2010 Port Angeles NW Cup Pro GRT

Recently I've had a few people asking me about flash placement for regular (non hss or hypersync) shots.  I shot this image of Justin Leov for Trek World Racing back in 2010 at the Port Angeles Pro GRT and NW Cup, and I used a normal sync speed of 1/250th of a second. At that point I'd been using Hyper Sync for several years, but I chose not to use it here. The reason is this:

This shot was taken in a dark forest, and that's a perfect place for using normal sync speeds and short duration flash to freeze action. I find HSS or Hyper Sync to work really well at shutter speeds above 1/1000 of a second in places where the ambient light already looks good and I simply need to add some fill flash to my subject.


Freezing Action with Normal Flash Sync

If you look at the dark area to the left of and above the rider, that's the ambient exposure in this image. It was shot at 1/250th at f/6.3 and iso 400 and it's fairly dark. Look at the highlight on the ground between the tires of the bike, that's sunlight, and it's not blown out. I could have brightened up the ambient exposure by lowering the aperture or raising the iso, however all the sun spots would have blown out to white, which isn't a look I like. Instead I wanted to light the foreground and the area where the action is to match the highlights. When you're trying to freeze action at a normal sync speed the shutter speed of the camera is only 1/250th which won't freeze much, so you rely on the short duration of the flash to do the freezing. Using flash to freeze something only works if the light from the flash is several stops brighter than the ambient light in the image, and if the duration is quick. In this image the light from the flash is at least 3 stops brighter than the ambient light on the rider,  and the duration is 1/1000th or quicker. You also want to entirely flash light the subject on all visible sides including top and bottom. Any part that is visible to the camera that isn't lit by flash will appear blurry. This usually shows up on the top of a helmet, or around the edges of the subject. Because of this I usually try to use three lights in sort of a triangle configuration.

Light Positioning

Normally I would set up three lights for a shot like this one. I started by setting up two Nikon SB800's up on a tall light stand and pointed them down at the rider from back left of the frame. They were both set to 1/2 power, which gives me the same amount of light as a single SB800 at full power, but with a much shorter flash duration to freeze the action, around 1/1000th of a second. That lights up ground on the left side of the frame, and the back and right side of the rider. Because it's up high it also lights the top of his helmet. I also set up two lights in the front of the rider, one on the left and one on the right. I set my Elinchrom Quadra 400 on the right side of the frame back in the trees to the riders left. If you look at his face you can see the angle as it lights his left eye but not the right. You really want to avoid placing a light anywhere near where a racer might be looking, a bright flash directly in their eyes can make it very difficult to see which could be disastrous at high speeds. I used an Elinchrom Action head for the flash, which at about 1/3 power on the B channel has a flash duration of around 1/6000th of a second. The third light is almost directly behind me, and would have put my shadow in the middle of the image so I turned it off.

Untitled photo

If you look at the image below it's from the same location with the exact same lighting, but with all three lights turned on. I simply changed my shooting position. One light high on the riders left in the back, one in front to the riders right, and one in front to the riders left.

2010 Port Angeles NW Cup Pro GRT
Untitled photo

One of the biggest mistakes that I think we make is using the wrong tool for the job simply because we have a new tool and we want to use it for everything. I liken it to a carpenter getting a brand new beautiful hammer. It cost a bunch of money and it's currently the favorite tool, but it's not going to work for putting in a screw. Photography is the same, but worse sometimes. If we spend a whole bunch of hard earned money on a new piece of equipment we want to use it all the time. But sometimes it's not the right tool for the job. In this case High Speed Sync would not have been the right choice for these images.

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