High-Speed Portraits

High-Speed Portraits

The use of a large diffuser and fast shutter speed allows for balanced light in what otherwise would have been a very harsh, backlit image. ƒ/1.4, 1/1600 sec., ISO 125 © Tom Bol

You never stop learning in this business. As photographers, we spend years mastering our craft, and just when we think we get it, new technology is introduced, and we’re propelled into a steep learning curve. New technology also opens up opportunities that were impossible the week before. And some advances in technology radically change a photographer’s workflow. When high-speed sync flash was introduced, my photography technique changed forever.

High-Speed Portraits
A single light is all that was needed to achieve a classic studioesque look on a busy suburban street. © Tom Bol

What’s high-speed sync flash? This broad term refers to the ability to use flash at shutter speeds up to 1/8000. Traditionally, SLR cameras had a maximum sync speed (the fastest shutter speed you can use with flash) of around 1/250. If you shot faster than 1/250, the resulting image had no visible flash, or you created an image that clipped the flash, producing a dark band in your image. This band was created by the shutter curtain casting a shadow onto the sensor during the flash burst. Since sports photographers often wanted faster shutter speeds to freeze their subjects, some would shoot wide-angle at 1/500 and crop out the dark band created by flash clipping.

But the technology wizards in the photo industry were hard at work, and the first solution for high-speed sync flash photography was High Speed Sync using speedlights. High Speed Sync allowed photographers to use speedlights at blazing-fast speeds up to 1/8000. More recently, strobe flash systems have adopted high-speed sync flash, giving photographers more power to shoot at these fast shutter speeds.

Why are so many photographers excited about high-speed sync flash? Because it opens up new possibilities. First, let’s look at two techniques to achieve high-speed sync flash. Then let’s look at how this technology delivers fresh creative options. I promise it will change the way you shoot.

High-Speed Portraits
The moody skies in the background make this shot, but without lighting, the face would have been in shadow. ƒ/1.4, 1/2500 sec., ISO 31 © Tom Bol
High-Speed Portraits
Speedlights and a small umbrella made the sky and the subject pop. ƒ/5.6, 1/640 sec., ISO 400 © Tom Bol


Speedlights. Almost every photographer has a speedlight, and most camera systems have a High Speed Sync setting. High Speed Sync, or HSS, is a flash mode where the speedlight goes into a rapid burst mode, ensuring that flash is always illuminating the subject. In others words, the flash is pulsing so fast, it looks like one flash, but in reality, it’s a lightning-fast pulse mode that illuminates the image even at 1/8000. No matter how fast the shutter curtains are moving, the sensor records flash illuminating the subject. This technology also works off-camera. Using a wireless transmitter, you can place your flash at creative angles to your subject for beautiful light.

The major advantage of using HSS with speedlights is the convenience and portability of speedlights. The disadvantage, and this is significant, is the reduced power output when using HSS with a speedlight. If I use one speedlight in HSS and shoot at 1/2000 in midday light, I need to be around four feet or closer to get adequate flash on my subject. If I use a softbox, I need to be even closer. To solve this problem, many photographers use two or more speedlights to increase their power using HSS. Photographer Dave Black even designed a setup using eight speedlights. With this rig, he was able to illuminate surfers 100 feet away.

My favorite multiple-flash HSS setup is using a Lastolite TriFlash bracket with three speedlights. I attach three SB-900s to the bracket and shoot them through a large umbrella. I use my SU-800 transmitter to trigger the flashes off-camera. I use TTL mode and adjust the output of my lights using the SU-800. Since the SU-800 is an optical transmitter, I need to make sure the sensors on my speedlights are aimed at the transmitter. Newer wireless flash transmitters use a radio signal, eliminating the need for line-of-sight. Using three speedlights gives me enough power in HSS mode to shoot through a large diffuser like an umbrella and produce flattering soft light.

However, once you start adding more speedlights to the equation, things get expensive. You might want to consider a new option for achieving high-speed sync flash: using larger studio strobe systems.

High-Speed Portraits
The same model, with two different lighting solutions. A blue gell and soft bokeh creates a fantasy look while pure white light and more defined bokeh creates a whole different feel. Left, ƒ/1.8, 1/500 sec., ISO 400. Right, ƒ/2.2, 1/500th sec., ISO 400 © Tom Bol

Strobe systems. Traditional studio strobe systems are the latest entry into high-speed sync flash. And they solve the biggest disadvantage of speedlight HSS: having enough power. Strobe packs use two techniques to achieve high-speed sync flash. First, some systems like Profoto incorporate the same technology used in speedlights. These flash systems allow photographers to use TTL flash, and similar to speedlights, use a very fast burst mode to achieve HSS. But the difference is, packs like the Profoto B1 are 500 watts. Since speedlights are rated around 60 watts, you’d need approximately eight speedlights to get the same amount of power.

Other strobe systems like Elinchrom use a different technique to achieve high-speed sync flash. Instead of pulsing light, Elinchrom achieves Hi-Sync (their term for high-speed sync flash) by retiming the shutter to fire right before the initial flash burst. This retiming uses an optimal part of the flash burst to coincide with fast shutter speeds. Using slow flash duration heads like the Freelite S head with the EL-Skyport Plus HS transmitter, you can easily sync to 1/8000. I tested the system shooting at 1/8000 against a white seamless background. The background was well illuminated with no banding. Incredible!

Shooting in a dark studio against white seamless is nice, but I wanted to see how well it worked in bright midday light. I use the Elinchrom ELB 400 and Ranger RX in my location work, sometimes hiking miles with these battery-powered units to create outdoor lifestyle portraits.

High-Speed Portraits
Without high-speed sync it would have been impossible to capture this in-studio shot—at slower speeds the water wouldn’t have appeared as droplets. ƒ/2.8, 1/5000 sec., ISO 100 © Tom Bol

What really opened my eyes at how well Hi-Sync worked was when I photographed a model at 1/2500 through a six-foot octabank. Since this octabank is really big, it needs a lot of flash power to produce sufficient light. Using a fast shutter speed would really strain the flash. Or would it? I set up my 1100-watt Ranger RX and shot the S head through the octabank, and the model was perfectly lit at 1/2500. Amazing! And even more incredible, I had the pack set at half-power. I could have shot at much faster speeds, if needed. Elinchrom has even designed a special flash head, the Quadra HS head, to maximize Hi-Sync performance using the ELB 400.


No matter what system you use to achieve high-speed sync, you’ll be amazed at the creative choices. Try these techniques to separate your portraits from the rest of the pack.


Use shallow depth of field. Without a doubt, shooting at ƒ/1.4 and ƒ/2.8 is why I use high-speed sync flash more than any other reason. Imagine this scenario. Your friend asks you to photograph his daughter who’s graduating from high school. Naturally, the daughter wants a really evocative, beautiful portrait. You set up the shot in an interesting alley with old brick buildings in the distance. With the midday sun providing plenty of light, you determine the outside ambient exposure to be ISO 100, 1/125 at ƒ/11. But ƒ/11 creates too much depth of field. The buildings in the background are sharp, in focus—and distracting. So you choose an exposure equivalent of ISO 100, 1/4000 at ƒ/1.4. In order to use flash at 1/4000, you need high-speed sync flash. Before high-speed sync flash, I shot many outdoor portraits at ƒ/16 to stay at shutter speeds slower than my sync speed. Now, if I want soft, out-of-focus backgrounds, I just set my aperture to ƒ/2.8 or wider, and don’t worry about my shutter speed. With high-speed sync flash, I can use fast shutter speeds.

High-Speed Portraits
A perfect example of how a fast flash can balance out daylight and bring life to a scene. ƒ/2.8, 1/1250 sec., ISO 100
© Tom Bol

Freeze the action. A more obvious benefit of high-speed sync flash is being able to freeze the action while using strobes. But’s let take a quick step back and look at what really freezes the action. Simply put, when your flash is the primary light source illuminating the subject, then flash duration, not shutter speed, is what freezes the action. But if ambient light is illuminating the subject, then shutter speed freezes the action. The beauty of high-speed sync flash is that it can completely eliminate the need for this distinction. If I photograph a snowboarder at 1/8000 catching big air out of a half-pipe, I know 1/8000 is going to freeze the action whether daylight or flash is the main light source.

I recently photographed a model in a “rainstorm.” Actually, the rainstorm was created by two assistants standing on ladders and spraying the model with garden hoses. The technical challenge was shooting fast enough to create “diamond” water droplets. To solve this challenge, I used three Elinchrom Rangers RXs in Hi-Sync mode and shot at speeds from 1/5000 to 1/8000. Problem solved—the water was frozen in time all around my model.

Turn day into night. Another creative option produced by high-speed sync flash is darkening midday light. Flash photography is based on lighting ratios. One ratio is how bright the flashes are in relation to one another. But another equally important ratio is how bright the daylight (ambient) light is relative to the flashes. If I set my daylight and flash exposure close to one another, then the image will barely show flash, similar to using fill-flash. But what if I want to create a really moody, dramatic portrait? To achieve this effect, I might underexposure the daylight exposure 2 to 3 stops, requiring a shutter speed much faster than the typical sync speed of 1/250. Using high-speed sync flash, I can shoot as fast as I need to darken midday light for the moody portrait shot.

High-Speed Portraits
A fast shutter speed and wide aperture allowed for this portrait at a low ISO and narrow depth of field. ƒ/1.8, 1/1600 sec., ISO 100 © Tom Bol

Eliminate camera shake. I regularly use a tripod when I shoot in the studio. I want my images as tack-sharp as I can make them. But I rarely use a tripod outdoors for portraits. Location shooting is much more fluid with many variables I can’t control. Moving around a lot is normal and often critical to capturing the unscripted moment. When I’m using high-speed sync flash at speeds of 1/1000 and faster, I’m reducing the possibility of camera shake.


High-speed sync flash is about possibilities that weren’t conceivable before and opening up more creative choices for the photographer. Today, it’s easier than ever to use high-speed sync flash and take your portrait photography to the next level. What are you waiting for? Go for it!

To see more of Tom Bol’s photography and learn about his workshop opportunities, visit his website at tombolphoto.com.

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