High-speed action in broad daylight requires high-speed fill flash. High-speed in this case means two things: the fast shutter speeds enabled by Speedlites in high-speed sync AND speeding up the flash recycling time by using an external power pack to recharge the Speedlites.
I’ve covered high-speed sync (HSS) many times on PixSylated. [For an introduction to HSS, check out this Simple Truths article.] The short version is that HSS changes the way the Speedlite fires. HSS enables the use of shutter speeds faster than the camera’s sync speed—1/250″ on most DSLRs.
The downside to HSS is that turning the Speedlite into a near-continuous light source (even for a fraction of a second) consumes a bunch of power. My tests have shown that HSS consumes 2.5 stops of light—which is the equivalent of turning a Speedlite’s maximum output from full-power down to 1/6 power. For fill flash, this power loss is not a big issue. It’s only when you are shooting day-for-night that you need to overcome the HSS hit by using an arsenal of Speedlites (like I did here).
To stop the motion of the cyclists speeding downhill, I had to shoot at 1/500″ or faster. The flash sync speed for my 5D Mk III is 1/200″. So, in order to have fill flash at this shutter speed, I had to activate HSS on my Speedlites–which requires one button push. Then, by stacking a couple of Speedlites, I was able to recover a bit of the HSS power loss (not all of it, but enough to extend the effective range of the fill light).
Other advantages of stacking Speedlites (whether using HSS or not) include:
- each Speedlite fires at lower power, so they recycle faster
- if one flash goes down during the shoot, you can keep shooting
- there are no double shadows (which is an issue when shooting multi-flash brackets, check out the wall shadows in this example shot)
My Stacked Speedlite Rig
I’ve tried lots of ways to stack Speedlites over the years—gaffer’s tape, bungie cords, belts, etc. By far, the most reliable system (in terms of strength and ease) uses fat straps like these 1″ x 18″ Velcro straps on Amazon. One strap easily cinches the heads together in just a couple of seconds. The key is to use a strap that has a plastic loop sewn into one end. You gain a good bit of leverage by passing the strap through the loop and then pulling it back on itself to secure it. Just wrapping a strap around and around the heads is not enough. The strap has to pull back on itself to be truly tight around the Speedlites.
The Bolt Cyclone PP-400DR Dual Outlet Power Pack is the other vital part of my stacked Speedlite rig. This pro-grade, lithium-ion pack cuts my Speedlite recycle time to the bare minimum. With two outlets, I am able to power both Speedlites from a single pack. If your budget is more limited, you could use a Bolt CBP-C1 battery pack and 8 AA batteries on each Speedlite. However, everything on the PP-400DR is more robust, from the size of the power cords to the size of the battery. Regardless of whether you shoot Canon, Nikon, or Sony, there are Bolt cables made for your gear. Additionally, with this cool USB adapter, you can recharge your phone or power a wide range of electronics devices in the field.
The Look of High-Speed Fill Flash
In today’s digital era, it is always worthwhile to ask whether it’s better to light during the shoot or back home on your computer. The right answer, for me, is to light during the shoot. Fig. 5, above, is lit with fill flash from the stacked Speedlite rig shown above. As you can see, the fill flash blends naturally with the sunlight and allows us to see into the shadows. This shot looks like the sunlight we see on location. Fig. 6, below, is virtually the same shot without any fill flash. By comparison, the natural light-only shot is so contrasty that it looks unnatural.
So, can we create the look of fill flash on a computer? I am a huge fan of the Shadows slider in Lightroom. It provides magic when just a bit of additional “light” is needed in the shadows. However, lifting shadows in Lightroom is no replacement for fill flash. As you can see in Fig. 7, below, even pulling the Shadows slider to +100% does not look as natural as the fill flash in Fig. 5—the muscles and clothing lack the definition of the fill flash shot. To my way of thinking, it is always better to light on location so as to maximize the options for fine-tuning the shot in post.
Learn These Lighting Techniques
I have two lighting workshops this summer that cover these techniques.
- Crafting Dramatic Light on Location—Santa Fe Workshops, July 6-11 (registration is very limited, act soon)
- Canon Speedlites Demystified—Maine Media Workshops, August 24-30
The photos for this article were shot during a lighting demo I did this spring at the Peter Read Miller Sports Photography Workshop in Denver. Peter holds several workshops around the country each year. Check out his site for more information.
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