Are Leaf Shutter Lenses Better Than HSS and HS?

Are Leaf Shutter Lenses Better Than HSS and HS?

In the past few years, flash manufacturers have put a lot of efforts to let cameras’ x-sync fade into obsolescence. However, the current solutions are not perfect and aren’t always intuitive to use for non-tech-savvy photographers. In 2016, I made a comparison between Hi-Sync and HSS. Since then, I have had the chance to play with a Phase One XF and give the beautiful Schneider Kreuznach leaf shutter lenses a try. With more experience using Hi-Sync as well, I thought a follow-up article was well overdue. So let’s dive in and see what solutions are currently available to go past the x-sync limitation.

While my previous post was a bit too technical for many, I’ll try my best to keep this one somewhat understandable even for less geeky photographers. In the flash market, we can notice two growing trends. One is creating TTL flashes that basically work similarly to a hot shoe flash and offer HSS, and the other is the traditional studio flash with Hi-Sync capability.

I reckon the difference between HSS and HS (short for HyperSync or Hi-Sync) is mind boggling for many. Two almost identical acronyms but two very distinct technologies. Both are meant to go past the x-sync limitation of a camera and both require access to the flash triggering information from the camera. However, that’s about all they have in common. In short, HSS mimics continuous light by pulsing the flash extremely fast. On the other hand, HS uses a precise synchronization to trigger the flash right before the first curtain opens so that the high point of the curve shows while the sensor is recording the image.

HSS is probably the easiest one to setup and exploit. It simply works like any hot-shoe flash would but with the benefit of more power. However, it comes with a considerable downside: a significant power loss. With Hi-Sync (HS), you must have a tube that has a long flash duration for best result (color and exposure consistency), you may also have to adjust a setting known as ODS to get the most out of your flash. While not utterly complicated, it’s not as simple as what Profoto implemented on their TTL units. But the huge advantage of HS over HSS is that the power loss is extremely minimal, turning small and light units such as the Elinchrom ELB 400 into powerful enough strobes to overpower the sun.

Shot mid-afternoon with a single ELB 400 and a Deep Octa 100cm, using Hi-Sync to overpower the ambient light.

But if you read the other post, you already know all this. So let’s add more information now. In the medium format (and Fuji) world, some lenses are described as leaf shutter lenses. They are exactly like your standard DSLR glass except they have a shutter mechanism built in.

Due to the way it works, leaf shutter allows for a flash sync across the whole range of shutter speed it offers. Most Schneider Kreuznach lenses for the Phase One XF system will go as fast as 1/1,600 s, while the latest Hasselblad HC lenses can achieve 1/2,000 s. On paper, it’s nowhere near the 1/8,000 s HS and HSS can accomplish. Although it may be enough to freeze some action or have more control over the ambient light, it surely won’t replace a very short flash duration for liquids or sports photography. In the real world, however, the story is a bit different. It may not be as great in terms of specs as HS or HSS, but the ease of use is simply second to none. No need to set anything particular on your camera or your flash. It simply works straight out of the box.

Well… at least that’s what I thought before trying it for myself. It is that easy, but you still have to consider your flash duration. See, if you try to use a unit producing a long flash duration, you may not have the same result as with a faster unit in terms of exposure. Because the shutter speed can be faster than the flash duration, the sensor won’t take advantage of the full spectrum produced by the flash. That may lead to color and power inconsistencies. The difference despite being barely noticeable when I tested it, it was still enough that I reckon a fashion photographer shooting a look book or a still life photographer using focus stacking would quickly become annoyed. Though I believe most photographers getting into medium format and shooting with leaf shutter lenses will have the budget to replace their flash system and invest in faster units such as Elinchrom ELC Pro HD or even Broncolor Scoro S.

Leaf shutter lenses are not based on some radio transmitter or flash technology. At least in theory. That was another one of my surprises when playing with a Phase One XF for the first time. I used my ELB 400 along with my Skyport HS, but totally forgot to change the sync mode of my Skyport HS. In Normal mode, the signal is encrypted and thus takes a little bit more time to trigger the flash, limiting the flash sync to 1/200 s. In Speed mode, however, the limit is much higher and allows for a sync speed of over 1/1,000 s. Once the mode was changed, everything worked perfectly, but that’s something to keep in mind if your transmitter is old or doesn’t go above 1/200 s. It might be the bottleneck of your system and require an upgrade.

Shot with a Phase One XF IQ1 100MP and Schneider Kreuznach 150mm f/3.5 LS, with flash sync at 1/1,600 s.

So, are the leaf shutter lenses any better than HS and HSS? I wish the answer were simple, but it’s not. If you have powerful flash units with a short flash duration, the power and color consistency will not be a concern at all and, in my experience, the system will be more reliable and easier to operate than HS or HSS. But that’s not it. Leaf shutter lenses use an extremely refined mechanism, so before you smash a lens on the ground, make sure it’s insured, or you will be in for a very costly repair. This brings us to the cost of the lenses themselves. Phase One Schneider Kreuznach lenses retail for over $5,000-6,000 USD while the Hasselblad HC are available for $3,500-5,500 USD. Compare that to a single $300 USD remote that can work with any of your current lenses and make the calculation yourself. Granted, medium format lenses are huge, have more glass, and are probably amongst the most beautiful pieces of equipment a photographer could dream of owning. But for 90 percent of the photographers out there, it’s still that: a dream. With that said, the cost doesn’t make the leaf shutter lenses less good than HSS or HS. It’s just something to consider when getting into medium format for the higher sync capabilities.

If money were not a concern, I’d probably concede that the leaf shutter system is the easiest solution to go above the traditional 1/200 s sync limit. However, for most photographers, it’s currently not an option due to the cost of the systems that can support such lenses — unless you can shoot film or everything with a Fuji X100. Medium format is magical (more on that in a following article), but it’s an investment and not one to do lightly. For now, HS and HSS are still the less costly options and a great alternative to ND filters, which can make focusing challenging and give a color cast to images. While HSS is a bit easier to use, HS is the best technique when power is paramount.

Since my last article nothing really new showed up on the market. However, Canon did announce they were working on a CMOS sensor with a global shutter. It could be a significant game changer for artificial light photographers on a budget and a lot fewer troubles for flash manufacturers. I imagine the ease of use and possible issues would be similar to that of a leaf shutter lenses, minus the cost of having to invest in a medium format system. Without a doubt, global shutters will make a difference in the photography and videography market, but until then, as photographers, both HS and HSS are attractive alternatives that work well.

I would love to hear about your experiences with HSS, Hi-Sync, or leaf shutter lenses. What is your preferred technique to go above 1/250s when shooting with flash? If you money were not an issue and you could buy any system (flash and camera) you wanted, what would you get and why?

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Quentin Décaillet is a photographer and retoucher based in Switzerland specializing in portrait and wedding photography.

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Bonjour du Québec, Quentin, j'apprécie toujours tes articles techniques sur Fstoppers qui parlent de technologie de flash.

I personally invested in 2 systems :

Canon RT with the 600EX-RTs. I love them and think they work like a charm, but of course the lack of power, particularly in HSS mode hurts the system. I was wishing for a battery operated monolight that could integrate into that system and got what I wished for with the Phottix Indra500LC but I wanted something before it was announced so I invested in...

Elinchrom ELB400 with HS heads. I am falling in love more and more with it. I just found it was not thhe best to light anything in studio if the light is falling on a background because of some gradients. Otherwise, it is absolutely awesome and I ordered the Action Head also, but they are supposed to get to Canada in February. On Canon, the setup for Hi-Sync is simple as hell and works like a charm for me, even with no ODS setup.


by gradients, do you mean that you can visually see the effect of the flash pulses in cast shadows or on continuous tone backgrounds?

No, I was refering to the Hi-Sync method, not the HSS (flash pulse method), which I find to give very consistent results on backgrounds.

Oh - I see. Sorry, misread your comment. I think I know what you mean.

Merci Guy :) In my opinion, you made a better choice going with the ELB 400. The Indra500 is an excellent piece of equipment as well, but it uses HSS just like your Canon 600EX, and at full power, in HSS it won't match the power you get out of your ELB 400. If ODS is not required on your camera bodies, then you've got the best setup possible (leaf shutter aside).
Just like Mike, though, I'm wondering what the gradients that you are having are? Do you shoot with a Mola? All shots in the article above were captured using ELB400 (HS and Pro heads), but none had any issue.

Some of the gradients I've seen are on close one color backgrounds. It might have been user error, though. I had the problem a bit more with the RX4s, but they aren't exclusively made for Hi-Sync.

I still feel that the HSS (pulse method) might be a bit more consistent when you are shooting in close, in studio.

Unfortunately, I don't have the photos anymore since I deleted them on the spot. I was lighting a headshot and some of the light was spilling on the close dark background intentionally.

The Dlite RX4 should work perfectly with Hi-Sync, but you may need to adjust the ODS ;)

That's why I said HSS is easier to use. You don't have to adjust any setting such as ODS, don't have to worry or know if your strobe has a flash duration long enough for your shutter speed. It's all comes down to power vs. ease of use in the HS vs HSS battle… at least for now!

I am still sold on the ELB400. I even modified a Phottix Indra adapter for stand (the one that lets you fix the battery on a stand) for my ELB.

I ordered 2 Action Heads that I am waiting for right now. I have the feeling this system is going to be my workhorse for years to come.

Same here. Love my two ELB400, and actually sold a Profoto B1 to get back into the Elinchrom system (not a fan of the B1 form factor, all weight on top of the light stand is recipe for disaster on location).

If you have any interest in it, here's what the ELB400 looks like when mounted on a stand with the Phottix Indra adapter.

The original strap on the adapter is not wide enough for the ELB400, but I had it changed and it works really well.

I know that there is also the ProMediaGear cage which is interesting, but it adds a lot to the size of the ELB and the case I use to transport them is pretty tight so I went with this more or less creative option.

What an excellent article! I struggle with light so much and this is written perfectly. I'm even deciphering the comments (so far) as little learning elements. Thanks for including a link to your older article; I'll be reading it... You mention the technical aspect of your first article; I'm sure it's not that bad- readers simply need to focus more- not everything is "plug and play", or "turn key" in nature, nor should they be. I mean, where's the fun of the "I get it" moment in that? haha... Once again, great article!

I hope you don't mind a small correction. On the EL Skyport HS transmitter, it is not called "Plus" mode, it is called "speed" mode, when using with Leaf Shutter lenses, and you will know that you're in speed mode because the screen will turn backlit red.

Thanks Gary, you're totally right about the speed mode. Just made the correction ;) At least, now I know someone fully read the article :P

Leaf shutters are precisely why I advocated for a "Fuji X-200" with a 28-70 mm effective zoom lens. I would have a very effective FL range and full flash sync for the vast bulk of work I do.

I used Hasselblad 500Cs in the 70's and 80's and loved setting the EV on the lens and being able to adjust the aperture for the flash and know that the shutter speed would be compensated for perfect fill every time.

One of the reasons the Sigma DP series are pretty great for strobe users, a choice of focal ranges from 14, 19, 30 and 50mm all with leaf shutters and the Foveon sensor delivering great color and detail at base iso that is only matched with the best DSLR body/lens combo.

Sadly most people never give them a chance :)

Dp0 (14mm f4) at 1/400

When reading and watching reviews of the DP2 Quattro, it doesn't really make anyone want to buy it…

Hey Quentin, quick question. On the shot of the girl with the umbrella, are those stars in the sky or some other illusion? Photoshop?

Stars, but added in Photoshop :) As the shot was captured mid-afternoon, it would have been complicated to make it in camera.

Awesome, that what I figured. Thanks for the response! I just got an ELB 400 HS kit after reading your review, once it warms up here in Alaska I'll be putting it through its paces. :)

We will get one of the first samples of this baby:

Lets see what is possible with the HSS mode

It's not HSS but HyperSync (HS). But quite interesting unit on paper. That'd be the first strobe offering HS and TTL to my knowledge.

This is a fantastic article. I am always second guessing myself. I switched to the Elinchrom D-Lite from Einsteins. So far I am very pleased. Skyport HS is infinitely better than the Cyber Commander to control multiple lights. I have 7 D-Lites. I shoot high volume and on location 90% of the time. Just can't justify buying the ELB-400 when the D-Lite and a vagabond is half the price. Thanks again, keep us up to date Quentin!