I still remember the first time I saw the work of Stephen Dalton, one of the earliest pioneers of high speed nature photography. I knew right then, I wanted to create images like that! So began a long journey that continues today.
Things were a lot tougher back in the days of film, no instant feedback to check your setups and lighting. The equipment was also very specialized and hard to find, things like, Dale Beam triggers and Vivitar 283s with vari-power adapters. Today it is significantly more accessible. Most off the shelf flash units have the ability to do high speed work, and companies like Cognisys make an entire family of well thought out, beautifully designed, products created specifically for this specialized type of photography. Changes like this have opened the door for all kinds of creative and exciting new photographic possibilities!
High Speed Photography Basics
Many photographers don’t realize they can do some amazing stop-action photography just by using their standard flash units in manual mode. There are two principles you must understand to get started.
First, when using flash as your main light source, the duration of the flash burst becomes your effective shutter speed. Your flash must be the main light source though, completely overpowering the ambient light. In this way your actual camera’s shutter speed is irrelevant as long as the shutter is open when the flash fires. But it cannot be open so long that it lets enough ambient light in to affect the exposure.
As an example, when I am photographing bats in the dark I will often leave my shutter open on bulb and set the trigger to fire the flashes. Now when the beam is tripped it fires the flashes which makes the exposure. I then reset the camera shutter and wait for the next bat to fly through the beam which will again trigger the flashes.
Secondly, most flash units cut the power in manual mode by shortening the flash duration. This means when you manually dial your flash back to 1/8th power you get an approximate flash duration (effective shutter speed) of 1/6,000th of a second. At 1/16th power this becomes a blazing 1/11,000th of a second! That is fast enough to freeze a hummingbird’s wings in flight. For insects in flight, I use 1/64th power which is a mind-numbing 1/32,000th of a second!
Equipment for High-Speed Photography
For most true high-speed photography electronic flash is required. When the flash is the main light source (overpowering the ambient light) the flash duration becomes the effective shutter speed. So even though your camera’s sync speed may be 1/200th of a second, the flash duration of 1/11,000th of a second is what actually makes the exposure and freezes the action.
Nikon SB-800s – Usually dialed down to 1/16th power for a 1/11,000th of a second flash duration
Nikon SB-600s – Usually dialed down to 1/16th power for a 1/11,000th of a second flash duration
Fotronix Stoplight SL-80 – Giant custom made flashes created just for high-speed work.
I use the Nikon flashes (dialed down) for the bulk of my high-speed work. If I need durations of 1/25,000th of a second and a lot of light I use the Fotronix system. The Nikon’s dialed down to 1/64th power are a blazing fast 1/32,000th of a second. However, at that power light output is greatly diminished.
While you can do some types of high-speed photography without a trigger (hummingbirds for instance), a trigger system will greatly expand your photographic possibilities, as well as give you more precise control over your final compositions. A trigger system is simply a beam, either infrared or laser, that when tripped will fire your camera, and or flashes. More advanced trigger systems like the Cognisys StopShot and Cognisys Sabre can be setup with two beams in a cross-beam configuration (forming an X) so that the camera will only fire when both beams are broken allowing for pinpoint accuracy so you know exactly where your subject will be when the camera fires!
Cognisys Sabre – Infrared LIDAR trigger device extremely versatile and completely configurable. The Sabre can also be used as a trail camera.
Cognisys Range IR – Infrared trigger device transmitter and receiver in one device. Very simple to use can be setup as a trail camera
Cognisys StopShot – A truly multipurpose, configurable, and programmable trigger system. The most versatile triggering system available!
Cognisys Insect Rig – Simply the best way I know to photograph insects in flight!
One of the challenges of certain types of high-speed photography is shutter lag. In most modern DSLRs the shutter lag can be anywhere from 35ms to as long as 300ms! Not a big deal in normal photography but 150ms is a lifetime when dealing with a fast moving insect and very narrow depth of field due to working at magnification. The Cognisys high-speed shutter which opens in less than 6ms solves this problem. It mounts on the front of your lens and you leave your camera’s shutter open on the bulb setting. Then when your trigger system trips, it opens the high-speed shutter and fires the flashes to make the exposure.
Cognisys High-speed Shutter – Mounts to the front of your lens and has a response time of less than 6ms.
Positioning all of your lights, triggering system, and props etc. can be a challenge. Here is a list of some of the things I find very useful for holding all of the gear in the studio or the field.
Manfrotto 001B Light stands – Very compact great for travel
Manfrotto 367B Light stands – My main studio light stand
Manfrotto 196 AB-2 – Articulating Arm I clamp two of these to a light stand to hold flashes etc.
Manfrotto Nano Clamp – I use these to clamp the arm above to a light stand
Giotto MH-1004 – Mini ballhead for light stands
Impact #3045 Mini Boom Arm – Great for positioning lights in hard to reach spots.
Whimberley Plamps – Great for holding props and other small items. Very versatile
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