An October 2009 post that is still valid…:

A reminder to all flash photographers: you need your shutter speed to be below the camera’s flash synch speed.

What does this mean? Let me explain.

The flash fires for the briefest period, of course. Like 1/2000th of a second. That is why we call it a flash.

So when it fires, if the light is to reach the entire film or sensor, the shutter needs to be totally open at that point.

That much is obvious. But what is not obvious is that there is an engineering limitation in your shutter. Beyond a certain shutter speed, the camera’s synch speed, the shutter never totally opens. Instead, a small (increasingly narrow) slit travels across the shutter to give each pixel a brief exposure time.That’s cool – the shutter does not have to be super-fast and expensive and you get a fast shutter speed.

But this gets in the way when you are using flash. When you fire during those short exposure times (on most modern cameras, faster than about 1/200th second), the light does not reach the entire sensor. Look at this example I shot to illustrate this, at speeds from 1/200th to 1/1000th sec:


You can see that as I exceed the sync speed, the light only reaches part of the shutter.

You should also note that especially when using external flashes with Pocketwizards or similar, flash takes time to set up. My 1Ds MKIII has a synch speed f 1/25oth second but as you see, at that speed it is already beginning to cut off. Best stay a bit below your synch speed (I typically set my shutter, when I am using studio flash, to 1/125th second).

(There is a way to overcome that: fast flash, which some high end flash units offer. This continuously, all the time that the shutter travels, pulses the flash at a very rapid rate, so that the slit, as it travels across the sensor, has light coming in throughout its travel time. It works great – do use it when taking flash images outside – but it uses a lot of energy, and hence decreases the range of your flash.)

(Advanced tip: I know of at least one photographer who uses this effect to introduce an electronic version of a neutral density filter or a barn door: he sets his camera to 1/320th second while using flash, and turns the camera upside down. That makes the top part of the image dark, at least as far as the flash part of the light is concerned!)

Improvise? Yes, improvise.

You can improvise in so many ways.

Take this image:

Just now. It’s 30C (86F). And sunny. So I need a flash, otherwise that sky would not look blue; it would look white instead. because exposing highly enough to see the inside of the car would make the sky way too bright.

Instead, I expose for the sky (the usual outdoors flash recipe: 1/200s, 100 ISO, then f/4–f/22, start at f/8). Then I add flash. Three flashes in one umbrella, fired by one Pocketwizard:

Without flash, that would look like this:

A portrait would be nice, with this light. 100 ISO, 1/200 sec, f/16.

Anyway, I said “improvise”. How so?

The sandbag, that’s how so. That umbrella would be all over the place, breaking my equipment on its way down. You need a sandbag to stabilize it and to hold it down.

And what I often use, when I don’t happen to have a sandbag available, is a 15kg bag of kitty litter. Which is what I am using here, if you look carefully. That light stand isn’t going anywhere!


Come meet me tomorrow at CJ’s Café in Bronte, Oakville, for the official opening of my month long exhibit of wall art. And perhaps buy a piece: tomorrow only, I have lots of extra works (over 150), at once-only prices.

Tell me you are coming:

You know that transparent plastic thingie in your flash, that you can pull out to cover the flash surface? Many of you think this is a softening device. If you think this: wrong. It isn’t a softener. Don’t use it for that. Waste of energy—literally.

So what is it?

Question: What is the difference between the following two photos?

Hint: I used a 16mm lens (full frame camera. This is like a 10mm lens for a crop camera).


Can you see that the flash is concentrated in a small circle in photo 1?

Well… you know that when you zoom, or change lenses, the flash changes its zoom, right?  But the widest flash zoom setting is 24mm, and I shot at 16mm. That is the top picture. As you can see, the zoom circle is too small for the picture.

In the bottom picture, I pulled out that plastic “wide angle adapter”, the transparent plastic square you can pull out to cover the front (not the white sheet). As said, this is not a softener; it is merely the 14mm adapter”. The zoom device for wider than 24mm. It makes the beam wider, see picture 2.

That’s all: when you zoom wider than 24mm, pull out the wide angle adapter. It does not soften; it widens.

Indispensable tool!

My new product of the month, just received from Hong Kong, is going to be indispensable to me, I can see that now.

Here it is:

A “3-in-1 hotshoe mount flash bracket”, made by (link fixed). This bracket allows up to three flashes to point into one centre-mounted umbrella, as follows:

Better still, it allows ONE connection from your radio trigger (in my case, a pocketwizard) to all three flashes at once. You need just one simple 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable (i.e. the connector is the same as on the pocketwizard itself). And that saves both radio triggers and hotshoe cables. That, for me, is the killer feature. Up to today, I had to always connect three pocketwizards and three cables.

So here’s a few photos. The last one is a “pull back shot”, where you can see the lighting setup.

As for these photos: the day was like this (a snapshot):

That is fine, but I prefer my subject to stand out more, and I want the sky to be more saturated.

So here’s the recipe. For daytime outside flash pictures, you go to 1/250 second (or whatever fastest sync speed your shutter allows) at 100 ISO and then use f/4—f/16 depending on how bright it is. Start at f/8 and vary from there.

This is f/16:

A little dark and dramatic for this particular portrait, so f/11 is more like it:

But the point is that f/16 is even possible, with three speedlights (580EX and 600EX) into one umbrella. Normally, I would have to use a studio light for this.

This was with all three flashes at full power. Normally, I would shoot at a maximum of half power if at all possible. That way, the recharge time is shorter and the flashes do not overheat.

Ordering from user mkstudio-us, via ebay, was simple. I paid under $20 for each of the three brackets I ordered. Shipping from Hong Kong was free, but it did take several months (“slow boat from China”—literally). If you are in a hurry, order elsewhere, but if time does not matter, order from these guys in Hong Kong. Excellent value.

An excellent tool that will allow you to fire three flashes with one Pocketwizard, easily and conveniently. This will be in my flash bag forever, and my firm prediction is that I will make use of it all the time.


Postscript: a few people asked “:why not just use a strobe”. Well, a strobe is big and heavy, and its battery even heavier (lead-acid contains… yeah, lead). The fact that I can do it all with speedlights is amazing… and yes, you do need this much light pretty much every time in bright sunlight. The flash manual, and the tables in the checklist manual, explain and help. (See

Open up opportunities

I am often asked “do you always use flash?”.

The answer is “no, but I always consider using flash”. In other words, flash gives me so many more options that I feel it would be a mistake to ignore those options.

One of yesterday’s students in the sun, the way you would have to do it without flash:

But with flash, we have options. Like this:

Isn’t that 100 times better? Emphasis on subject, saturated colour, modeling with light. And the setup is not complicated:

You may notice that I have two flashes shooting into the umbrella. That way, I can get both of them set to half power, which is a lot better than one flash at full power: full power tends to overheat flashes, and the recycle time is slower.

Camera settings for the “proper” shot were: manual mode, 100 ISO, 1/250 sec, f/8.

A couple more examples:

The green gelled flash was there to show it could be done. In a “real” photo I probably would have aimed that green gelled flash at the darker area in the background.

And even with one off camera flash you can have fun:

So now that the summer is here, bring your flash, take a lesson and learn to use it—and have fun creating images that you can be proud of; images where you are in charge of the light.