High Speed Sync Part IV – The Reckoning

So far, we’ve discussed three of the five ways to control ambient light when using flash. Today I will complete the list and provide my Pro’s and Con’s analysis of each.

The list so far:

  1. Fast Shutter Speed + High Speed Sync
  2. “Slow” Shutter speed (for Canon 1/200) + Tight Apertures
  3. Use a Camera that has an Electronic Shutter

As I mentioned near the end of my previous post which highlighted the Canon G11, fast shutter speed isn’t the only trick I used to kill the ambient light in the example photograph. In addition to using 1/1000, I was using another of the amazing G11′s built-in, made-for-the-flash-photographer features.

#4 – Neutral Density Filters

When I said that the G11 was a flash photographers dream, I wasn’t kidding. In addition to eliminating the High Speed Sync limitation, the G11 has a pretty low minimum ISO setting (80) allowing you to dim the lights even more. But if that wasn’t enough, check this out – the G11 has a built in, three-stop, electronic, neutral density filter.

If you’re not using a camera that includes a built-in neutral density filter (most don’t) you can buy various styles of neutral density filters for most camera lenses. The idea is, if you want to darken the ambient light but you don’t want to shoot at tight apertures, you just put this light reducing filter over your lens and it kills the light for you. Pretty simple solution, but it does have drawbacks which I will get into later.

#5 – Do Nothing

If you have ever experienced the “Black Bands” or “Black Bars” phenomenon  associated with exceeding your Max Sync Speed, you notice that it is usually limited to the bottom half of your frame. I say usually because the more you exceed Max Sync Speed the more the black bars begin to manifest in different areas of your image.

If you know in advance that you are only going to be lighting one side of the frame, for example, a person’s face, you can orient your camera so that the unlit part coincides with the wherever the black bar falls. Problem solved.

Pro’s and Con’s of each ambient light killing method

#1 High Speed Sync

Pro’s – the great thing about using High Speed Sync is that you can shoot at very wide apertures. If you are doing portrait photography this might be pretty important, especially if you’re shooting someone with less than perfect skin. Too tight an aperture and you’re going to emphasize every wrinkle and blemish they have.

Along those same lines, with High Speed Sync you can have your backgrounds just as out of focus as you like. This is very important for certain shooters, for example, wedding photographers that want nice “bokeh” – a subject of a future post.

Con’s - The main disadvantage to High Speed Sync is loss of flash power. I read somewhere yesterday that at speeds of 1/4000, you’re max flash output is reduced to just 1/4 of it’s potential. This is because most of your light pulses are being blocked by the shutter as it whizzes by.

Another big con is expense. To do High Speed Sync, you need HSS Flashes and those run about $500 new. You can buy smaller, cheaper ones like the 430EX, but if you’re shooting HSS, you need to make up for all that lost flash output, so you’ll need to buy the big, outrageously expensive, HSS flashes like the 580EX. I use older 550EX’s, those are nice but also expensive, even used, plus they’re slower to recharge so you’ll need external battery packs.

To make matters worse, for HSS to work you’ll also need the expensive, top of the line, ETTL-capable, wireless triggers like the Pocketwizard FlexTT5. Those will add another $240 or so to each flash you buy, plus one for your camera. A three light setup using 580EX’s will run you over $2,500 just for the flashes and triggers. Meanwhile, three lights might not even be enough, depending on what you’re doing.

#2 “Slow” shutter + Tight Apertures

Pro’s – The main advantage to staying below your Max Shutter Speed is cost savings. With this approach, you can buy much, much cheaper flash/trigger combos because ETTL is not required. You can get into a high quality, dependable, three light setup for about 1/4 the cost.

Con’s – The problem with this technique is that you end up shooting at small apertures. In bright light you may have to stop your lens all the way down to darken your skies. This means that you’re going to have very sharp focus all the way through your scene, enhancing skin flaws and making bokeh impossible.

#3 Electronic Shutters like on the G11

Pro’s – Again, cost savings. It turns out that you can buy some pretty sweet electronic shutter cameras for not a lot of money. A friend of mine recently bought a G11 on ebay for something like $200. There is no need to buy a fancy flash/trigger combo either. You can buy a used G11 camera w/great built in lens + trigger/receiver + flash for under $400. If you want to get into off camera flash for just a little bit of money, it’s a great option.

Plus, your camera bag will be much lighter!

The G11 isn’t the only electronic shutter camera out there. I hear really good things about the Nikon D70s, which runs about $500 used.

Con’s – I can’t really think of any! I will say that the shutter lag on my G11 can be a pain, and the small controls are a challenge for my big hands, so you have to be kind of patient to use it. As such, you’re not going to shoot professional basketball games with this camera. But if you can get your subject to stay still, there is no reason you couldn’t do some amazing work with these beauties.

I suppose another drawback is that for the G11 you can’t use interchangeable lenses, but the Nikon D70s does not have that limitation.

#4 Neutral Density Filters

Pro’s – This is a pretty inexpensive solution as there is no need for ETTL triggers and flashes. Furthermore, it eliminates the problem of being stuck at tight apertures, making this a a very flexible and affordable solution.

Con’s – I find working with “over the lens” neutral density filters a pain because the scene through your viewfinder is darkened, sometimes to the point where you have to shine a flashlight on your subject’s face in order to focus. For this reason, I never use physical neutral density filters – I only use the built-in, electronic one on the G11 because it doesn’t darken the viewfinder.

#5 Do Nothing (or Partial Frame Sync as David Hobby calls it)

Pro’s  - It’s free!

Con’s – The only way I have been able to make this work is by not using a fill light. Having said that, I’ve maybe only ever used this method once or twice. If you’ve used this method and have some words of wisdom, leave a comment.

One last thing

There is one final method that I didn’t discuss, it’s along the same lines as the electronic shutter. Some cameras have what’s called a leaf shutter, mine doesn’t and I don’t know that much about them. I left it off the list because it’s so similar to #3 on our list.

The Napa Photographer








About The Napa Photographer

I am a Napa California area photographer specializing in portrait and wedding photography. I would describe my style as “environmental portraiture”, I like to shoot on location and try to seek out the most interesting backgrounds.

I am the organizer of a local Meetup.com group, I provide bi-weekly lighting and portrait workshops, you can find my group at:


My main photography site is: http://www.robertbakerphotography.com

I use a Canon 5D and about a dozen Canon 550EX’s triggered with Pocket Wizard Flex TT5′s.

Category(s): ambient light, exposure, gear, High Speed Sync, off-camera-flash, pocket wizard, portrait photography

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