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High-Speed Sync

Lesson 11 from: Introduction to Outdoor Flash Photography

Mike Hagen

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Lesson Info

11. High-Speed Sync

Lesson Info

High-Speed Sync

Well let's talk about the other way to do this, the other way to deal with really fast shutter speeds, and that's high-speed sync. So I think I describe it fairly well inside the video, but when we come back from the video I'll go into more detail with respect to high-speed sync. So let's talk about high-speed sync. A lot of times when we're shooting, when you're first starting out in your photography, you're shooting with lenses like a kit lens. So for example I have this kit lens. This is an 18 to 105, and it's aperture range is f/3.5 to f/5.6. Well one of the issues when you're shooting at f/5. is you don't get this really narrow depth of field, and a lot of times the background doesn't blur out like you want it to. So a lot of times you wanna shoot your portraits at a very large aperture, like f/2.8, maybe f/1.8, f/1.4, something like that. And that helps the background go all blurry on you. Well the downside when you're doing flash photography is when you shoot at f/2.8, a lot of ...

times it lets in a lot more ambient light. So you blow your synchronization speed, basically. Remember earlier I was talking about how your sync speed on a lot of cameras is between 1/180 of a second all the way up to 1/250 of a second. This camera, the maximum sync speed is a 1/250 of a second. So what I wanna do is I wanna change out my lens, put on my f/2.8 lens here, and then I'm gonna talk through what high-speed sync means and then how we deal with it in the field. So I'll swap this out. I'm gonna throw on my 24 to 70 f/2.8. I'm shooting with cropped sensor camera, so that makes this about 105 millimeter equivalent. So now as I bring the camera up and I start thinking through the exposure, I wanna be shooting at f/2.8. So I move this down to f/2.8. And then as I start thinking about the shutter speed, you can see if I shoot this at f/2.8 at 1/250, I'm very very over exposed. In fact I'm more than three stops over exposed. So I start bringing the shutter speed up. There's 1/1000 of a second. And at 1/1000 I'm still two stops over exposed. So here's 1/2000 of a second. So what is going on when I shoot at 1/2000 of a second? Well traditionally, if I shoot with a flash system in traditional mode, the shutters, when the shutters go over the imaging plane, the shutters open like this, and there's actually only a slit open when the flash fires. So you get a little strip of light in the actual final photograph. So we need to change the nature of the flash, we need to change how the flash works, so that the flash basically goes pop pop pop pop pop. It's almost like a machine gun flash as the shutters move up the imaging plane. So that's called high-speed sync. The only way you can do high-speed sync is with proprietary technology to Nikon, or to Canon, or even sometimes Fuji and Sony. They have what's called a high-speed sync mode. So in the menu system, let me show you how I adjust that in the menu system in the Nikon. And like I said before, a lot of these things translate to other camera bodies and other camera systems. So here in the menu system I'm going to the custom settings menu. And I go down to Menu E, which is the bracketing and flash, and then E1 says flash sync speed. And when I go in there, it says 1/250 of a second, auto FP. That activates my high-speed sync. In the Nikon world, that FP stands for focal plane shutter. So auto focal plane shutter. And now we're set to go for high-speed sync. So now what I can do I can shoot at f/2. at 1/2000 of a second and the flash will allow me to pull this off. All right, so let's take a couple test shots here. First shot I'm gonna do is I'm gonna take it without the flash, just to see what my ambient exposure is looking like. And this is f/2.8 at 1/2000 of a second. Cool. And I look at that exposure, and the background is a little bit dark, maybe a little bit darker than I want. So I'm going to decrease my shutter speed, maybe bring that down to like 1/1000 of a second. Take another quick test shot. Here we go, one two three. Sweet, good. That looks good as my starting point. And now I'm gonna bring in my flash. So I'll turn my flash on, checking for the green light for communication. And we're good to go there. Gonna go look at the power output for my flash. I think I'm still at 1/16 power, but we'll just double check. Oh I was at 1/2 power. Let's start at 1/4 power and see what that brings us. All right, 1/4 power. You ready? Got some nice boats behind you for this shot. Okay, one two three. Nice smile. Okay, so that was 1/4 power, that was at 1/1000 of a second shutter speed and the 1/4 power. It's looking like it's a little bit too bright on that flash. So I'm gonna bring the power down a little bit. Back to the menu, bring the power down, let's go even lower than 1/8, I'm thinking 1/16. Just a little kiss of light. Let's see what that looks like. Here we go. One two three. Cool. And I'll look at that result. I'm now gonna zoom in on his eyes, see if I got a catch light. And I have a little bit of a catch light in his eyes. Not enough though. And again, I'm always increasing power, decreasing power, just to see what the overall look is. That's okay to do. It's digital, it's free. So I'll go back up to 1/8 power, hit okay, and we'll take this shot. Cool. So high-speed sync. So the difference there is, we're just gonna work with the light that's available. And we're not gonna worry about shutter speed. And that's the neat thing about high-speed sync. You can literally photograph at shutter speeds up to your camera's maximum shutter speed. So on a camera like this, this is the Nikon D500, this will go up to 1/8000 of a second. 1/8000 of a second. Using my Nikon flashes, that are fully integrated with the system, I can shoot flash photography at 1/8000 of a second. That's amazing, it's really stunning to me. And just to remind you, I showed it there in the video, but the way that you do that in the Nikon, and Canon's very similar, you just have to activate it in the menu system. So here I'm gonna go into the menu, go to what's called my flash sync speed, and you can see right here in the menu system, it says the maximum sync speed is 1/250 of a second. But then there's another thing above it and it says 1/250 auto FP. And what that 1/250 auto FP does is it allows me to go above 1/250 of a second. In other words, there's no limit now. No limit from bulb, 30 seconds, all the way up to 1/8000 of a second. How cool is that? So I've mentioned this so many times today, I don't need to really repeat it, but just remember, just figure out what your camera's max sync your shutter speed is. And then to just never have to worry about it again, just set it for auto FP high-speed sync. Now I was gonna do a demo in studio to show what happens when you go above 1/250 of a second, but I've got the wrong triggering mechanisms in place. And here's what happens. Nikon is smart enough to know that if I don't have this on, it won't let me go above 1/250 of a second in manual exposure mode. So I'd need to change out all of my triggers to go with what I would call a dumb trigger. If I go to a dumb trigger it would actually allow me to shoot at shutter speeds higher that 1/250 of a second. But let me describe what would happen if I started shooting at shutter speeds faster than 1/250. All right. So your shutter opens like this. Boom, flash fires. Wop. Sound effects are good. And then the shutter closes behind it. Woop. Okay, so open, flash, close. Reset. That's 1/250 of a second. And that's also 1/60 of a second. And that's also bulb. It's anything longer than 1/250. Above 1/250, your shutters start doing this. And they start moving together, to get an equivalent fast shutter speed at 1/8000 of a second, the slit is actually very small, like this. So if your flash fires any time in that sequence, you know what's gonna happen, you're not gonna get full coverage on the scene. I've done this before, I take a photo at like 1/500 of a second, the bottom half of the photo is dark, and the top half of the photo is fully lit with the flash. So that's typically what might happen. Here's some photos that we shot in the live shoot. So here's the ambient exposure, meaning no flash added to that. That was f/2.8 at 1/2000 of a second. I chose that because I wanted the background to be a little bit darker. And so really when I'm looking at that image, I don't care about my model, I don't care about how brightly-lit my model is. I'm always just thinking, what does the background look like? Then we brought in the flash. So here's flash at f/2.8 and 1/2000. Obviously way too bright. And it's such an easy change. Now everyone watching this class can go, oh I know how to change that, you just reduce the power. Bring it down to half the power, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16. And then you're just dialing it in, you're making it just right, just so. So here's a really nice portrait that I took at f/2.8 at 1/2000 of a second. And I think my ISO was 100 as well. So really high shutter speed, very narrow depth of field. And then a little bit of fill flash. Nice look on his face, kind of helps him stand out from the background. I'm really pleased at that. I think that was with the soft box as well. And then here's one that I converted to black and white. I love black and white photography, and I like it in portraiture. Especially people who have more interesting faces, more texture on their faces. So I like his freckles, I like his beard, I like the wrinkles on his eyes, he's just a good-looking guy. And I say that proudly, he's a good looking guy. (chuckles) So high-speed sync is somewhat complicated, but conceptually I think you understand it. And the key again is just making sure the camera knows it's supposed to be in high-speed sync mode, and making sure that your flash is capable of operating in that system. That $29 flash that I showed you this morning? Uh-uh, it won't do high-speed sync. But all of my Nikon flashes will. And there's even some $100-ish flashes out there, some third-party $100 flashes that you guys can all find on Amazon and Ebay that will do high-speed sync as well. So it's a golden era that we're living in for speed light photography. So let's ask some questions, let's answer some questions on high-speed sync. What type of decisions do you have to make when you're trying to determine your shutter speed versus your flash? Like there's gotta be some decisions that have to be made as far as the outcome you want. Like some of those creative or artistic licensing that goes along with that. Can you talk about that a little bit? Yeah. So with respect to shutter speed. When we're shooting portraiture, like the one that we've been showing here, the subjects are really not moving a whole lot. So I really don't have to think too much about shutter speed. Like is it really fast, is it really long? That doesn't really come into play. Where shutter speed comes into play is more like maybe I'm photographing a hummingbird. Or maybe I'm photographing a parkour athlete, like we're gonna show in just a little bit of time. Then I have to start thinking about, am I gonna get any motion blur? Am I gonna get any movement in the photo that the flash won't necessarily freeze? Also, you might consider shutter speed when you're doing let's say waterfall photography. Maybe you're a landscape photographer, and maybe, this is a good example. Let's say you're doing landscape photography, and you've got a flower in the foreground. So flower here, waterfall back there. And you want to have that nice motion blur of the water. So the water's blurry and soft. But it's kind of windy out, so the flower is moving around like this. You're like oh my gosh, how do I get this photo, where I get the nice blur of the water, but I freeze the motion of the flower? So there you're gonna have a long shutter speed, so like 1/2 second or one second shutter speed, but then you're gonna pop the flash to fill in for the flower. So is that kind of along the lines of what you're talking about? Yeah, so you're thinking through, shutter speed always controls motion. That's the tool that we have. Shutter speed either freezes the action, or allows the movement to happen and you get motion blur. So shutter speed allows you to control that. Flash only has one thing that it does, and that's quick pulse of light. So a flash is always gonna freeze the motion, no matter what. Or I should say this. A flash is going to imprint wherever the motion is when it fires. So if you've got someone moving across the screen with a long shutter speed, you're gonna get blur, and then when that flash fires you get an imprint from the instant pulse of light. So that can be a problem, but it also can be a great creative tool. Hopefully that answers a bit of your question. Right on. Yeah, question here in front. With the example that we were looking at, you had an off-camera flash. I'm assuming that the high-speed sync can work just the same with an on-camera flash. Or does the particular camera determine that? Yeah, fantastic question. With the OEM systems, so Canon and Nikon, high-speed sync works wirelessly, or wired, like with the cable is showed earlier today, or on top of the camera on a hot shoe mount. So it works in all three situations. In fact when you asked that question, it just reminded me one more thing I wanted to mention. And it has to do with proximity to the subject. So high-speed sync is different. So I'll call this low-speed sync, below 1/250. So when you're at 1/250 or longer shutter speeds your flash only fires one time. It goes pow, the power all goes out while the shutter is open. High-speed sync is different though. High-speed sync changes the nature of your flash. Your flash no longer goes a single pulse of light, because think about what would happen. That single pulse of light would just fill this strip and then nothing else as the shutters move up and down the shutter plane. So high-speed sync changes the flash so it goes flash flash flash, flash, flash. It's like filling in the sensor as the shutters move up the sensor plane. Interesting, huh? Well, there's a problem associated with that. And that is your flash doesn't have as much power as a single pulse of light. So generally when you're doing high-speed sync flash, you have to think, I either need two flashes now, or I've gotta get my flashes closer to the subject. Or I go bare bulb. No diffusion, no reflector, no umbrella. So a lot of times when we're doing high-speed sync it is really bright outside, and bare bulb flash is okay because you're trying to, like stop motion, it's a sports activity, and that harsh gritty look is okay. Yeah. All right, Kenna. Let me do just a couple from folks online, and then just a couple rapid fire question. One, does high-speed sync drain your batteries more? Not necessarily, no. I would say, just have a lot of batteries on hand. Okay, and number two. Is there any downside to always having it on high-speed sync? Great. And the answer is no. In my experience, every single camera that I own, I leave it for high-speed sync, I just set it that way. And then I don't have to think about this threshold anymore. If I wanna go to 1/800 of a second, go to 1/800 of a second. What I do have to remember though is that the power that I would've got below 1/ is no longer gonna be there. So any time I go above 1/250, I'm still thinking in my head, all right I might have to move the flashes closer, or put two together in the same umbrella. Super question. Thank you. So assuming your camera is capable of doing the high sync, and your flashes are the trigger, does it have to be a proprietary trigger for that to work also? Yes, yes it does. So let me speak to that in a little more detail. So for those of you who are Nikon shooters you know that some Nikon cameras allow you to trigger the flashes with the popup flash. And the same in Canon world, sometimes you can trigger them with the popup flash. That trigger works in high-speed sync mode, because it's all part of the OEM system, the manufacturer. The new Nikon cameras have a radio trigger, and the newer Canon systems are radio trigger as well. So you need a Canon transmitter, and the flashes have to be able to receive the Canon data. So those are two options. One is the optical trigger with the popup flash, the other is the radio trigger from Nikon and Canon. Now there's other triggers out there. There's Pocket Wizard, do you have a Pocket Wizard setup? Some of the Pocket Wizards now have TTL control, and high-speed sync capability. So what do you need to make that work? You need a Pocket Wizard transmitter on the camera, and then you need a Pocket Wizard receiver for each flash in your setup. Now I'm gonna get even more complicated. Some systems allow you to have like a Pocket Wizard transmitter, and they actually speak the correct language with the radio signals, so you can just use your Canon or Nikon flash but no other little accessory. Make sense? So some systems, it's a third-party system, but it integrates completely with the Nikon or the Canon radio trigger setup. And so those obviously cost more, but they work well. The world of triggers is very complicated. And I mentioned it earlier today, but the key is to understand what the base requirement is for whatever your remote flash is, and to make sure everything else is speaking in that same technology. You can't do an optical trigger and a radio receiver. It doesn't work that way. You have to have an optical trigger, optical receiver. Radio trigger, radio receiver. And even more so, radio TTL high-speed sync control trigger and a radio TTL high-speed sync receiver. So to be honest with you, one of the downsides of living in this golden age of flash photography is there's so many options out there, it is quite confusing. And me being a pro, and also teaching this stuff, I still am mind-boggled sometimes with all of the different options available out there. Sometimes the best answer is to go to your local camera store and talk to the staff that's there, and let them show you, hands-on, what works and what doesn't. And then buy from your local camera store, keep those guys in business.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Introduction to Outdoor Flash Keynote PDF
Lighting Diagrams

Ratings and Reviews

Brandon Couch

This is the second class I've taken with Mike and it was amazing! So easy to understand even when you get into the "tech" side of how flashes work but especially when using them outside and how easy it is. I would totally recommend this class to anyone wanting to take amazing images outside with one flash. He even makes bare bulb flash look awesome. Such a great course!


Mike Hagen has become one of favorite instructors. His instruction and question answers are clear and concise and he has a real world approach. He has a friendly and approachable personality. Best of all during this course he works by himself which makes you feel you too can accomplish the shoot on your own. Mike demonstrates a practical approach with affordable equipment as he is aware many photographers starting off do not have a huge budget. In his other course on using your first flash he also had several gear set suggestions based on budget which was so thoughtful and helpful. I hope Mike does some more advanced courses as well and I will keep watch for his name on the course schedule. A definite thumbs up for photographers starting off using flash.

Laura K.

I have watched a couple of Mike Hagen's classes, and hope Creative Live will bring him back to teach more. He is a fantastic, thorough, easy-to-understand instructor. He doesn't assume viewers already know certain things. He is humble and diligent and truly wants students to understand and learn the things he is teaching. He breaks things down and explains things better than most, and he doesn't hold back on details. Mike also provides helpful handouts/written materials to supplement his videos. I really like his classes and teaching style, and hope to be seeing more from him in the future.

Student Work