On Assignment: Speedlights, Sync and Sun

It's a bit of a leap of faith, the first time you head out on an assignment with just an X100s and a couple speedlights. (Ask Zack.) And truth be told, I had a DSLR and a couple lenses with me as backup, just in case.

But I never brought them out. And with the crazy sync speeds offered by the X100s, a pair of speedlights is all you really need to do battle with late afternoon sun as it turns out.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the ability to sync (true, not HSS) at higher speeds is a force multiplier. But it still feels weird to go up against sunlight with only speedlights (and have any hope of doing anything other than lighting close-in and hard.)

My fallback was that the sun was low, which meant we'd have a little time to work after sunset, too. So if I was patient, the light would come to me.

With that confidence in mind, we headed to the Howard County Conservancy for the second of two shoots with soprano Rebecca L. Hargrove. Working with assistant Dylan Singleton, the idea would be to work quickly with minimal gear through the fast-changing light.

Light mods don't get much simpler/cheaper than two double-fold umbrellas, which is what we used. In every case, the bottom fill light was an SB-800 in an umbrella on a collapsed LP605 stand (love that it does that.) The key light, a LumoPro LP180, was VAL'd as an overhead boom (another LP605) by Dylan.

Sync was via 10-meter OCF cord, to not lose any sync to radio latency. The second flash was slaved to the first.

With the sun still a few fingers above the horizon (pro tip: each finger at arms' length = about 15 mins) we used the shade side of the barn as a backdrop. But being able to sync at 1/2000th at f/4 (ISO 400, with the built-in ND engaged) meant we could hold the sky in the late spring light.

One light was low on the ground (fill) and the other was VAL/boomed and keyed to whichever way Rebecca was looking. This is why a VAL boom beats a metal boom, any day.

For the different shots, the idea was to work our way over to the field to the field as the light waned, and then shoot against sunset. As you can see from this overhead shot, I don't think we traveled more then 75 feet to do all four looks:

The "A" pic (seen just above) was using the barn as a backdrop. The "B" pic (seen at top) used the field as a backdrop and the setting sun as a super-warm rim light. Again, syncing at 1/2000th (at f/5, ISO 200, with ND in this case) allows us to not only overpower the late sun but to do so at modest power settings on the speedlights. This meant quick double taps were available when needed.

Could you do this with slower syncs? Yeah. But you'd need more light, and a stronger ND if you wanted to maintain the same depth of field.

Also, I could have used one flash on high camera left and another at back camera right to fake the sun. But more and more I am learning that when you augment a high key with a low fill on the same axis (in this case, coming from high left and low left) people just glow in a way that they would not if the fill was not there.

(On the future idea list: Doing this with hard lights, and with different color key and fill.)

The field in back is straight ambient, but dropped way down—maybe three stops. As the sun got closer to the horizon, we started to think of it as a golden light source. So we pushed back into the field a little, to use that background as a setting to make the "C" photo:

The low sun did not deliver what we wanted as a key light, so for this shot we pushed the ambient down again. Not as far this time, just two thirds of a stop so the grass would look rich. (Without flash she would have been a rim-lit silhouette.) The ambient, from camera right, is obviously changing quickly here and mostly just a rim light. So I just locked the camera in aperture priority at f/4 (ISO 200, ND engaged) and left the compensation at -⅔ stop.

This way the shutter would track the light and my aperture (and thus, flash exposure) would stay put. The ⅔ stop underexposure tracks, too. Now I can concentrate on my photo rather than f/stops and shutter speeds. When we started this set we were about at 1/1000th of a sec on the shutter. Within a few minutes the light had dropped and so had our automatically chosen shutter speed. EXIF records this frame as 1/210th of a sec.

The light was a VAL'D overhead key, upper camera right, with the fill light being low and near my feet from the left. Still using a pair of speedlights in small double-fold umbrellas.

The camera was pretty much pointed due south for the "B" and "C" photos. For the "D" pic seen just below, re rotated 90 degrees and shot from the same field location into the sunset itself:

The angle is really low were. On my belly in the grass, for some depth and foreground interest. Cost me an extra day of allergies. That said, I've laid in worse.

For this shot, it is again a key VAL'd to her face. But the fill is low and camera left, for a couple of reasons. One, it leaves some shadow on her. And two, it lights up the grass in the foreground to leave it more natural looking as compared to a silhouette.

At a 210th of a sec each, these last two photos could have been done with any camera (okay, close enough, Mr. Mk III) and speedlights. These light levels are when speedlights can shine for anyone. But I can report that having the ability to push against actual sun with speedlights in softeners is freakin' awesome.

All told, I am totally ready to use the x100s for lit, day portraits. In fact, next up is a group shot of 8 people in that same field with the sun shining as a rim light from back camera right. Using a few Einsteins in action mode (fast t.1 times, remember) I want to dial down the ambient and overlight them at distance.

Will it work? Probably. But there's only one way to find out.

Next: Evoking Expression


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger ttphone said...

Great work! I did something like this last sunday -only without such great sync speeds, armed with a 5DMKII at its comparatively poor 1/200sec. I used two Metz 40MZ-2 strobes which ran on half power each and of course, had several seconds between shots. I used a polarizer to keep the ambient down, therefore I had to force my lights up a lot. But the cool look of the pics make clear that it was worth it!

June 24, 2013 6:42 AM  
Blogger Don Boys said...

I would like to know if these images are cropped much. I have the x100 which should come close to doing the same, but I tend to stand back to avoid wide angle distortion of the subject. The cropped files then become very small. Understand you have larger files to start.


June 24, 2013 7:07 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Not sure if I know where you are coming from on this one, as a 35mm equivalent is not a lens most people associate with distortion. It's not a close-in portrait lens, as would be, say, a 105mm. But it's field of view is very similar to that of both human eyes working together.

So no, these are not significantly cropped at all. Just compositional trimming, if that.

For reference, to my eye a 105 is good for close in, frame-filling vertical head shots. If you try to do that with a 50, people's faces will look a little distorted (although some photographers use this very well for a very intimate look.) But if you move back to the distance required for a horizontal head shot, a 50 looks flat-out great.

A 35 generally wants to be backed up a bit more -- think portrait with context rather than a tight vertical or horizontal head shot and you'll be fine.

June 24, 2013 8:12 AM  
Blogger alan said...

Great post, as always, David. I never fail to come away with some new information ever time I read your writings. Ever since NPPA in Warwick more years ago than either of us care to remember!

Best, Alan

June 24, 2013 8:44 AM  
Blogger Ian said...


It's the distance that causes the distortion, not the lens. Some photo books say different but they're wrong and it is easy to test.

Where a 35 distorts is when people try to get too close.

Ian Boys

June 24, 2013 8:47 AM  
Blogger AndrewKrajnik said...

Brilliant! Love the variety of looks, and especially appreciate that this was all achieved with a minimal amount of kit...

June 24, 2013 9:26 AM  
Blogger Cameraman said...

I must have missed the first reference to VAL on the boom descriptions. What does that mean?

June 24, 2013 9:43 AM  
Blogger Alfonso A. Tobar said...

LumoPro 180? A typo or you are working with a prototype? Any more info on that? Thank you.

June 24, 2013 9:48 AM  
Blogger Brian Lahue said...

"The key light, a LumoPro LP180, was VAL'd as an overhead boom (another LP605) by Dylan."

Very subtle detail which I skimmed past on the first read there David. LP180 coming soon!?!? Psyched!

June 24, 2013 10:06 AM  
Blogger Felipe Curvello Anciaes said...

Hi, David!
In a similar approach, I've done this: http://500px.com/photo/38375676
But just used a bare ef42.
I could have gone further to get a blue sky, but would not have got the "golden" grass. So, I decided to let it blow out.

June 24, 2013 10:41 AM  
Blogger Scott Gant said...

Just for reference, in case anyone is curious about the sync speeds using Pocket Wizards and the X100s, I've been able to get right up to 1/1000th before the latency of the radio starts to interfere.

Thats for us that have a rather sizable investment in Pocket Wizards and want to know where the "wall" is in relation to the X100s.

June 24, 2013 11:07 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Alfonso and Brian-

Yep, it's not a typo. Said I could say I was testing it but not more than that. ;)

June 24, 2013 11:32 AM  
Blogger Spotpuff said...

I asked him about the LP180 on twitter but he was mum.

June 24, 2013 11:34 AM  
Blogger Dave6163 said...

In pic C, prolly missed this explanation in other posts, tracking the shutter with aperture priority and locking in the ambient with the -2/3 stop [palm knocking off forehead] is great. Many DSLR's sync at 1/250, this technique would still work, but just in a narrower range starting at 1/250 - 1/60ish? The x100s just gives you a higher range to work with?

June 24, 2013 12:03 PM  
Blogger Clement said...

I really love the lighting in the first picture. The sunset gives such a nice edge glow, I love it!
BTW, The PW Plus III can sync all the way to 1/1200th sec in "Tx only" mode and FAST mode on the receiver (it's a very hidden mode).

June 24, 2013 12:03 PM  
Blogger lv pg said...

Wonderful stuff David...but after waiting [now] 6 weeks or more for my copy of an x100s, this simply adds to the frustration.

June 24, 2013 12:56 PM  
Blogger Greg Buffone said...

Would you tell me what VAL'd SB-800 means. I am familiar with the SB-800 but not the term VAL'd. Thanks

June 24, 2013 1:51 PM  
Blogger Nikon Coach said...

@Greg Buffone: VAL = Voice-activated light stand (in other words...someone moving the light stand for you)

A mention of it in a recent post: http://strobist.blogspot.com/2013/05/leaf-shutter-nd-flash-fuji-x100s.html

June 24, 2013 2:06 PM  
Blogger Wing Tang Wong said...

Very interesting. Noticed the "LP180" as well.

Btw, do you happen to know whether the Sony NEX + Zeiss 24mm(which has a leaf shutter) will be able to sync at higher shutter speeds as well?

June 24, 2013 2:10 PM  
Blogger Brad said...

Whoa! The LP180 part stood out like a flash in the dark! Very exciting—looking forward to hearing your thoughts once the embargo is lifted. Love my pair of 160s.

June 24, 2013 2:12 PM  
Blogger Tango Juliet said...

Another very informative post David. I've learned a great deal from you over the last 3-4 years, though I don't get to put it into practice as much as I'd like to. Hopefully doing a shoot soon with my motorcycle and a young lady I get to shoot last year. Not over the top sexiness, but more of the 'Bad-ass Leather-clad Biker Babe'. Taking all my gear ad all your teachings with me to the shoot! Thanks for all you've done so far. Looking forward to much more.

June 24, 2013 2:39 PM  
Blogger dave moser said...

@ "Cameraman," re: your question about VAL -- not sure if David coined this phrase, he may have, but it means VOICE ACTIVATED LIGHTSTAND... i.e., handheld by an assistant.

@Mr. Hobby -- the ubiquitous zack arias talks about using an infrared sync at up to 1/2000th /sec... have you explored that, and if so, why do you prefer the wired version?

Excellent post, THANK YOU

June 24, 2013 3:33 PM  
Blogger PenGun said...

Just one thing. The radio signal is moving faster than the signal in the wire.

Now as to why there may be sync problems with wireless I really don't know. I would suspect clumsy implementation of the hardware interface.

June 24, 2013 3:40 PM  
Blogger Dave-Keller said...

This tip alone “With the sun still a few fingers above the horizon (pro tip: each finger at arms' length = about 15 mins)” was with the post – I had never heard this before.

Fantastic images. Particularly like the first in the post, the color contrast of her dress with the fields, paired with her curves juxtaposed with the natural curves of the land make this a very appealing shot.
Thanks David!

Twitter: @Cahootograph

June 24, 2013 3:55 PM  
Blogger Icepick said...

Thanks for the great post and your attention to technical details. It inspires me to work a little harder at pre-thought and less random shooting.

I hadn't been out to the conservancy in a number of years (since a couple of Eagle scout projects) and you've put it back on my radar. Thanks for that, too!

June 24, 2013 4:05 PM  
Blogger Red Thread Snaps Photography said...

I actually am a huge fan of using my 35 1.4 as a close up portrait lens-as in this example: http://db.tt/VDzW76Lz

I love the sense of intimacy achieved at this distance and focal length.

June 24, 2013 5:38 PM  
Blogger Peter Tran said...


You wrote "The second flash was slaved to the first." How do you do this? Is there a cable from the first flash to the second flash?


June 24, 2013 6:28 PM  
Blogger Mark Adams said...

15 speedlites is equivalent to 1 full McNally. That was rich.
Getting back to basics by watching "Lighting in Layers" on Lynda.com

It's funny how getting back to basics can be so refreshing. Thanks for the lessons.
- Mark

June 24, 2013 7:22 PM  
Blogger Red Thread Snaps Photography said...

Peter, probably an optical slave (flash from wired unit triggers second unit to fire). Almost all hot shoe flashes have this ability.

June 24, 2013 7:42 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I too loved the LP180 drop.

June 24, 2013 9:15 PM  
OpenID schultzphotographic.com said...

I've found that leaving a 1/4CTO gel on my key light gives people too warm of a skin tone on the X100s. It seems the JPG algorithm naturally warms people up!

June 24, 2013 9:17 PM  
Blogger Nullset said...

Hi David,

How do you feel about the x100s vs the X-Pro1 for the type of work you do?

For instance, could you have made the headshots from the "In Camera Veritas" or Rebecca Hargrove posts if you only had the x100s? Or would that force you to rethink your approach?

Thanks for the post. Fast sync looks to be a lot of fun to play with.

June 25, 2013 8:45 AM  
Blogger tapsarautanen said...

Just one remark, I am rather sure that the Pro-Tip about how fast the sun goes down depends on latitude, I live 2 degree North and we don't have this nice light here.

June 25, 2013 11:08 AM  
Blogger kimwoojong@yahoo.com said...

In the main photo, the main light (flash) hitting her biceps and the rim light (sun) hitting her triceps are very contrasting. How much gel would I need to make those colors match? Or would you not do that 'cause it would make her face too red?

June 25, 2013 5:57 PM  
Blogger Steve Loos said...

Thanks for another great post. Question; does the Fuji XM-Pro1 have the same leaf shutter and sync speed capability as the X100s?

June 27, 2013 2:50 AM  
Blogger JS said...

What OCF cord would you recommend to connect to an Einstein, David? Would FlashZebra be a good place, or Amazon. I don't actually know what to look for.

July 09, 2013 1:19 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I have been using an OCF cord (10m YongNuo) that I modded to have a 1/8" on the flash's end. But you could also use a universal translator and a mini-to-mini.

July 09, 2013 2:04 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


No, it does not.

July 09, 2013 2:05 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


A double shot of CTO would probably get you there. And yep, it'd make her face look pretty red.

July 09, 2013 2:05 PM  
Blogger Jorge Arturo said...

Great shoot Mr. Hobby, what like the best is the simple setup and the excellent results, there's no doubt that the electronic shutter is something very helpful and should be implemented in more cameras.

August 22, 2013 7:20 PM  
Blogger Sarkar said...

Hi David,

I started following your blog recently, especially with respect to x100s, and request your helpful comments on specific lighting setup that I am contemplating - using, say a Canon 580exii, with the Fuji x100s by using a hot-shoe adapter and a PC sync cable (like a physically on-camera flash, useful when you have nobody/nothing to hold the flash off-camera).

Here's what I want to do:
- Mount the hot-shoe adapter to the x100s hot shoe
- Mount the 580exii to the hot-shoe adapter
- Connect a PC sync cable from the hot-shoe adapter to the 580exii
- Trigger the flash manually

If you think this should work, what are the components to get?
Can this setup sync the flash at its max speed (as opposed to limitations imposed on sync speed by some wireless triggers)?

best regards,

September 17, 2013 5:08 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home