ND Filters Versus High-Speed Sync: Which Is Right for Your Photography?

When you're just starting with artificial lighting, one of the first things you'll run into is the issue of sync speed. There are a couple ways around this, and this helpful video talks about them.

Coming to you from Manny Ortiz, this great video discusses using ND filters versus a flash with high-speed sync. The problem is that most cameras can only shoot with flash up to a certain shutter speed, normally somewhere around 1/250 s. Because of this, if you want to shoot at wide apertures, you'll frequently end up overexposing, particularly when outdoors. There are two ways around this: using an ND filter to cut down the exposure (and adjusting the flash power accordingly) or using a strobe system with high-speed sync (or some brand's variation on it). I generally prefer a light with high-speed sync simply because it's one less thing to worry about and it's easier to focus without an ND filter on the lens. It's not perfect; you sometimes risk slightly uneven exposures (though I've truly never noticed this) or reduced power range, all depending on the manufacturer-specific version, but it fits my needs. But if you're shooting video or also doing long exposures, you might prefer an ND filter (or both for different applications). Check out the video above for more. 

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13 Comments

Both work and I choose the horse for the course. Using a Polarizer sometimes, to cut down skin shine and other reflections, helps address the problem as well.

Chris Slasor's picture

High Speed Sync does hammer your batteries a lot more. You can get a LOT more shots from a standard flash and an ND than HSS and a high shutter speed. #justsaying

Alex Cooke's picture

True, though I've never felt pressured to get the shot by the battery life I get with HSS.

michael andrew's picture

There are also a handful of affordable leaf shutter cameras (I have the Fuji x100t with the tele adapter 50mm f2) so you can get pretty fast shutter speeds to sync. Just another option.

Well, if you just prefer a camera that happens to have that. I can't imagine carrying an extra camera and lenses just for those situations.

michael andrew's picture

certain professionals purchase systems for tens of thousands of dollars specifically for this function. That’s not imaginable, it’s real. I’m not one of them nor do I have a horse in that race. I’m just stating what’s possible.

You cannot use HSS to light anything further than a few feet away (ie: a single person portrait).

Need to light a group in bright conditions, HSS is so inefficient you make as well not even use a light.

I have had a hard time
Making a Profoto b1 work with a modifier at f8-f9 full power in large groups when the light is bright enough. In that case I got the Fuji, the way I get “more power” from the B1 as I can shoot at f5.6 1/2000th and the flash is now 3-4 times more “powerful” ratio wise than my DSLR with a 1/200th sync speed.

I rarely shoot large groups and never in that kind of situation so...lesson learned. :-)

Remy Musser's picture

Neither, Fujifilm x100 series with leaf shutter!

RICKY LIN's picture

how about power setting on strobe? I have found that for HSS, I need to crank up my power setting on strobe to one to two stops comparing to using ND filter, does everybody having the same experience?

michael andrew's picture

Yes this is normal, you are paying for the function In power and battery

I'm still trying to figure all this out but, after watching this video, I'm going to give more serious consideration to HSS. It's simple: an ND filter brings everything down, both ambient and flash/strobe. As a result, you have to push the power ratio up and there goes your batteries.

In the meantime, too, for those of us using DSLR's, the ND filter is going to darken the viewfinder! Now what happens to your shoot? Frame the shot, screw on the filter, calculate the exposure settings, take the shot, chimp the results, repeat? Nope. Your model/subject will punch out long before all that's going to happen effectively.

I'll have ND filters around to use for what they are good for. As for managing the balance between ambient and flash, it looks like HSS is going to be the way to go.

Loughton Smith's picture

I still use ND filters with an old school studio strobe. I only own 82mm filters, so with most lenses, I can just use an 82mm (or larger) hood to avoid flare. Hoods are cheap these days (knock-offs). Of course, I could invest in a HSS strobe like the Profoto, but who’s got $2000 lying around?

Yes...I know that there are less expensive Chinese strobes, but I would rather rely on a light made by a company that can back up their product. You ever try contacting one of those Chinese companies for service? It’s difficult to get parts and replacement flash tubes. I’ll stick with my old school lights...

Travis Harris's picture

Hey guys! I had a thought and would love some feedback. We all know (or should know) that HSS is not very efficient for any lighting system. It has to pluse the strobe and you loose a ton of power. (a few stops in some cases). But, depending on what your doing it may work fine. So, in other words a full power POP under normal sync is "x" and say, a full power pop with HSS is "y", and that later value depends on how fast the shutter is moving (you loose more light the faster you go). So, if we talk about max shutter as a worse case, (1/8000) I wonder if it maybe in fact better to use a ND and keep the sync of the camera back to native, and see if in fact you can squeeze more output from the strobe on the subject at full power. Does this make sense? So, I guess what I would like someone to test is the flash efficiency difference with ND vs. HSS...