Hensel claims that their Cito 500 is the fastest flash in the world with a flash duration of 1/100,000th of a second. This is so fast that it can "freeze" a bullet mid flight. We decided to put this sales pitch to the test and set up a shoot with some live ammunition.
Most photographers have seen the classic picture with an apple exploding immediately after a bullet has passed through it. The ultimate goal of our shoot was to recreate a similar but better looking set of images that froze bullets in mid-air after passing through various objects, assuming the Cito 500 was actually capable of freezing the action. I knew this shoot would be complicated from the beginning and while I had a specific vision in mind for what the final images would look like, things didn't quite turn out like I hoped.
Setting up the Shoot
Timing a picture to go off at the exact moment a bullet is traveling through frame somewhere around 2,500 feet per second is a tricky task. Trying to do this manually would be just about impossible. The best way to capture movement like that is to use a trigger system. While there are several options out there that would work, we decided to try the TriggerSmart. One of the ways the TriggerSmart can set off a camera or flash is by using an infrared transmitter and receiver facing each other. The moment something passes between the infrared beam and breaks it, a signal is sent to your camera or flash to fire. The TriggerSmart comes with the ability to set a delay on the trigger as well which can work in microseconds, theoretically allowing you to perfectly time an action after the infrared beam is broken.
For our purposes, the bullet leaving the gun would need to be the object that interrupted the infrared beam. Trying to trigger a camera was out of the question because, by the time the camera opened the shutter, the bullet would already be well out of frame. Instead, the TriggerSmart would need to trigger the flash itself while an image was already being captured. This meant that we would have to work in the dark to remove all ambient light, leave our shutter open for a couple seconds while the gun was shot, and let the flash alone expose the image. Sounds simple enough, right?
When it came to the guns and the gun range, we have to thank the historical gun experts over at C&Rsenal for providing and shooting the guns. C&S Shooting Sports offered to stay open after hours so we could have free access to their gun range in a safe environment.
Ready, Aim, Fire
Setting up the shot was simple enough in theory, but it proved a little more difficult in practice. The first obstacle was to find the bullet in the frame. We set up the IR triggers, flash, camera, a target for the shooter, and turned off the lights. Our first big issue was hitting the target in the dark. We set up some small ambient lights for the marksman to give him a visual of his targets and sights and began shooting.
We used two cameras shooting at 2", f8, and ISO 1600. The Cito 500 was set to its lowest power giving it the fastest flash duration possible with a power output close to that of a speedlight around 1/128. One of the cameras was triggered with a CamRanger remotely and the other was triggered manually from beside the marksman. Every shot had to work together perfectly. The marksman had to line up his aim, the camera's shutters had to be opened right before he pulled the trigger, the bullet had to successfully break the IR beam to trigger the flash, and the bullet had to hit the target.
After a lot of finessing our setup and quite a few attempts triggering everything successfully, we were able to capture a fairly sharp bullet in frame.
Once we had acheived a picture with a bullet in it, the next issue we ran into was the inconsistency with the bullet's location, which we think was due to different bullet speeds, a difference in triggering time due to muzzle flash, or a combination of both.
One of the features of the Cito 500 is a rapid succession of up to 40 flashes per second which we used to help us track the bullet's location and capture the action of the target after it had been hit.
While our initial plans were to narrow down our shot to a specific bullet location, then set up a more attractive lighting setup and use different targets, we only partially completed the first step. Inconsistencies with triggering everything perfectly with the marksman and the bullet's location in the frame when everything was properly triggered took up most of our available time at the range. By the time we had narrowed down our shot and were capturing a bullet in frame every image, our time had expired. Although I believe we could have set up better lighting, a better backdrop, and gotten some killer final images, it would have probably taken another 4-6 hours of shooting to get the shots which were in my head. This time was unfortunately not available to us.
Despite not being able to get the images we were hoping to, our test did successfully prove that the Hensel Cito 500 has a fast enough flash duration to freeze the action of a speeding bullet in frame.
Flash Duration Comparison
Although it is pretty impressive that the Cito 500 can freeze the action of a bullet, it's not that often that photographers are doing shoots with subjects moving that fast. Once we were back in the studio, we decided to put the flash duration of the Cito 500 to the test against a simple speedlight, the Nikon Sb-800. In order to compare the power vs. flash duration between the two, we popped water balloons to see what action we could freeze.
For the first test, we set both the speedlight and the Cito 500 to their lowest power, which offers their fastest fast duration. As you can see below from the Speedlight image and the Cito 500 image, there doesn't seem to be too much loss in sharpness or motion blur between the two popping balloons.
Camera Settings: 1", F8, ISO 400
The Cito 500 offers more power than the speedlight, so we added seven more stops to each one (the Cito 500 had one extra stop of power above that we didn't test) and compared the flash duration at a much higher power output. As you can see, the flash duration of the Cito 500 starts to shine at higher power with some motion blur present but much less than the speedlight.
Camera Settings: 1", F22, ISO 100
As well as a fast flash duration, the Cito 500 also offers a fast recycle time. At the lowest power, it can get off up to 40 flashes in a second and at full power, at least two flashes in a second. We tested this feature against a speedlight by opening up our shutter to 0.5 seconds in our studio. Again, the speedlight seemed to almost keep up at the lowest power setting. Once you turn the power all the way up though, the speedlight can only get off one shot every four seconds or so.
Camera Settings: 0.5", F8, ISO 400
If you are trying to freeze motion, from our tests, there is little argument that you can get the fastest flash duration from the Cito 500. Even the major competitor from Profoto, the D2, only boasts its fastest flash duration at 1/63,000th of a second. From a practical standpoint though, it's worth discussing the value in this fast flash duration. It's very rare that a photo shoot requires the speed of a bullet to be captured and paying $4,980 for the Cito 500 may not be worth the expense when it's possible to get similar results at low power from a $100 speed light. Now, if your shoots do require you to have a higher power output, perhaps the extra power and fast flash duration from the Cito 500 might be helpful, but again, those kinds of shoots aren't that common making this a pretty specialized unit.
While we're discussing value, it's also worth mentioning some of the other features of the Cito 500 that makes it worth considering. Like most studio strobes, the Cito 500 comes with a modeling light that can be adjusted proportionally to flash power or set at full power. In addition, the unit comes with a remote trigger that can be operated from your camera. One of the more unique features is the built in flash sequence the Cito 500 offers. When firing the strobe, you can program how many flashes go off after a single trigger and how long the delay is between flashes. This can be particularly helpful for capturing a sequence of action with a single shot.
With everything laid out on the table, the unique features of this strobe seem to be for a particular set of photographers. If you are a studio photographer that deals with extremely fast movement, have a need for very fast recycle time, or have a reason to pre program a flash sequence, this strobe offers you all those things at the highest power possible. However, if you're willing to compromise just a little bit on those things, it's possible to achieve very similar results with a much cheaper price tag.
What I Liked
- Fast flash duration, enough to freeze the action of a bullet
- Fast recycle time
- Programmable flash sequence
- Sturdy, well built
- Intuitive panel controls
What Could Be Improved
- High price tag
- Heavy, not ideal for moving around
The Hensel Cito 500 is available at $4,980.
Just think about how many $100 speedlights you could combine to get even greater output than the Cito for a fraction of the price!
I don't know the purpose of this flash after playing with it for a week but there is a point of diminishing returns. At the lowest power settings on both units, they were both about the same power and the speedlight's flash duration would stop most things. I can't think of many things that need more than 1/40,000th of a second flash duration but if you do need that you prob need more than 1/128th power.
That being said, if you needed say 1/4 power, I don't think you could buy enough speedlights to make that happen. 1 would give you the 1/128. Two would give you 1/64. 4 would give you 1/32. 8 would be 1/16. It would take 16 to give you 1/4th. Then the question would be can you still get the same speed duration while firing 16 speedlights at 1/128th power? Probably not as I'm sure you would get blurry images.
http://prismscience.com/spot.php - The EG&G Microflash, The PrestoFlash, PalFlash. All faster. All been around for years. Sigh.... Oh, and use a ballistics sensor for ballistics - Cognisys Stopshot, Mumford Time Machine, even the lowly Camera Axe has one. Precise location of triggering, regardless of projectile velocity.
Thank you for your review of Hensel’s Cito 500 strobe head. I noticed that some of the readers didn’t understand what the purpose of the Cito 500. It is designed to be able to take rapid strobe shots constantly day in and day out. One of the markets the Cito 500 serves is in doing beverage work where freezing liquid droplets is critical the client’s needs. Another application for this strobe is in amusement parks. One of Disney’s theme parks has a roller coaster in which each occupant in a car has their picture taken just as they descend the largest drop on the ride. At the end of the ride occupants can see and order their pictures from an electronic kiosk. Hensel’s Speedmax, the previous version of the Cito 500, has been doing this day in day out for well over a decade with zero down time (except to change flash tubes every year or two). Finally, the Cito 500 is also used extensively in industrial work where manufactures have to precisely time RPMs on various types of machines and require a device that will constantly monitor their performance.
While I too like speed lights for their convenience and portability, comparing a speed light with a studio strobe for this type of work results the law of diminishing returns. For instance, Nikon’s SB-500 puts out about 50 Ws of stored energy at maximum power. Flash duration is 1/980s and recycling time is 1.8s which corresponds to .55 flashes per second (slightly less then 2 flashes a second). At 50 Ws Hensel’s Cito 500 has a flash duration of 1/20,000 s and can fire 10 flashes per second, continuously… Speedlights are wonderful for freezing motion in macro photography but quickly run out of juice and power when doing continuous work with fast cameras. We all know what happens to speedlights when we try to push them to do this type of work, they overheat and drain batteries very quickly.
Today’s speedlights are fantastic instruments for photographers on the road and less demanding jobs. But they can’t replace a truly professional flash in terms of speed (!), reliability and versatility.
Looks like a pretty cool light. That's a crazy fast flash duration. Nice review David!