. Thanks, Ian! I do use ND filters . But I use them primarily for automotive rig photography (no flash), not for HSS situations for the reason that Ian mentioned.

    I did read something recently – may have been from David Hobby — that adding additional flashes, up to three total, will gain you extra power, extra stops of light, but that adding a fourth is apparently not significantly different enough from having three to make it with the extra effort / cost. I’ve not done the experimentation myself on this, but I rarely use four speedlights for HSS (as you see in the Mercedes-Benz BTS shot above). Three usually seems to do the trick for me.

    Thanks again, folks, for all the great insights and additions!

    Jon

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    • Jon C. Haverstick

      Sorry – meant to say, “This is my first article for SLR Lounge…” I managed to delete part of that sentence in copying / pasting.

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    • Ian Hylands

      Jon, yes you’re right about the flashes vs power. I use multiple flashes all the time, and it makes up for a lot of the power that is robbed by HSS. I find that HSS (whichever way you do it, there are several varieties) robs me of a lot of stops of power, so I either need to move my flashes a lot closer, or figure out a way to get more power out of them. Luckily speedlights are still way lighter than a powered pack.

      You need to double the number of flashes to double your light output (1 stop increase). So if one light is giving you f/4 then two lights will give you f/5.6, but you’ll then need 4 lights to get f/8, and 8 lights to get f/11.

      Hopefully that makes sense?

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  7. Giules

    I’d like to see a follow up post that deals with the pros and cons compared to the alternative methods like using an ND Filter. I’m curious as to what the author’s preference is for HSS over ND Filters.

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    • Rick

      I think using an ND filter could definitely help; especially if you have limited quantity of flashes and/or are using them close to maximum power.

      Sunny 16 rule states f/16, 1/125s, ISO 100. Say you’re shooting in midday bright sun and need to dial ambient down by 3 stops. For fill (still shooting at original 1/125s) you need flash at 1/2 power.

      So you dial down the ambient using shutter (1/1000s), turn on HSS, but shot is now underexposed. For at least Canon speedlites, you take around a 2 1/2 stop power hit with HSS. If you were using ETTL, it would attempt to compensate by 2 1/2 stops, but would only achieve 1 stop (move from 1/2 power to full).

      Option #1 is what I typically see; the use of two or more flashes. Now you can decrease the power on each unit and allow the full amount of compensation to occur.

      Option #2 could be the use of a 3 stop ND filter. You should then be able to keep shutter at 1/125s and thus not need HSS.

      Another thing to keep in mind though is the usage of gels which also decrease flash output to varying degrees. So this is where multiple flashes really come in handy. I’d say you can better handle HSS and gel power loss.

      Finally, in some cases, you may really need to freeze the action, so keeping shutter at or below sync speed may not be desirable. Thus, HSS to the rescue.

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    • Ian Hylands

      Keep in mind that while using an ND filter will bring down the amount of amount light it will also bring down the amount of flash. It won’t change the ratio of the ambient to flash, which is what you really want to do. I use a high speed sync technique almost exclusively when I use flash, not just for the darkened sky effect, but because I shoot action. Using high speed sync with shutter speeds of 1/1250 to 1/2000 allows me to use a single light (sometimes up to 4 speedlights together) as a fill light while still freezing the subject.

      Great article Jon!

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    • Rick

      Good point, Ian. Completely missed the affect of ND on flash in my option #2 above. Thus, you’d end up with HSS anyhow.

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  8. James Moxley

    Great article, very well written. A couple things that I would like to add is that some of the newer cameras like the fuji x100s have a leaf shutter and don’t require flashes with high speed sync, also there are some cameras like the d40 which have an electronic shutter. Zack Arias uses a Wein Pulsar Universal IR Infrared Flash Trigger with a Yongnuo Speedlite, the trigger and flash are cheaper than the pocket wizard itself. If you get three Yongnuo Flashes they are still cheaper than one SB-800s. If you are using an ir trigger you don’t have to buy receivers for each flash another bonus. One thing I tried to do was make day into night by adding a chocolate gel to the flash, and then correcting with white balance, the subject will be correct, but the surroundings will be a nice dark blue, like on a moon lit night. http://500px.com/photo/49325032?from=set/1118294

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    • Matthew Johnson

      The thing about IR receivers is that they are “line of sight”. Unless the flash can see the transmitter or receive the signal from the flash it is not going to fire. It is also not as reliable in the strong sunlight.

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