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.
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.
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?