High Speed Sync (continued)

High Speed Sync Part III

In my last post, I hinted that there are five ways to kill the ambient light. So far we’ve covered two of the five ways:

  1. High Speed Sync – Using your shutter speed to dial down the ambient light
  2. The Old Fashioned Way – Keeping your shutter at its Max Sync Speed and using the aperture to reduce ambient light.

Today I will discuss the third of the five potential ambient light killing techniques.

#3 – Electronic Shutter

One way to overcome the sync speed limitations of a mechanical shutter is to use a camera that employs an electronic shutter. I own such a camera, the amazing Canon G11. This little miracle camera is a flash photographers dream. It has a hot shoe and it works with my Pocketwizard remotes, but only in dumb trigger mode.

When you use a camera/trigger combo in dumb trigger mode, the only thing the trigger will do is fire the flash when you press the shutter button. There is no ETTL, no way to remotely change the power, and above all, no High Speed Sync.

Canon G11

Canon G11 - Photo Credit Canon Inc.

Fortunately, the absence of High Speed Sync is not really a limitation for the Canon G11 because it uses an electronic shutter. No physical shutter means that there is no first and second curtain to mess your flash up and  leave ugly “black bars” on your images. As such,  you are not limited to 1/200, it will pretty much sync at any speed, as in this image:

Electronic Shutter

ISO 80 | 1/1000 | f/3.2

Although it looks like I am in a dark room when I snapped this self portrait with my trusty G11, in reality the room was in direct sunlight and very brightly lit. Notice that I have cranked the shutter over to 1/1000, this helped kill the ambient and make it look like I own a fancy studio. As with the other photos in this series, I had to add light from my flash to bring my chiseled, manly features out of shadow.

In this case, however. The shutter speed of 1/1000 was not enough to turn the room completely dark. I had to use another technique, the fourth light killing option which I will discuss in a later post.

That’s it for today, if you are local to me and you have an interest in learning about photography and off-camera-lighting, come to one of my free workshops. Take a look at my meetup page, while you’re there you can look at the photos my workshop attendees posted from our outing on Saturday, I was pretty impressed with their photographs!

The Napa Photographer

Update: Part IV has been posted.

Posted in ambient light, exposure, gear, High Speed Sync, off-camera-flash, pocket wizard

High Speed Sync

High Speed Sync Part II

This is a follow up to my post from a couple days ago, in it I will expand on the concept of High Speed Sync, why it’s used, and some ways to get by without it.

Most SLR camera shutters consist of two parts known as “curtains” These curtains work together to begin and end the exposure. As a reminder, this is the sequence of shutter operation at speeds of 1/200 or less:

  1. The mirror flips up to reveal the shutter
  2. The first curtain of the shutter moves out of the way expose the sensor
  3. There is a very brief pause during which the sensor is completely exposed
  4. While the shutter is still completely open, the flash fires it’s 1/10,0000th of a second burst
  5. The second curtain comes down to end the exposure
  6. The mirror slaps back down making a very gratifying “Kerthump” noise.

When you exceed Max Sync Speed (Canon 1/200 - Nikon 1/250) the mechanism just isn’t physically fast enough to make the exposure the same way. The second curtain no longer has the luxury of being able to wait around for it’s twin to finish falling before it too has to start. The only hope it has of making it down in time is to begin falling before the first curtain has made it all the way down.

And for flash photography, that’s the problem.

If that second curtain starts falling before the first one is all the way down, the sensor is never completely exposed. There will always be at least a bit of it obscured by either the first or second curtain. So, if you’re using a flash, part of the sensor will never see it because one of the curtains of the shutter is always in the way. This will manifest as “Black Bars” or “Black Bands” on your image.

High Speed Sync to the rescue

There are certain limitations to shooting at 1/200 or slower. One of these is that it makes it harder to underexpose the ambient light, which makes it harder to balance your flash with the sun.

To overcome these issues, camera makers needed to find a way to lengthen the flash duration to whatever the shutter speed was. The solution they arrived at was to use a series of light pulses that last the entire time the shutter is open, instead of using one quick burst of light.  So, as that opening between the two curtains moves along the sensor to make your exposure, the flash will be continually pulsing, exposing your scene right along with it. That’s why they call it “High Speed Sync”, because they’ve synchronized the flash and shutter so that your flash exposes the entire scene regardless of speed. The “High Speed” they’re referring to is the shutter speed, i.e, faster than 1/200.

Typical use of High Speed Sync

Consider this photograph:

high speed sync

ISO 100 | 1/1600 | f/5.0

The sky looks rather dark in the image, but in real life it was much brighter. In order to darken the sky, I cranked the shutter way over to 1/1600 and then pumped a ton of light on my subject to bring her out of shadow. This technique is known as “Killing the Ambient”, and it’s a great way to add drama to your scene. I’ve touched on this concept before in previous articles. Without High Speed Sync, I would have been limited to a shutter speed of 1/200. That’s three full stops of ambient light! Kind of a big deal, because each stop lets in half as much light in as the previous stop, my sky would have been much brighter and it would have ruined the mood I was trying to create.

The good news is that being stuck at 1/200 isn’t the end of the world, there are other ways to achieve the objective of killing the ambient light.

The Old Fashioned Way

Consider this image:


non high speed sync

ISO 50 | 1/125 | f/16

Like the image before, I’ve underexposed the sky to serve as my backdrop and and fired a ton of speedlites on my subject to brighten her up. But instead of darkening my sky by cranking my shutter over to the right, I stopped my aperture down to f/16, achieving a similar effect.

To be continued…

In my next post I will touch on additional methods of killing the ambient. I will also offer my analysis of the pro’s and con’s of each of the five methods available. Yes, there are five, extra credit if you can guess them:

  1. High Speed Sync
  2. The Old Fashioned Way
  3. ?
  4. ?
  5. ?

The Napa Photographer

 High Speed Sync Part III

Posted in ambient light, exposure, High Speed Sync, off-camera-flash

Cool Video of What Happens Inside your Camera After the Shutter Button is Pressed

High Speed Sync Part I

In this article I will begin a discussion on killing ambient light using, among other things, High Speed Sync.

To start off, please watch the following video as it is a great visual aid on shutter operation and sync speed.

After the mirror flips out of the way, the first curtain of the shutter activates to begin exposing the sensor. Notice that the frame is completely open at this point. Then, after a moment, the second curtain activates to end the exposure.

This means that the shutter speed had to have been at 1/200 or below. Anything over 1/200 you would have seen the second curtain start to fall before the first curtain was all the way down. In fact, at speeds of 1/1000 and over they start coming down almost at the same time, the first curtain starts to fall and is almost immediately followed by the second, leaving open only a tiny slit to expose the frame.

A typical small flash’s bust of light only lasts only about 1/10,000th of a second. If the shutter is never fully open as in the case of shutter speeds over 1/200, part of the frame will always be blocked by that second curtain racing down after the first. This causes part of your frame to miss out on that very fast burst of light, leaving a section of your image underexposed. This is often referred to as “black-banding” or “black bars” That’s why we say that 1/2o0 is the “Max Sync Speed” for Canon (1/250 for Nikon). It’s the fastest your shutter can be and still have the frame completely open, if only for an instant.

Camera manufacturers have offered a solution to this limitation called High Speed Sync, in a later post I will discuss the pro’s and con’s of High Speed Sync and offer some workarounds to the limitations of non-HSS flashes/triggers.

Part II – High Speed Sync

The Napa Photographer


Posted in High Speed Sync, off-camera-flash

Using the Histogram to Ensure Proper Skin Tone

In this post I will demonstrate how to check for proper skin exposure both in-camera and in Photoshop using the built in histogram tool.

Napa Wedding Photographer

Don't let your LCD screen fool you

I used to get faked out by the LCD screen on my 5D all the time. Everything would look great on the screen, but I would get it home and find that it was dark and muddy to the point where no amount of Photoshop was going to fix it. Eventually, I heard about using the camera histogram to ensure good exposure, and it made all the difference in the world.

All was well until I started doing portrait photography using off camera flash. I could see by the histogram that nothing was blown-out or too dark, but I found that it was very difficult to tell for sure that your subject’s face was correctly lit.

Getting the exposure correct on your subject’s face is crucial to maintaining good skin tones. If you shoot in RAW, you do have some leeway. It is possible to come back in and adjust the exposure a bit using an image editor. But in my experience, if I am more than 1/2 stop or so under or over-exposed, it’s difficult to get the skin color right, it starts to look unnatural.

I realized that I was going to need to get better at figuring out which part of the histogram represents the face, and lucky for me it turned out to be pretty easy.

I should start out by mentioning that there is already a ton of good information on the web about histograms. A comprehensive technical description would be a very long and dry read, so I will limit my post to information related to using the histogram to make exposing portraits easier.

Your Camera’s Histogram

Most camera histograms look something like this:

A typical camera histogram is divided into five segments

The Zone System

Notice that the histogram is divided into five segments, those segments are related to Fred Archer and Ansel Adams’ Zone System. Their system, among other things, created a ten point scale to numerically represent 10 shades of grey, from the blackest black to the whitest white. Camera makers have abbreviated that scale to just five points.

Proper exposure of skin varies from person to person. If you are shooting a Caucasian person with very fair skin, proper exposure will be somewhere around zone 7. By way of example, this is my Canon 5D (classic) histogram:

Napa Wedding Photographer

Evaluate your histogram from let to right, (left = shadow area ~ right = highlight). The two big spikes on the left represent the darkest parts of the image, the taller the spike, the higher percentage of that shade of gray in the image. In this case, the two big spikes at the  start of the histogram represent her sweater, the bush behind her, etc.

The smaller section in the middle is your mid-tone range, which in this case is probably mostly located in the city scene behind her.

Keep moving to the right and you see two spikes that are right next together. One of these two spikes is your subject’s face, the other they sky behind her. It’s really hard to tell with this cell phone shot of my histogram, but in real life it was easy to see that the face was slightly darker than the sky, which means that the first spike is her face, and it appears to be more or less properly exposed as it falls midway between the fourth and fifth segments. This is just about where you want your face spike to be for a white person. If you were shooting a darker skinned person, you would probably want to have that peak closer to the middle of the histogram.

The Photoshop Histogram

(click for larger image)

Properly Exposed Caucasian Skin

The trick is figuring out where the face is on the histogram

Hitting Ctrl+M brings up the Photoshop curves tool which includes a handy histogram. The Photoshop histogram layout is almost identical to your camera’s except that they’ve abbreviated it even more to just four segments, so you have do a little mental conversion. If you open the larger version of the file it’s a little easier to see what I am talking about. Take a look at the diagonal line moving across the histogram and notice that little circle. That circle appeared when I hovered my eyedropper over the highlight side of her face near her cheek. You can see that it falls just about 3/4 of the way between third and fourth segments, in Photoshop’s histogram, this is about where you want to be for white skin.

The nice thing about the Photoshop histogram is that you  don’t have to guess where the face is, you can click the little widget in curves (looks like a finger with two horizontal arrows) and hover over your image, you will see a circle on the histogram giving you it’s exact position on the scale.

That’s it for today, please leave any question in the comment section and I will do my best to address them. If you like The Napa Photographer, please pass the link along to as many people that you think will benefit from it.

The Napa Photographer


Posted in exposure, information, lessons learned, off-camera-flash, photoshop

Gear Talk: What to buy when you’re just starting out with off-camera-lighting

As the organizer of a local off camera lighting meetup.com group, the question I get asked the most is, “What equipment should I buy to get started with off-camera-lighting?”.

And like most things, the answer to that is, “It depends.”. The factors to consider are:

  • Budget
  • Shooting Style
  • Number of flashes you intend to use
  • Trigger Reliability Requirements
  • Future Upgrade Plans
Entry Level

You can get started with off-camera-lighting pretty cheaply. Consider this kit:

(Continued below the fold)



Posted in gear, information, lessons learned, off-camera-flash, pocket wizard

Extend the range and power of your lights for free

Whether you’re using giant Profoto’s or small speedlite’s , you can get a lot more out of them if you plan ahead.

Consider this shot — (larger image):

If you’ve ever used small flashes to light your subject in bright outdoor conditions, you know that you have to put your lights really close to your subject if you want to have any chance of overpowering the sun.

If that made no sense to you, let me explain. New photographers tend to think that when you take your subjects outdoors and into the sun, there’s no longer any need to add light via a flash. I know this is what I thought when I first started out. A flash was meant for use at night or when you’re in a dark room, right? In fact, I used to snicker when I saw photographers using lights outside in the bright sun.

Truth be told, if you’re shooting out in the bright sun, lights are pretty much required, especially if you want to darken your sky.

Why Darken the Sky?

I like to darken my skies because you only start to see the colors of the sky when you underexpose them a little. Try it, go out and shoot a sky at with your light meter perfectly in the middle on the +0  mark, then dial down your aperture or shutter one full stop and take another shot. Then stop it down another full stop and take a third photo. You’ll see that the more you underexpose your skies the more colorful they become.

OK, so I’ve darkened my sky and now my subjects’ faces are even darker, now what?

If you’re shooting outdoors in contrast-y conditions without adding additional light, your options are either underexposed subjects or boring, colorless, overexposed skies.

Now, you could do like I used to do and shoot in RAW and then spend all day doing layers and masking in Photoshop to brighten up their faces and darken the sky.

Or you can do it in camera by pumping some additional light on your subject and reduce your “butt time” considerably.

But wait a minute, couldn’t I just have my model facing the sun?

Yeah, no problem, I suppose you can do that. But I suspect that you’re most likely going to end up with portraits of uncomfortable people with squint-y faces and watery eyes and tiny, tiny pupils. And you’d still have the issue of an over exposed sky behind them.

When are you going to get to the part about extending the range of your flash? 

I’m getting to that, bear with me.

I bring in lights and get the best of both worlds, good light on my subjects and underexposed skies for drama and color. The problem is, unless you are using $10,000 lights (I wish I was exaggerating) you have to keep your lights pretty darn close to your subject, the further you move them away the more compromises you have to make (like having your skies brighter than you had hoped).

This can be pretty limiting, especially to me because I LOVE to shoot in landscape mode at a very wide angle, I often use my 16-35mm lens so I can get the widest angle possible. I do this because my whole “thing” as a photographer is environmental portraiture. I use wide angles to get as much of that environment into my shot as possible.

But if you have small flashes like me, the furthest you can get your light away and still have a chance of overpowering the sun is usually only 2 ~ 4 feet, depending on ambient light conditions. So how did I light the subject in that super wide angle shot above? It was a piece of cake, Photoshop of course!

Napa Photographer

This shot does not defy the laws of physics after all

With Photoshop’s content aware fill I was able to make that light stand disappear in about thirty seconds. So next time you’re out in the wild and your lights just aren’t doing the job, plan on faking it ahead of time and position your lights as close as you like.

If you’re in the greater Bay Area in California, I deliver regular lighting workshops via my Meetup.com group. Stop by sometime and meet me in person. The link below takes you to my group:

American Canyon People Photography + Off Camera Lighting


Posted in off-camera-flash, photoshop, portrait photography

Using the sun as a rim/accent light.

One of the best things about doing portrait photography outdoors is that you can incorporate sunlight into your lighting setup.

For example, in the following shot you can see that I’m using the sun as an accent light:

Napa Wedding Photography

Using sunlight as an accent light

I just pumped in just enough light so that they were not in shadow allowing the sun to be the brightest, just like you would if you were using speedlight w/grid. Using the sun in this way also creates a nice separation between the subject and background, making the shot pop a little more.

Another way to use the sun is as a rim light, this is probably my favorite way to shoot. Use the subject to shade your lens by placing their head directly in-between you and the sun and watch how a simple portrait becomes something much more exciting:

napa portrait photographer

Using the sun as a rim light

When the sun isn’t in the right position, it is possible to create this effect with a strobe, for example:

vallejo wedding photography

Faking sunlight with a strobe and CTO gel

Give it a try! All you need is a couple of CTO gels over your flash for convincing sunlight.


Posted in ambient light, off-camera-flash, portrait photography

Vallejo Portrait Session w/Lindsay

Photography is not a crime 

I thought I would start my first “real” post off with some shots I took a few days ago with Lindsay. I chose Mare Island in Vallejo California as my location – In retrospect, I’m not sure how smart that was as I kept getting hassled by the security guard there.

I was shooting in a parking lot near the waterfront under a big blue sign that said “Public Access”. I was informed by this security guard that I should not take the sign at face value and that this property was off limits to me if I was shooting an actual person. He went on to explain that if I was just shooting birds or rats or buildings, I was in the clear. But the moment I put a person in front of the camera, well I’ve crossed some sort of line and Homeland Security would have to get involved.

Just before I was hit by his tazer gun chased off the island, I was able to snap this image:

For me the shot was a keeper due to the drama of the split light on her face and the little splash of light on her camera left eye. I wouldn’t shoot every shot this way but it was a welcome change from the standard yet boring Rembrandt Lighting setup.

My original idea for a shot wasn’t working out (Lindsay took a *really* long time to get ready for the shot and my ambient light changed completely). I decided to just walk around the model without moving my lights and  see if there were other compositions that would work, I find that when you do that you discover shots that you would not have otherwise conceived. My first idea was to shoot this standing much closer to the light stand. Not satisfied and in search of something different I rotated clock-wise and set up camp here:

Bay Area Portrait Photographer

Photo credit Larry Seamer - (www.lseamerphotography.com)

You can see in the above BTS shot that I am in broad daylight, so how did I make the image look like it was taken after sundown? By killing the ambient light.

Step One: Kill the Ambient Light

Killing the ambient light in a scene can add a lot of drama and emotion to the image. The way you do this is simple, you take an ambient light shot of your scene with your shutter speed set to its max sync speed (Canon 1/200 – Nikon 1/250),  your ISO set as low as it will go and your aperture at about 5.6. Take a look at your scene, are there blown out areas or areas that are lighter than you would like? Simple, just stop down your aperture to something tighter, 8, 11, 16, etc.

Step Two: Bring in Your Lights

When you get your scene as dark (or light) as you want, the next step is to bring in your lights. In my case, I used four Canon 550EX’s triggered with Pocket Wizards grouped into one flash as my main light. The reason I use so many flashes is because I have to, when you dial down your ambient light using the method above, you need a TON of light on your model to overcome it.

Step Three: Buy More Lights

At some point a couple of years ago I was stuck, I just wasn’t getting the power I needed out of one flash. I realized that I was either going to have to buy big lights, or start grouping my flashes together to make one big light. There are many multi flash brackets available on the market, and they all work fine if you are shooting through an umbrella or some other light modify-er, but if you are shooting with bare lights because you need the power, you run the risk of casting multiple shadows.

So, after much trial and error with some of the commercial solutions out there and being disappointed with the results due to the multiple shadow issue, I decided to make my own.

My homemade, multi-light solution.

Here you can see that I have essentially wired and taped four 550EX’s flash heads to a modified softbox mount. Because they are all lined up and pointing the exact same direction, they read as one light and only cast a single shadow. Another benefit to grouping your lights like this is that size of your light is increased by 4X, meaning that it is softer light due to being larger.

Don’t buy the Hype! Softer Light isn’t Necessarily the Most Desirable Light.

If I need softer light I can still fit the original softbox over the mount. But usually I like to shoot with very hard light. I use it to sculpt the features of the model’s face because it’s got sharper edges. Soft light is great for your grandma, but hard light does a much better job of informing the shape of the face.

Note: When you’re shooting with hard light like this is it important to use a fill light to make your darks more accessible and prevent your images from having too much unsightly shadow density.  If you decide to shoot hard light with a single light source, your shadows are going to be blocked up and unreadable. Sometimes, unreadable shadows are great, but they can be unforgivingly unflattering when you’re photographing people.  In this case I used two 550EX’s wired and taped together as my fill light.

When I took the above image, my plan was to clone out the light stand, but when I got it home I realized that I really liked having the flash head visible in the scene, it added a little balance to the image. The only other time I ever had visible flashes in my scene was in one of my early lit portraits:

Full Disclosure: I stole this lighting setup idea from Joe McNally.

I remember thinking at the time that I should try it again, I wonder what took me so long?

Break This Rule: “Never shoot a lady from below the chin line”

Napa Photographer

As you can see, I tend to shoot my models from below – a lot of photographers think this is taboo because it can make your model look heavier than she really is. I disagree, I think that when you do it well, you can make your models appear majestic and larger than life (in a good way).

Be forewarned though, shooting from below usually means you’re going to get dirty.

portrait of lindsay, Vallejo

Photo Credit - Larry Seamer (http://www.lseamerphotography.com/)


Next Time

That’s it for now, my next post will cover using gels on your flash to achieve amazing ambient light. Feel free to comment let’s get this blog going!



Posted in gear, off-camera-flash, portrait photography

And it begins.

Welcome to my humble photography blog! The goal of this blog is to improve my main photography site’s S.E.O  share my hard earned photography knowledge and start a conversation about people photography, lighting techniques, gear and lessons learned.

Up to now, photography has been a very expensive and time consuming hobby – I’ve spent most of the last ten years feverishly trying to not suck. As Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said.

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”

I’ve had the luxury of taking those first 10,0000 shots without the pressure of having to making a living from it. However, I’ve recently been liberated from my corporate job and now hope to make a go of it as a professional photographer. As such, this blog will contain not only the technical nuts and bolts of making portraits, but will also detail the hard knocks of turning pro and developing a photographic style that people value.

I only hope my first 10k blog posts are not as bad as my first 10k photos.

Posted in information