Thursday, May 24, 2012

Speed Flash

I still remember the day I first used high-speed sync flash.
Text & Photography By Tom Bol Published in Shooting
Speed Flash


No matter what method you use to achieve high-speed flash photos, this technology opens up creative options that were impossible before. Try using these techniques on your next shoot.

1. Freeze the action.

Like the name implies, high-speed flash photography allows you to use lightning-fast shutter speeds to freeze the action and use fill-flash. When shooting fast action and using flash, photographers had to rely on flash duration to freeze the action. This meant underexposing the existing light 2 stops or more so the flash was the main source illuminating the subject. Flash durations are very fast and can be over 1/2000 sec., plenty fast to freeze most action.

But what if you just want to add a little fill-flash to a road biker as he whizzes by you? For this image, you'd have both daylight and flash illuminating the subject, but the daylight would be the primary source. If you shot at 1/250 sec., your maximum flash sync speed without HSS or HyperSync, you would get blurry images. But if you enable HSS or HyperSync, you can shoot at 1/2000 sec. and freeze the action in the daylight, and add a little fill-flash.

2. Use selective focus.

Another benefit of using High Speed Sync or HyperSync is the ability to use wide-open apertures with flash in bright sunlight. Say you're photographing a model in open shade and want to use an aperture of ƒ/2.8 to nicely blur the background. When you establish the correct exposure using ƒ/2.8, you find that 1/1000 sec. is the right shutter speed. And since the model is in some shade, you want to add just a touch of flash on her to liven up her skin tones and add a little more contrast. Since you're using high-speed flash, you'll have no problem shooting at 1/1000 sec. You may have to double up your speedlights or move your flash head closer to the subject, but you can still shoot at ƒ/2.8 for that nice background bokeh. I really like to use my 85mm ƒ/1.4 lens with flash. Shooting at ƒ/1.4 almost always means I need to use a shutter speed faster than my normal sync speed of 1/250 sec.

3. Darken the background.

When I shoot outdoor portraits, I generally like to underexpose the daylight by 1 to 2 stops. Underexposing the daylight produces darker backgrounds with more drama and better separation for my subject. Occasionally, I'll underexpose midday skies 3 stops for a nighttime effect. But to darken the sky this much, I need more than just a small aperture to get this effect. Since I can use flash at any shutter speed, I'll shoot at 1/2000 sec. or faster along with a small aperture to ensure I have a dark background. Try underexposing a subject 2 stops against a blue sky; the effect looks dramatic.


When HSS was introduced, I was very excited. I found myself using four speedlights in HSS mode and adding fill-flash to mountain bikers and runners that would have been impossible before. Then HyperSync was introduced, and this technology opened up more frontiers in my photography. With my Elinchrom Rangers in HyperSync mode, I could illuminate a kayaker or fisherman in the middle of a river 60 feet away using one flash on the shore. I tried using ƒ/2.8 on my 45mm tilt-shift lens for interesting creative effects. And then I took it a step further. My AquaTech underwater housing could be used with both my camera and a PocketWizard MiniTT1 transmitter. I actually could shoot underwater High Speed Sync images! I waded out into a river with my lens half submerged underwater and photographed kayakers in rapids. Onshore my Rangers were adding fill-flash, and my shutter speed was set to 1/1000 sec. to capture the action.

No matter if you use a single speedlight or multiple large flash packs, high-speed flash photography will expand your creative possibilities. The next time you need to freeze the action with fill-flash or shoot wide open midday, use high-speed flash to solve the problem. Join the flash revolution!

Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. To see more of his work, visit his website at

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