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Q&A: Controlling the Sun When Using Flash - A Comparative Guide

After Monday's post lighting a soccer player into the sun at a wide aperture, several questions came up via comments and Twitter about the relative benefits of doing this in different ways.

Yes, there are different ways to do it -- namely ND, high-speed sync and special-chip cameras. Each method has advantages and disadvantages. The full how-to and scorecard, inside.

First off, I have a do use all three ways to bleed some depth of field from my photos. Depending on your situation, or the gear you already have, one way might be best for you.

We have posted in detail on some of the individual techniques before, so I'll link to those posts where appropriate for more info.

High-Speed Sync

High-speed sync (also known as "Focal Plane," or FP sync) is a special protocol that some cameras and flashes share.

The camera controls the flash (whether remote or on hot shoe) in a way that causes the flash to pulse through the exposure.


1. If you shoot with one brand of gear (i.e., Nikon cameras and flashes) you may already have everything you need.

2. You can work in manual or TTL.


1. If you are going to be using more than one flash, this is the most expensive way to do it. With proprietary systems you will pay through the nose for every additional light. And even with deep pockets, you'll be capped to speedlights, as this does not work with studio flashes.

2. The inefficiency of this pulsing method, wherein much of the light actually is wasted on the black part of the curtain, robs you of power progressively as you move up the shutter speed scale.

(For all but the closest-lit portraits, #'s 1 and 2 above will stack up against you. Congratulations.)

3. Since the pulsing actually happens over about a 250th of a second, your flash will not have the action stopping power of, say, the 1/1000th of a sec your shutter speed might be set to.

Examples of using HSS in bright ambient:

:: Joe McNally's Tree of Woe ::
:: Dave Black: Flashing Surfers at Distance ::

Magic Chip Cameras

If you have no specialized gear and want a cool entry into flashing at most any shutter speed, you can pick up one of a few different "special" chip cameras, which utilize electronic shutters. For these cameras, the mechanical shutter maxes out at or below the hard sync speed, and the higher so-called shutter speeds happen by taking smaller and smaller electronic slices of time from the chip.

Nikon D40 (but not D40x) D70, D70s and the original D1/x are, I believe, all electronic shutter cameras. Ditto the original Canon EOS 1D. My favorite, by far, is the Nikon D70s. Caveat: If you physically connect (i.e., via hot shoe or off-camera cord) a same-brand flash to the camera, you have to trick it into the sync overdrive thing by taping over the TTL connections.


1. Real, full-sync at high shutter speeds. This is great for daytime action shooters, because both the shutter speed and the flash can be action-nailing speeds.

2. Cheap. Those old cameras can be had pretty easily on eBay these days, because many people do not know of their special powers.

3. Flexible. You can use a variety of speedlights and/or monoblocs, subject to limitations described below.


1. Your shutter speed cannot exceed the actual length of time it takes your flash to fire at a given power level. For example, with my Nikon D70s and SB-800s this means that I can get a full power pop at 1/500th (almost -- the SB-800 has a slow t.1 time at full power). But at 1/2000th of a second, you don't want to go past 1/4 power. At a 1/4000th, stay at or below 1/8th power, etc. Still, you can do a lot within those limitations. If you have a fast-pulse big flash -- an Einstein, for instance -- this can be an incredibly powerful combo.

2. All of these bodies are discontinued. So you are married to an old chip, with all of the above being both old tech and 6MP or less in size. And there are no full-frame chip options. But if you already have the camera (or score one cheap on Craigslist) go for it.

More on magic chip cameras:

:: Control Your World with Ultr-High Sync ::
:: Neuter Your SC-17 Cord to Fool Your Camera ::

ND Filters

Neutral density filters (used on the lens) will allow you to shoot with any sufficiently powered flash (speedlight or mono) and any camera / lens combo throughout your full range of apertures. And one filter on your lens covers any number of lights being used simultaneously.

We talked about the step-by-step process of using ND on Monday, so I won't repeat it here.


1. Assuming you will at some point want a choice of camera model, platform or flash, even the ne plus ultra $340 Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter is actually the cheapest of the options listed here. You buy it once and use it forever, on all of your gear. It is tack sharp and gives no color cast, which is very hard to do with a 2-8 stop ND filter -- and why it is so expensive. There are other ND options, but I do not recommend them.

2. One size fits all: Buy it in the 77mm size and use it on any lens with a universal filter adapter ring kit.

3, Any of you who are also landscape shooters will gain the ability to make exposures in full sun of up to 4 secs long (@ ISO 100, f/22). Great for landscapes that involve moving water or implying wind.


1. With neutral density filtration on your lens, it can be hard to read subject expressions. Especially since you'll usually be shooting into backlight. It will take a little getting used to. Fortunately, your autofocus will probably be fine. It is actually more dependent on the max aperture of the lens design (usually needs at least f/5.6) rather than the absolute amount of light coming through.

2. Psychology. Obviously, it is awful hard to bring yourself to cough up $340 for a filter. But if you are going to do a lot of this kind of work, the Vari-ND is the way to go. Try to think of it as buying the universal ability to light outside at wide apertures -- and not as buying a filter. I have never regretted the purchase. In fact, if it got lost or broken I would replace it immediately.

More on working with NDs:

:: Using ND Filters to Kill Depth of Field ::
:: Soccer Through Sunset ::


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Blogger Ben and Hailey Ness said...

Great summary! I would add "Limited to max sync speed" as a disadvantage for the ND filter. Both of the other options allow you to shoot faster than max sync, so it seems like the most obvious technical disadvantage.

December 08, 2011 11:47 PM  
Blogger Edward Yezekian said...

there is another method called hyper sync. it can be done several ways, but takes advantage of long duration on full power flashes. one method is to put an HSS flash on thrhotshow, and an optical slave connected to a trigger taped to it. or some triggers have hypersonic mode where they delay the flash pop enough to calibrate the long duration to the shutter opening. of course this makes your flash a continuous light during your exposure time... but if you're shooting at 1/4000th you dont have to worry about stopping MOST action.

December 09, 2011 1:28 AM  
Blogger Clement said...

Nice Summary! For amateurs like me I'd say that $340 is still too much. I chose to buy a 6 stops filter for $60 on sale and I can bump the ISO to 800 without too much loss to "adjust" it as a 3 to 6 stops filter. Ok sometimes it's awfully dark in the VF, but it works great for my budget.

December 09, 2011 1:29 AM  
OpenID Mark said...

My camera is a d40 and I always take advantage of its 1/500s sync (I use Nikon CLS/AWL to control remote flash). If the 1/500s is still not enough, I then use an el cheapo Hoya CPL. The green kind which comes with a little under 2 stop loss.

So you get the benefits of a CPL with a little ND.

December 09, 2011 3:29 AM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...

Thanks for the explanation.

The ND-filter has the exact same limitation as the High-Speed-Sync in that a lot of light is wasted during the process.

December 09, 2011 4:32 AM  
Blogger Wally said...

There is another "fader" or vari ND filter by Light Craft which is about a third of the Singh-Ray. Reviews that compared it to the Singh say its not as refined with markings and all but color wise it's as good. B&H is stocking them.

December 09, 2011 7:15 AM  
Blogger Antares said...

Incidentally, the Nikon D50 also has a magic chip.

Also, some point and shoot and bridge cameras have magic chips (Minolta 7 series, Canon's G series). However, the smaller sensors yeild a deeper DoF.

December 09, 2011 10:58 AM  
Blogger Antares said...

Incidentally, the Nikon D50 also has a magic chip.

Also, some point and shoot and bridge cameras have magic chips (Minolta 7 series, Canon's G series). However, the smaller sensors yeild a deeper DoF.

December 09, 2011 10:59 AM  
Blogger Edward Yezekian said...

I use the Light Craft Workshop Fader-ND MK II, and i have not noticed any loss of sharpness or contrast. there is a cast which i correct with a color checker profile, and extra 2 minutes in post to fix a color cast is worth the $250 i saved by not getting the Singh-ray.

December 09, 2011 11:30 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


If you are killing exposure with an ND, then bumping the ISO, you may be missing the whole point...


That method is probably the least efficient of all, light-wise, with the added benefit of using only part of the flash's power curve. The result being varying and unpredictable color shifts. It has so many ancillary problems that I have chosen not to speak of it here. Henceforth, I must refer to it as Voldemort HSS.

@Ben and Hailey-

True. But because of the viewfinder-darkening aspects of extreme ND on the lens, I doubt many consider that an approach for action photography.


Ahh, would that that were true. In reality, it is not even close. There is a lot of fudge-factor built into the timing sequence of the pulses, the result being gross inefficiency. It is not a straight-line loss as you go up the shutter speed scale. PW has recleimed *some* of that lost efficiency by nuancing the timing sequence, but they do not gain a lot.

The full-pop / ND combo perfect preserves the balance of flash vs ambient as you walk towards the wide end of the aperture scale. And the gap between those two outcomes is pretty critical.

Trust me, this is from someone who tried both, hoping like hell they would be equivalent.

December 09, 2011 12:02 PM  
OpenID klassenimages said...

It would be nice if my camera let me go to lower ISO settings, and this problem could be solved. Maybe sometime in the future this will be an option. Sometimes I can cheat a bit, if shooting in RAW I can over-expose a bit and lower it in post-processing by about a stop.

December 09, 2011 12:36 PM  
Blogger zperlow said...

Ahh..I had always wondered how drewshoots was doing the fast shutter speed stuff with his old D40/pocketwizard setup. I was wondering, if you were to need a faster shutter speed than 500th, with the magic chip cameras, would automatically slide past it? Or would you need to set the camera to Auto FP mode to "trick" the camera?

December 09, 2011 12:51 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

Thanks again for mentioning the "magic chip" ie: CCD chip (as opposed to CMOS) cameras with electronic shutters. My wife and my older daughter both have Nikon D40's. The D40 can sync at some redonculous speeds. I've done a 2400th or thereabouts. (I think electronic kicks in over a 250th). With a non dedicated off camera flash cord or trigger, the camera doesn't recognize it's 1/500th sync limit, giving you amazing versatility. Once again, here's a portrait of me shot by my daughter in a moderately bright white room:

I have a D7000, but the D40, as old and simple as it is, is a wonderful camera with a very powerful trick up it's sleeve.
You can pick one up on Ebay or Craigslist for less than $300 bucks. It also makes a great backup, but you need to step up to the D70 or D70s is you have non AFS lenses.

December 09, 2011 12:57 PM  
Blogger zperlow said...

Thanks for the Rob! So, based on what you and Dave are saying is that it will be kind of an automatic thing. I understand the mechanics of the rest of it. Well, except for one other detail. It's not exactly specific to CCD chips, right? It's those spicific cameras with the special electronic "shutter" capatilities, which are a direct result of the CCD, right? Because I've looked at the D200 and the fuji S5 and they don't boast the 1/500 sync. I do the ND filter thing with my D700 right now and have played with the HSS using pocket wizards and CLS, and so far the vari ND thing is my fav. The fuji x100 is a solid camera with leaf shutter and a built in ND filter. I'm just curious because I'm looking for a cheap back up that has this cool feature.

December 09, 2011 4:57 PM  
Blogger Wink of an eye Digital said...

Nice two articles Dave on ND use. The vari filter is such a versitle tool to use on a camera. I think it is a must have in your bag.

A additional point to the vari-ND filters is it use on all the HDDSLR for video. You can't do video in 24FPS during the day without it. Vincent Laforet
Just to give the readers another rational to their spouse to purchase for christmas! I do have the Fader version and have been happy

December 09, 2011 7:35 PM  
Blogger Wink of an eye Digital said...

voldermont HSS
Your too funny Dave

"Dave Potter and the fight for wide aperture"

December 09, 2011 7:58 PM  
Blogger John Driggers said...

I think the small sensor cameras mentioned actually usually rely on leaf shutters--not on a Magic Chip (i.e. an electronic shutter built into the chip).

Other great choices include the 10 mp Sony R1-APS-C chip, 24-135 Zeiss lens and a leaf shutter--synchs at all speeds.

The Ricoh GXR system--all the current modules , except the M Mount, have leaf shutters and synch at all speeds. The M mount has a hybrid shutter which may or may not synch at higher speeds-I dunno as I don't have an M mount module yet. There's a 24-85 16 mp APS-C module coming in January too.

FlashMod Tip: I have two SB28s and two SB20s I have removed all the pins from, except the centre contact--takes two minutes and a small phillips-head screwdriver. They don't do Nikon CLS/AWL anyway so you can only use them on current Nikon DSLRs in Auto or Manual.

With only a center pin, my Nikons give max synch with these modified flashes:

D-40-all speeds
D-5100-Max 1/250 (instead of 1/200)
D-7000-Max 1/320 instead of 1/250)

Many other cameras yield faster speed with them too. My Oly PENs give 320 instead of 1/160.

Match the apertures between the flash and the camera, set flash to auto and get great results. Then just adjust the aperture on the flash to change flash exposure without impacting ambient.

For the sb28s you set ISO on the flash when powering it up.

NOTE: TAKE THE BATTERIES OUT FIRST BEFORE REMOVING THE HOT SHOE FROM THE FLASH! You are not exposed to the capacitor when doing this mod

Cheers JD in AU

December 09, 2011 11:42 PM  
Blogger Sean F. Roney said...

Thank you for the insightful coverage. I personally like to use the high sync speedlights method, but was unaware Nikon made the useful magic chip models. And thanks a million for the breakdowns in shutter speeds at certain powers.

December 10, 2011 12:53 AM  
Blogger Samy FRANCOIS said...

Hi David, I got into high speed sync thanks to one of your post about the D70. But I finally use the hyper sync method with radio trigger.
Here are some samples

using that trick with an optical slave and skyport

what do you think?

December 10, 2011 3:29 AM  
Blogger Giniu said...

Oh don't forget about leaf shutter, it's getting more popular again in new cameras - Fuji X100 has one, super silent, syncs up to 1/4000 and as a added bonus there is high quality ND (physical) built into camera that you can enable or disable trough menu - and it's mixed optical/digital viewfinder is accurate (all info needed, including live histogram) and bright (it's optical), no matter what ND you put in front. Not to mention that it weights less than 0.5kg so can be hand held in most cases, uses standard ISO hot shoe and you can control the presence of pre-flash in built-in flash for easy firing of external units - lots of features you will like when you want to overpower the sun - at least I do. It is definitely modern 12MP camera, so not all cameras with native ability to sync up to 1/4000 are discontinued :)

December 10, 2011 4:56 AM  
Blogger Curtis Clegg said...

I would add another item to the list of advantages for HSS (at least on Canon cameras):
When the flash is connected via a coiled or straight E-TTL cable of any length (I have seen them available in lengths up to 33 ft.), you can control every setting on the flash though the camera's menu. This only works with newer Canon bodies and flashes, but it's a big step-saver. More information here:

December 10, 2011 3:57 PM  
Blogger Wes Elkin said...

Hypersync, or Voldemort HSS as it is known here can actually be quite useful and effective depending on how you use it.
First it should be pointed out that this feature is exclusive to Pocketwizard mini tt1 and flex tt5 radios (and possibly the multimax, not sure on that one). You only need one radio capable of Hypersync to use on the camera. The radios you use as receivers for your flashes can be any pocketwizard (like the basic plus II).
Hypersync basically works by offsetting the timing of when your flash and shutter fire so that an optimal slice of the flash duration is caught while the shutter is open. There are two different ways that you can configure this to happen.
The way that has already been mentioned here involves using a flash with a long duration (which means setting the power high enough on your strobe to achieve this long duration) and catching a slice of the long tail of the flash pop. This method can result in very high sync speeds but at a great loss of power and color consistency. It also wont sync if you turn down the power. This way of using Hypersync gives it the “Voldemort” reputation.
The other way to configure Hypersync is to only slightly offset the timing so that the entire flash duration is still caught. The only drawback here is that you only gain a small amount of additional sync. In my case, I can get a clean 1/250 out of my 5D mark II (normally 1/200). However I was able to get a clean 1/500 out of my business partner’s 1D mark IV (mainly due to its much faster shutter and slightly smaller sensor).
One thing I forgot to mention is that you need to manually dial in the settings using pocketwizard utility and taking test shots until you see the black band disappear. Also I should point out that the new coltrol TL firmware is supposed to automatically configure this for you but I have personally found that manually dialing it in is still more effective. I may only get an additional 1/3 of a stop of shutter speed on my 5D2 but with no drawbacks and for that reason alone its worth it to me.

December 10, 2011 7:50 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

A question for Dave:

With the amazing high speed sync abilities of CCD chipped camera, why DID all the manufacturers jump to CMOS anyway??? I've never been able to figure it out.

December 10, 2011 9:33 PM  
Blogger Mike Law said...

Thanks for the info and advice Dave, it's useful and tested for solid experience.
Yet, the ND-filter is the best way of all ONLY when you have big guns like profoto heads in the formula. Because the ND-filter robs BOTH ambient and the flash's power. With hotshoe flash like SB900s, this method still means my flash have to be real close to my subjects, making group shots still not an option.
My experience found that 900@full power, with TT5, can make 1/1000 sec from D700. But interestingly, just with full power. Any lower power level brings black band in frame down to 1/400.

December 11, 2011 4:50 AM  
Blogger Mike Law said...

Trust me, the TT5 combo I've share DO have the REAL FULL POWER.
Yet, to be fair, in situation we hope to cover by hotshoe flashes, studio heads is still a "should-be".
I still wish 1 or 2 Einsteins with hyper sync this Christmas.

December 11, 2011 4:58 AM  
Blogger Sean Denny said...

I have been wanting to play around with ND more lately but the cost was prohibitive. Mr. Hobby's insights and recommendation of the Singh-Ray had me starting to rationalize my way into the purchase, but then I found this on Amazon:

I'm sure it is not of the same quality as the Singh-Ray, but for $20 it's worth the risk of trial and the existing reviews suggest it may suffice as a frugal man's alternate.

December 11, 2011 9:07 AM  
OpenID kenkyee said...

Nice summary David.
You forgot to mention the little P&S like the Canon Gxx series, the Nikon P7xxx, the Panasonic LXx, and Samsung XZ-1.
They all have hotshoes, but w/ cybersync triggers can sync to 1/1000 or 1/2000...

And thanks for agreeing that ND filters work best, especially w/ studio strobes ;-)

December 11, 2011 5:58 PM  
OpenID Keith said...

One/Two more disadvantage(s) to add to the "magic chip" cameras: The electronic shutter takes up half the sensor space, so they can only capture half the light (ever wonder why they all start at ISO 200?). Sensors can't just "pause" and stop collecting light while retaining their charge, so half of each pixel is shielded from light to hold the current charge. As an added problem, the design also caused blooming, where charges overflow to nearby pixels.

In the end, it seems camera makers decided better image quality trumped the rarer need for faster shutter speeds. In other words, while the electronic shutter cameras definitely have their uses, the "magic chip" comes at its own cost.

December 11, 2011 8:32 PM  
Blogger Michael Patrick O'Leary said...

Nice. Have you done much with the hi speed sync/dynalite combo?

December 11, 2011 10:13 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Here's one for the specialized camera corner... Medium format camera maker Phase One makes a camera (the 645DF) and line of leaf shutter lenses that allow you to sync as fast as your flash with no loss of power.

December 11, 2011 11:57 PM  
Blogger rolando said...

First, I would like to thank for the useful tips and one more important thing is that going for a single brand camera and accessories you do not need to check compatibility and settings as often it is default settings as well as using more than one flash is really tricky. What you say?

December 12, 2011 6:16 AM  
Blogger Steven Erat said...

Thank you for posting the compare/contrast. Do you have any knowledge of how the Singh-Ray variable ND for $390 compares to the Tiffen variable ND for $190? Thanks!

December 12, 2011 12:54 PM  
Blogger Steven Erat said...

ixnay on the iffentay. I found your comments on the related ND article:
"I bought a Tiffen 77mm ND filter that cut three stops of light. Cheap, fit my lenses and solved the problem, right? Wrong."

December 12, 2011 1:31 PM  
Blogger TimF said...

Thanks a lot for he great article David! But I still got one question and I hope you can post your opinion on that. Singh ray offers 2 variants of the Filter. The normal one and a slim version. Which one would you prefer/recommend and why?
That would be awesome to know!

Thank you so much for your blog!

December 12, 2011 2:24 PM  
Blogger John said...

@David - Wonderful tutorial, thx so much.

@Rob - Great example your daughter shot, thx for reminding me that I love my D40 (even tho I, too, have a D7000 for various reasons).

December 14, 2011 10:10 AM  
Blogger Reeve said...

The genial D50 is again forgotten...:( But I know it's same w/ the D40.This electronical shutter is THE reason.
I have now a D90 and the CLS is a great thing (w/ pop up) sadly it's missing too much at direct sunlight :(
It's allways a magical thing to shoot w/ flash @ 1/4000 on a direct sunshine. The day becomes night :)
I'm using it w/ an old OSRAM BSD flash, ca. 48 key. Of course w/ cord.

December 15, 2011 5:49 AM  
Blogger zperlow said...

Oh, btw. There is one 400w/s strobe that claims to be able to do focal plane stuff. The Impact LiteTrek 4.0.

December 15, 2011 12:56 PM  
Blogger RFS said...

Can I use two rotating polarizing filters as a variable ND filter? Or do the vari-ND filters work on a different principle?

December 16, 2011 12:18 PM  
Blogger Chsu said...

Nice post.

If I am not mistaken, if a setting dictates F/16, ISO 200, at 1/250 and my flash doesn't give me enough juice, I will not be able to do it with, say, a 4-stop ND filter at F/4, ISO 200, at 1/250.

I'll be grateful if anyone can shed some light on this...


August 19, 2013 12:52 PM  

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