Flash Duration – How Fast Can We Go

Flash duration – how long the burst of photons from flash actually lasts, does seem to get a lot of people confused.

Earlier this year I posted an article on using flash HERE where the prime function of the flash was as a fill light. As a fill, flash should not be obvious in the images, as the main lighting is still the ambient light from the sun, and we’re just using the flash to “tickle” the foreground with a little extra light.

D4R9236 Flash Duration   How Fast Can We Go

Flash as “fill” where the main lighting is still ambient daylight, and a moderate shutter speed is all that’s required. 1/800th sec @ f8 is plenty good enough for this shot.

Taking pictures is NEVER a case of just “rocking up”, seeing a shot and pressing the shutter; for me it’s a far more complex process whereby there’s a possible bucket-load of decisions to be made in between the “seeing the shot” bit and the “pressing the shutter” bit.

My biggest influencers are always the same – shutter speed and aperture, and the driving force behind these two things is light, and a possible lack thereof.

Once I make the decision to “add light” I then have to decide what role that additional light is going to take – fill, or primary source.

Obviously, in the shot above the decision was fill, and everything was pretty straight forward from there on, and aperture/shutter speed  selection is still dictated by the ambient lighting – I use the flash as a “light modifier”.

The duration of the flash is controlled by the TTL metering system and it’s duration is fairly irrelevant.

Let’s take a look at a different scenario.

WIP00029346 ppe Flash Duration   How Fast Can We Go

The lovely Jo doing her 1930’s screen icon “pouty thing”. Flash is the ONLY light source in this image. 1/250th @ f9 ISO 100.

In this shot the lighting source is pure flash.  There’s very little in the way of ambient light present in this dark set, and what bit there is was completely over-powered by the flash output – so the lighting from the Elinchrom BX 500 monoblocks being used here is THE SOLE light source.

Considerations over the lighting itself are not the purpose of this post – what we are concerned with here are the implications for shutter speed due to flash synchronization.

The flash units were the standard type of studio flash unit offering no TTL interface with the camera being used, so it’s manual everything!

But the exposure in terms of shutter speed is capped at 1/250th of a second due to the CAMERA – that is it’s highest synch speed.

The focal length of the lens is 50mm so I need to shoot at around f8 or f9 to obtain workable depth of field, so basic exposure settings are dictated.  This particular shot was achieved by balancing the light-to-subject distance along the lines of the inverse square law for each light.

But from the point of view of this post the big consideration is this – can I afford to have movement in the subject?

At 1/250th sec you’d think not.  Then you’d think “hang on, flash durations are a lot faster than that” – so perhaps I can…..or can I ?

Flash Duration & Subject Movement

Flash duration, in terms of action-stopping power, is not as simple or straight forward as you might think.

Consider the diagram below:

Flash1 900x542 Flash Duration   How Fast Can We Go

Flash Power Output curve plotted against Output duration (time).

The grey shaded area in the diagram is the “power output curve’ of the flash.

Most folk think that a flash is an “instant on, instant off” kind of thing – how VERY wrong they are!

When we set the power output on either the back panel of our SB800/580EX etc, or on the power pack of a studio flash unit, or indeed any other flash unit, we are setting a peak output limit.

We might set a Nikon SB800 to 1/4 power, or we might set channel B output on a Quadra Ranger to 132Watt/sec, but either way, we are dictating the maximum flash output power – the peak output limit. The “t 5 time” – or to be more correct the “t 0.5 time” is the total time duration where the flash output is at 50% or above of the selected peak output limit we set.

Just to clarify: we set say, 1/4th power output on the back of a Canon 580EX – this is the selected peak output limit. The t5 time for this is the total time duration where the light output is at or above 50% of that selected 1/4th power – NOT 50% of the flash units full power output – do not get confused over this!

So when it comes to total “light emission duration” we’ve got 3 different ways of looking at things:

  1. Total – and I mean TOTAL – duration; the full span of the output curve.
  2. T 0.5 – the duration of the flash where its output is at 50% or above that level set by the user – the peak output limit.
  3. T 0.1 – the duration of the flash where its output is at 10% or above that level set by the user.

Anyone looking at the diagram above can see that the total output emission time/flash duration is A LOT LONGER than the t5 time.  Usually you find that t5 times are somewhere around 1/3rd of the total emission time, or flash duration.

Getting back to our shot of Jo above, if my memory serves me correctly the BX heads I used for the shot had a t5 time of around 1/1500th sec.  So the TOTAL duration of the flash output would be around 1/500th sec.

So I can’t afford to have any movement in the subject that isn’t going to be arrested by 1/500th sec flash duration, let alone the 1/250th shutter speed.

Why? Well that 1/250th sec the shutter is open will comprise of 1/500th sec of flash photons entering the lens, and 1/500th sec of NOTHING entering the lens but AMBIENT LIGHT photons.

Let us break flash output down a bit more:

In the previous article I mentioned, I quoted a table of Nikon SB800 duration times.  At the top of the table was the SB800 1/1 or full output power flash duration.  All times quoted in that table were t5 times.

The one I want to concentrate on is that 1/1 full power t5 time of 1/1050th sec.

Even though Nikon try to tempt you into believing that the flash only emits light for 1/1050th sec it does in fact light the scene for a full 1/350th sec – most flash manufacturers units are quoted as t5 times.

Now in most cases when you might employ flash – which let’s face it, is as some sort of fill light in a general ambient/flash mixed exposure, this isn’t in reality, a big problem.  Reduced power multiple pulse AutoFP/HSS also makes it not a problem.

But if you are trying to stop high speed action – in other words “freeze time”, then it can become a major headache; especially when you need all the flash power you can get hold of.

Why? Let’s break the diagram above down to basics.

Flash1a1 900x542 Flash Duration   How Fast Can We Go

The darker shaded area represents the “tail” of the flash output – the area that can cause many problems when trying to stop high speed action.

  • The first 50% of the total light output is over and finished in the first 1/1050th of the total flash duration.
  • The other 50% of the total light output takes place over a further 1/525th sec, and is represented by the dark grey area – let’s call this area the flash “output tail”.  Some publications & websites refer to this tail as after-glow.  I always thought that ‘after glow” was something ladies did after a certain type of energetic activity!
  • The light will continue to decay for a full 1/525th sec after t5, until the output of light has died down to 0% and the full “burn time” of 1/350th sec has been reached.

That’s right – 1/1050th + 1/525th = 1/350th.

So, if our shutter speed is 1/350th sec or longer we are going to see some ghosting in our image caused by the movement of the subject during that extra 1/525th sec post t5 time.

I need to point out that most speedlight type flash units are “isolated-gate bipolar transistor” devices – that’s IGBT to you and me. Einstein studio flash units are also IGBT units – I’ll cover the implications of this in a later post, but for now you just need to know that the IGBT circuitry works to eliminate sub t5 output BUT doesn’t work if your speedlight is set to output at maximum power.  And if you need access to full 1/1 power with your speedlights for any reason then IGBT won’t help you.

Let’s see the problem in action as it were:

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A bouncing golf ball shot at 1/250th sec using full power output on an SB800.
The ball is moving UPWARDS.
The blur between points A & B are caused by the “tail” or “after-glow” of the flash.

And the problem will be further exacerbated if there is ANY ambient light in scene from a window for instance, as this will boost the general scene illumination during that “tail end” 1/525th sec.

We might be well advised, if using any form of non-TTL flash mode, to use a shutter speed equal to, or shorter in duration to the t5 time, as in the shot below:

D4R1878 Edit 900x715 Flash Duration   How Fast Can We Go

A bouncing golf ball shot at 1/2000th sec using full power output on an SB800.

All I’ve done in this second shot is go -3Ev on the shutter speed, +1Ev on the aperture and +2Ev on ISO speed.

Don’t forget, the flash is in MANUAL mode with a full power output.

With the D4 in front-curtain synch the full power, 1/350th sec flash pulse begins as the front shutter curtain starts to move, and it “burns” continuously while the 1/2000th sec “letter-box” shutter-slot travels across the sensor.

In both shots you may be wondering how I triggered the exposure. Sitting on the desk you can see a small black box with a jack plug sticking out the back – this is the audio sensor of a TriggerSmart audio/light/Infra Red combined trigger system.  As the golf ball strikes the desk the audio sensor picks up the noise and the control box triggers the camera shutter and hence the flash.

Hardy, down at the distributors,Flaghead, has been kind enough to send me one of these systems for incorporation into some long-term photography projects, and in a series of high speed flash workshops and training tutorials.  And I have to say that I’m mighty impressed with the system, and at the retail pricing point ownership of this product is a no-brainer.  The unit is going to feature in quite a few blog post in the near-future, but click HERE to email Hardy for more details.

Even though I constantly extol the virtues of the Nikon CLS system, there comes a time when its automatic calculations fight AGAINST you – and easy high speed photography becomes something of a chore.

Any form of flash exposure automation makes assumptions about what you are trying to do.  In certain circumstances these assumptions are pretty much correct.  But in others they can be so far wide of the mark that if you don’t turn the automation OFF you’ll never get the shot you want.

Wresting full control over speed lights from the likes of Nikons CLS gives you access to super-highspeed flash durations AND high shutter speeds without a lot of the synching problems incurred with studio monoblocks.

D4R2391 Edit 900x596 Flash Duration   How Fast Can We Go

Liquid in Motion – arrested at 1/8000th sec shutter speed using SB800’s at full 1/1 power.

D4R2391 Edit 3 Flash Duration   How Fast Can We Go

Liquid in Motion – arrested at 1/8000th sec shutter speed using SB800’s at full 1/1 power. A 100% crop from the shot above.

D4R2375 Edit 900x900 Flash Duration   How Fast Can We Go

“Scotch & Rocks All Over The Place”
Simple capture with manual speed lights at full power and 1/8000th shutter speed.

The shots above are all taken with 2x SB800s lighting the white background and 1 heavily defused SB800 acting as a top light.

One background light is set at 1/1 manual FP, the other to manual 1/1 SU-4 remote.  The top light is set to 1/8 power SU-4 remote.

The majority light in the shot is in fact that white background – it’s punching light back through the glass and liquid splash – the subject is backlit.

So, that background is being lit for a full 1/350th of a second.

But shooting in front curtain synch I’m using 1/8000th sec as a shutter speed, an exposure duration 3 stops shorter than the flash unit t5 time for full power. So in effect I’m using the combined background flash units as a very short-term continuous light source which lasts for 1/350th of a second, but the camera is only recording the very first 1/8000th sec – in other words, photons are still leaving the flash AFTER the rear shutter curtain has closed and the exposure is finished.

Finally, the shutter and flash are triggered by dropping the faux crushed ice through the IR sensor beam of the TriggerSmart unit.

This is very much along the lines of what’s termed HYPERSYNCH – a technique you can use with conventional slow burn studio flash units and certain types of 3rd party trigger units such as Pocket Wizards – but that’s yet another story, and is fraught with synch problems that you have program out of the system using the Pocket Wizard utility.

So, there’s more to come from me about flash in future posts, but for now just remember – there’s not a lot you can’t do with speed lights – as long as you’ve got enough of the little darlings!

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