Fast Flash!

To exceed your camera’s maximum flash sync speed (which is something around 1/200th – 1/250th second), you need high speed flash (Auto FP flash, in Nikon terminology) where the flash pulses at ca. 40kHz instead of firing all at once.

You need an external flash for this, like an SB900 or a 580 EX.

  • When you need it: when you need to exceed your flash sync speed, e.g. when taking an outdoors picture of close object with blurry background. That means low F-number, which means even at 100 ISO you’ll need fast shutter speeds.
  • Advantage: in theory, you can you can go to any fast shutter speed and still use flash.
  • Drawback: you lose much power, so that Fast Flash is usually only suitable for close-by subjects.

The Shot: Shoot a close object or person with blurry background. To achieve this, set your camera to A/Av mode, and select a wide open aperture (f/2.8,say). (If your lens cannot go down to f/2.8 or it is a very dull day, you may need to go to 400 ISO).

You should now be exceeding your flash synch speed-if you set your flash to Fast Flash. Else you get an overexposed picture (your camera will refuse to go faster).

Note, your object has to be close, especially if you get to speeds of 1/1000th o rfaster. Else, your flash will not have enough power.

And now you can get this – the following image was lit by flash at 1/1600th second, at f.2.8!


OK, so I spent the day photographing St Nicholas, i.e. Santa Claus, in the mall. The real one (pull his beard, it’s the genuine thing).

So how do you do this? See yesterday for the tethering article, but I thought it might be useful for you to see how this is done in other equipment terms.

I used, and with the help of my assistant Daniel set up, the following in this order:

  • Lights:
  1. Two 400 Ws strobes (Bowen) on light stands, firing into umbrellas.
  2. A pocket wizard on each light to fire it.
  3. Power set to 4/5 as a starting point
  • Camera:
  1. Canon 1Ds MkIII, with power supplied by mains adapter.
  2. A tripod
  3. Wire release for the camera.
  4. 50mm f/1.4 lens (any lens would have done)
  5. Pocket wizard (to fire the other two)
  • USB cable to the computer.
  • Computer, tethered as per yesterday’s article

First, I set my camera to manual exposure, 100 ISO, 1/125th second, f/8. Then I set the lights to that, using a light meter.

Then I tried a test shot without  flash:

This is very important. I wanted the ambient light in the mall, which varied due to a large skylight, to not affect exposure. So that picture above should look dark. Else variance in the sunlight will affect my pictures. One lovely thing about studio lighting is that it is consistent.

Then I did a custom white balance (I had to shoot JPG for the printing company, so this was very important). So I shot a grey card on Santa’s seat, and set my custom WB to that exposure.

Then I set the camera “style” settings to extra saturation by one click. (I am shooting JPG and we have bright Santa- and kid-colours).

And then I was ready. Here’s me:

Having tuned a bit (set my aperture to f/9 instead of f/8 to reduce exposure a bit), I am now ready for shots. And for Santa!

And the great thing is that I was able to stay at these settings all day. And every picture was sharp as a tack, exposed perfectly, and the right neutral colour. This is what I love about studio light. Even in a mall, with a portable studio. Of course it is important to check every now and then that you are still set right – JPG, 1/125th sec, 100 ISO, f/9. But if you make no mistakes, you get the same great light all day.

And Jolly Old Nick will be happy, as will the kids – and more importantly, their parents.

Since you asked:

Here are some shots at 100-800 ISO from both the 1Ds Mark III and the 7D. Studio, and to get to the next step, I just changed both ISO and Aperture up in both cases each time.

The shots below are a crop detail from this setup, lit with one umbrella and one softbox fired with pocketwizards. I used a 35mm prime lens on the 7D, and a 50mm prime on the 1Ds MkIII, in order to get the same field of view.

Important – click on each image to see a pixel-for-pixel real-size preview.


So here we start at 100 ISO:


7D- 100 ISO

1Ds MkIII - 100 ISO

1Ds MkIII - 100 ISO

Now take a look at 200 ISO:

7D - 200 ISO

7D - 200 ISO

1Ds MkIII - 200 ISO

1Ds MkIII - 200 ISO

Now up to 400 ISO:

7D - 400 ISO

7D - 400 ISO

1Ds MkIII - 400 ISO

1Ds MkIII - 400 ISO

And finally, 800 ISO. Now we start to see noise, but keep in mind, these are real-sized crops. In reality, even at 8″x10″ you would see little.

7D - 800 ISO

7D - 800 ISO

1Ds MkIII - 800 ISO

1Ds MkIII - 800 ISO

Indoor Flash

Here’s a few demo shots from a kind volunteer (a student’s daughter) at a recent camera course I taught. This bit was about “flash”.

First, pop up the flash and use “P” or “Auto” mode and you get the picture that makes people hate flash:


Then enable “Slow flash” or “Night portrait mode” and you get a better picture.. yeah, it’s better. But not all that much:


Then put your big flash on top of the camera (e.g. an SB-900 or 580EX II, or their slightly smaller equivalents SB-600 or 430EX II). And aim that flash behind you.

Yeah. Behind. So it bounces off ceilings and walls behind you.

Much better. Much. See:


And then if you want extra “character” and “depth”, bounce off a side wall, if you can find one.

Now you get three-dimensionality, depth, character as well:


I mean – how cool is that? And all this was done in “P” mode, with no special stuff, with no settings on the camera, no required knowledge of aperture, no complicated techniques.

Flash is wonderful once you learn how to play with it. And it is easier than ever.