GANG LIGHT – Part 2: Just how fast a shutter speed do you need to freeze the seeds flying from a pumpkin that your teenage son is trying to drive over the left field fence? Also, how do you create beautiful light on a dreary, flat light afternoon in a way that let’s you shoot at a really fast shutter speed?
Fortunately, I had a dozen Canon 580EX II Speedlites and an arsenal of RadioPoppers (all on loan from their manufacturers) so that I could try to answer these important questions. As you’ll see below, the answer to the shutter speed question is “really, really fast.” The lighting question takes a bit longer to answer.
Freezing Supersonic Seeds
Back in the days when I got my first SLR (hint: Nixon had just resigned), the top shutter speed on most cameras was 1/500″. In comparison, some 30+ years later, the shutter speeds on prosumer DSLRs seem supersonic. You’d think that anything north of 1/2000″ would be fast enough to freeze pumpkin shrapnel. Turns out that pumpkin seeds are supersonic too.
I shot at a variety of speeds — all in full-stop increments from 1/400″ [1/800″, 1/1600″…] When I hit 1/3200″, based on a super-chimp of the camera’s LCD, I was sure we had stopped space and time. Back in the studio, with the benefit of Lightroom and a large monitor, I discovered otherwise. Turns out that the magic didn’t happen until 1/6400″.
Lighting The Bash With High-Speed Sync
High-speed sync, as I’ve explained elsewhere, changes the way that a Speedlite fires. Rather than one big burst, the camera tells the strobe(s) to fire a continuous series of pulses. The idea behind this technology is that the strobe turns into a continuous light source for the brief duration of the exposure. To get this instantaneous recycle, the power of the flash is greatly reduced. With high-speed sync, you can use virtually any shutter speed on your camera. [Confused? Then click on the link above and read that article before continuing.]
The downfall of high-speed sync is that it significantly reduces the power coming from the strobe. This means a couple of things: 1. you have to move the lights really close to the subject and 2. you need multiple lights.
As I wrote in the piece on Ben Willmore (here), my friends at Canon USA and RadioPopper loaned me an arsenal of Speedlites and Poppers (radio triggers). The lessons I learned with this shoot continue to erode my thoughts about the lunacy of having so many small strobes at hand. In fact, given that the second-generation of Poppers has been launched (details here) and the pesky fiber optic is a thing of the past, setting up so many lights will not be a big deal in the near future.
For the pumpkin smash-a-thon, I bolted a dozen Canon Speedlites onto a 7′ piece of red oak. The Gang Light Rail was held aloft by a couple of C-stands. I stood under the rail with the master Speedlite atop my camera. Given that I was close enough to get splattered with pumpkin guts every time, I don’t believe that the strobes could have been fired by traditional eTTL using the infrared receivers on the remote units. They’d have to be able to see my master unit. The geometry just wasn’t there so that all twelve units could see my master.
The pumpkin smash only deepened my affection for RadioPoppers. I was able to move in and out, left and right, without any concern for the position of my master unit in relation to the remote lights. Given that in some shots I was literally a couple of inches from my son’s swing radius, it was very nice not to have to worry about maintaining the line-of-sight between the remotes and the master.
I also have to say that I love the quality of light coming off my Gang Light Rail. The soft quality is created because the width of the lights along the rail wraps the light around my subject. Each strobe unit is a key and fill light at the same time.
You can also change the weather with high-speed sync. Did you notice the difference between the rail shot and my pumpkin shots? The rail shot was made with my camera choosing the shutter speed based on the ambient light. For the pumpkin shots, my manually-set shutter speed was 5-stops below ambient. The light grey sky turned into a storm-filled sky.
I Can’t Think Of Another Way To Light This Shot
Given the camera gear that I have on hand (Canon 5D) I have to live within the limitations of the focal plane shutter. [Again, read my earlier article on high-speed sync to understand why the type of shutter makes a difference with sync speed.]
Many comments on the Willmore piece, both here and on Strobist, suggested that I was a fool to use a dozen Speedlites instead of a big (expensive) studio pack to turn noon to night. I’m called a fool all the time. If I’m going to earn the title, I’d at least like to get it for the right reasons.
So, I’d like to preempt those same comments here and say again “I’m a Canon shooter. I have a focal-plane shutter.” Sure, I could bring in a big (expensive), bi-tube studio pack and fire it off at a low-power setting – which would give me an ultra-fast burst of light. But… there’s that focal-plane sync speed barrier. With my 5D, my sync speed is 1/160″ (the manual may say different, but I’ve fired this camera over 100K times, and my sync speed is 1/160″). So anytime I shoot with a studio pack, the fastest I can shoot is 1/160″ – if I want to illuminate the whole frame with flash. [David Ziser has a very interesting piece about shooting at faster speeds – but the pumpkin shots don’t have the composition that David’s technique requires.]
Let’s do the photo-math. The hero shot above was made at 1/6400″ at f/5.6. There are five and a third stops of shutter speed between 1/6400″ and my sync speed of 1/160″. So, to light with a big (expensive) bi-tube, studio strobe, I’d have to shoot at 1/160″ because that’s the sync speed for my 5D. To keep the ambient light (the sunlit background) exposure the same, I’d have to stop down five and a third stops from f/5.6 to f/40-something. Funny. I don’t have a lens that goes past f/32. Further, the edges of the frame and the background are better in soft-focus. So, how to shoot at a relatively wide aperture if my fastest shutter speed is 1/160″?
I guess I could throw on my Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter and dial in a ton of neutral density to make the studio pack work at a wide aperture at 1/160″. Maybe. Have you ever looked through a Vari-ND dialed down 6 or so stops? It’s almost impossible to see through. It’s not something that I’d want on the end of my lens when I’m dancing a couple of inches outside the arc of a pumpkin-spattering bat.
Like I said above, the lunacy of having so many Speedlites on a shoot is melting away.
More Gang Light Adventures
More to come…