The line drive at 1/400 = blurry seeds flying everywhere.

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.

The base hit at 1/3200 = still a bit of blur

The base hit at 1/3200 = still a bit of blur if you look really close.

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″.

The home run at 1/6400" = seeds frozen in space.

The home run at 1/6400" = seeds frozen in space.

Left: 1/3200"     Right 1/6400"

Left: 1/3200" Right 1/6400" - an important difference in sharpness

The home run at 1/6400" = seeds frozen in space.

My hero shot for the afternoon. Details shown above.

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.

The Rail - twelve Canon 580 EX IIs triggered by RadioPopper P1s

The Gang Light Rail - 12 Canon 580 EX IIs triggered by RadioPopper P1s

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

Part 1: I Shot Ben Willmore, 12 Speedlite Ring Light

More to come…

Tagged with:

82 Responses to Smashing Pumpkins With High-Speed Sync * Gang Light – Part 2

  1. Charles Middleton says:

    Is there a way to modify the Radiopopper PX receiver so that it can be mounted on top of the flash head? I have the new mount (for a Canon 580ex II) but it doesn't work on a multiple strobe setup like on the FourSquare kit. As the mount uses the flash hot shoe it limits my options. Can the PX receiver be modified by adding the fiber optic cord?

  2. Charles Middleton says:

    Is there a way to modify the Radiopopper PX receiver so that it can be mounted on top of the flash head? I have the new mount (for a Canon 580ex II) but it doesn’t work on a multiple strobe setup like on the FourSquare kit. As the mount uses the flash hot shoe it limits my options. Can the PX receiver be modified by adding the fiber optic cord?

  3. This looks like a fun project. I would like to try this out if I ever get the time. Thanks for the idea.

  4. […] Speedlites in high-speed sync mode at his son while he was smashing a pumpkin with a bat (as seen here ) C – I’m the guy who had the audacity/stupidity to tell the whole world that the Canon […]

  5. Michael Spry says:

    Really, $7000 at a minimum for this set up, how can you be serious about demonstrating this as a realistic setup for anyone who purchases there own gear?

    • Syl Arena says:

      Hey Michael –

      This was a demo of multiple Speedlites working in high-speed sync. I don’t recall that I wrote it was a typical / realistic setup for anyone.

      That said, the more I talk to Speedliters, the more I’ve pointed out that it only takes 3 or 4 guys pooling their gear to come up with a boatload of Speedlites. This is a perfect meetup shoot.

      As for firing them all off, for the past year I’ve been moving my Master off-camera with the 24′ E-TTL cord sold by Flash Zebra (about $55). If I did this shoot today, I’d use the cord rather than the RadioPoppers. I love RPs. But for a shoot like this where access is controlled and no one will trip over the long E-TTL cord, RPs aren’t needed. Just move the Master on the cord to a stand where it faces all the Slaves and fire away.

      The last thought that comes to mind is that it’s important to remember that you can’t do high-speed sync on a DSLR camera with monolights or studio packs. Spending $5000 on a dozen Speedlites may seem crazy. But when it comes to ProPhoto, $5000 barely gets you started. $5000 of studio light gets you a max shutter speed of 1/200″ on a DSLR. Turbo-sync with a PW Flex and you jump the speed up a stop or so. That’s still a far cry from the 1/3200″ I shot at. So, dollar for dollar, a dozen Speedlites will create shots that you can’t do with really expensive studio gear.

      My new mantra is to buy the Flash Zebra cord, call up a handful of Canonista buddies, and go out to create great gang light.

  6. […] how to use flash and has some very interesting articles on all manner of topics. Check out his Smashing Pumpkins […]

  7. […] let’s take this one on smashing pumpkins since it has a extensive amount of action stopping: Smashing Pumpkins With High-Speed Sync * Gang Light – Part 2 | PixSylated by Syl Arena ? Hones…. The first clue is in the photograph—the heavy cloud cover which he mentions in the article […]

  8. Rob says:


    Been wanting to do something like this myself ever since I first saw these images. I just recently found someone willing to try it out with me and I have a question. I don’t have that many speedlights. Right now I have a 580 EXII and a 430 EX. I may buy another 430 EX used from someone. I’m not entirely sure the high speed works with the 430 EX models in ETTL. Do you know how well, or if it works?

    Also, what would the consequence/result be if I just used the 580EXII on a long Flash Zebra cable as master and fill, off to the right side, and had it trigger the two 430 EX flashes as my main lights in slave group B. Would it be able to pump enough power?

    Personally, I actually like the look of the 1/3200 shutter speed. I kind of like that very subtle motion blur in the seeds, so I wouldn’t be cranking it to 1/6000 like you did. If I shot at dusk rather than trying to completely kill full sunlight, what are the odds I could get something similar?

  9. Daniel says:

    Hi Syl!
    Cool stuff, but just out of curiosity, can you tell me how many pumpkins had you wasted to take this shot right?
    Regards, Daniel

  10. Chun Keang says:

    Very cool information, but would like to understand if you applied any light modify on the gang flash? do you think it is necessary when shoot at high sync?

  11. digitaljim says:

    I love this site. Thanks Sly for all the work. Reading your Speedliter's handbook and am very impressed with the organization and layout of this book. This is full of lots of info that is invaluable to all speedlite owners.
    Thank you
    J. Allen

  12. […] HUGE factor Modifiers, thanks to Zack Arias for the demo  🙂 Joe is the MAN!  Syl’s not bad either. Speedlight-specific mods:  Syl Arena and Speedlighting.com    Links to all gear posts (grip, […]

  13. Claire says:

    How did you get the pumpkin suspended in air? Did you or your son or a third person throw it?

    • Syl Arena says:

      @Claire – Pumpkin was in full motion. Tossed into the shot by an assistant. Went through several during the shoot. The fast shutter makes it appear suspended in air.

  14. Hello, I am making up a plan of high-speed sync-ing 5 speedlights with 5 x 10m off camera hotshoe cords from OCF, combined of course with 5pin hotshoe splitters. Would that be possible in relation to the camera recognising the rest 4 speedlites, or the lenses having correct impedance, or anything else that I am not aware of? I am guessing you are the only one I can ask before buying cords, splitters and extra speedlites that might be wasted. Thank you in advance!

    • Syl Arena says:

      A much simpler solution is to set one Speedlite on a cord as a master and have it control all of the other Speedlites as slaves via Canon’s built-in optical or radio wireless system. I think the best solution is the one with the fewest parts. You don’t need a splitter and additional cords.

  15. […] how to use flash and has some very interesting articles on all manner of topics. Check out his Smashing Pumpkins […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *