High-Speed Sync

What is it? High-speed sync is your flash and camera working in perfect harmony at shutter speeds above 1/250 sec (for most cameras). I’ve heard of high-speed sync but never saw it in action until I met Joe McNally. Watching him give a demonstration really opened my eyes to the potential. If you are interested in the technical aspects of how it works, I would recommend the numerous articles that explain all the technical jargon. In doing my research for this article I came across a lot of great information explaining how a flash works and why it’s supposed to sync with a camera at 1/250 and flash duration and why the planets are aligned the way they are and why the earth is warming, you get the idea.

I’m not a technical guy; so I won’t try to bore you with technical speak. But to put it in my simplistic numnuts terminology it works like this. You are in an extremely bright sunlit situation, your subject is backlit or side lit and you need fill. Your camera meter is telling you that you need to be at 1/8000 sec at f5.6 and if you try to expose for your subject you loose those beautiful Stratocumulus Perlucidus clouds and get nothing but a blown-out white sky because to properly expose for your subject you need to be at 1/125 sec @ f8.

Yeah sure, you could pull out a reflector and bounce those sunrays back onto your subject, but they would probably be squinting so badly they may look like they are trying to pass a bowling ball. Or you can pull out your flash and pop enough fill light onto their face that you get a perfectly balanced exposure of subject and sky. But wait, my camera only syncs at 1/250 of a second and I’m still blowing out the background. Step in High-Speed Sync, which is readily available on both the Canon and Nikon camera systems. By setting your camera and flash to work in the high-speed sync mode your flash will fire no matter what your shutter speed is set to.

Shooting into the sun with high-speed sync
Shooting into the sun with high-speed sync.

Your flash can be mounted on camera or off. But taking it off camera brings up an entirely new set of challenges, how to trigger an off camera flash in high speed sync mode. There are a few ways to do this and each requires additional equipment. The first method involves using multiple strobes, such as two Canon 580EX II flashes or one strobe and a transmitter, such as the ST-E2. Set your camera mounted flash or transmitter as your master unit and using E-TTL, control your second flash, or you can invest in a set of Radio Poppers or Pocket Wizards.

I opted for the new PocketWizards which are the MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 to be precise. My reason for the PocketWizards was that these new models will not only give me full E-TTL control over my 580EX II but will also manually control my Plus II models so I wanted to stay in the PocketWizard system.

There you have it, high-speed sync, cool name – really cool results, especially when shooting in direct or extremely bright sunlight.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. nice article. I rarely thought about using a flash outside but I remember having that big front sunlight that break all your sky and subject. I will definitely try this as soon as I’m in this situation again. Thanks for sharing!

  2. never heard even of the idea, sounds really good!

  3. High-Speed Sync (HSS) is available in other systems too, not just Canon and Nikon. Olympus calls it the FP mode, just like – I think – Nikon, and it works just as well.

    The catch is that the power of the flash is reduced in these “trick” modes, which is no big deal when you are filling in the shadows on a single face, but it is when you are trying to balance the exposure on a wedding procession or anything else that is big and/or relatively far away from the flash.

    But here’s a little known secret: compact digital cameras usually lack a focal-plane shutter and use electronic gating, sometimes referred to as an ‘electronic shutter’. With these compact digicams, you can sync up any flash – even those that do not have an fP or HSS mode – at any shutter speed, including the fastest one. (Obviously you will want to use a compact that has a hot shoe, though you may experiment with flashguns optically slaved to the onboard flash.)

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