Sony Made a Huge Leap in Technology and No One Is Talking About It

Sony Made a Huge Leap in Technology and No One Is Talking About It

Sony produced what could be described as a game-changer of a camera with its current flagship, the Sony a1. Although this camera offers a plethora of new features that most reviews have raved about. One of its most remarkable features has gone a little under the radar. This feature is the increase in the flash sync speed to 1/400th of a second shutter speed. 

The Sony a1 is one of the best full-frame mirrorless cameras on the market. Not only can it shoot high-resolution 50-megapixel files, but it can also capture this much resolution at 30-frames per second. It was only up until recently that we thought speed and high resolution were an impossible combination, based on current technology. You could either have a high-resolution camera that captures a great amount of detail, or you could have a low-resolution camera that shoots extremely fast for those high-speed situations. Sony managed to do both in one camera. 

Additionally, Sony also managed to cram in 8K 30p and 4K 120p in 4:2:2, 10-bit recording. Essentially, the Sony a1 is an incredible camera system. However, these features are obvious upgrades and inevitable in the grand scheme of things. Almost everyone expected Sony to produce an 8K capable camera system, however, I doubt that anyone thought Sony would improve the shutter mechanism and sync speed in the Sony a1. 

What Is a Focal Plane Shutter?

A focal plane shutter is essentially the shutter mechanism found in almost all DSLR and mirrorless cameras. A focal plane shutter exists in the camera and sits in front of the camera sensor. There are two sections to a focal plane shutter and they are called the first curtain and second curtain.

The first curtain will drop open to reveal the full sensor after which point the second curtain will drop down to close the shutters again. The time it takes for the shutter to open and close depends on your shutter speed. 

The main advantage of focal plane shutters is that they can manage faster shutter speeds than leaf shutter mechanisms (discussed below). Most high-end DSLR and mirrorless cameras can manage shutter speeds of up to 1/8000s, which is considerably faster than leaf shutter cameras. 

The other advantage of focal plane shutters is that they operate within the camera. This means that virtually any kind of lens can be attached and the shutter mechanism can still fire. You can even use pinhole body caps on the camera and the shutter will still fire allowing you to expose an image. 

The downside is that a focal plane shutter can only remain fully open up to a certain speed. For most cameras, this shutter speed is 1/200s. Above this speed, the shutter blades will no longer open fully as it moves down the sensor to expose the image. The opening in the shutter will become smaller as you increase the shutter speed. This is not a huge problem unless you're shooting with flash. If the opening in the shutter blades is smaller than the sensor, then the whole sensor will not be exposed when the flash is triggered. 

As you can see in the comparison above, a large portion of the flash ends up hitting the shutter blades instead of the sensor when shooting faster than the sync speed. To resolve this, you can use a feature called high-speed-sync. In this mode, the flash will fire multiple times rapidly, in order to follow the shutter blades as they move along the sensor. Unfortunately, this feature considerably reduces the flash power making it less than ideal in many situations.

What Is a Leaf Shutter? 

A leaf shutter is relatively rare when it comes to camera systems. The biggest and most obvious difference between a leaf shutter and a focal plane shutter is that the leaf shutter operates within the lens instead of the camera. This highly limits third-party compatibility. Another obvious difference is the structure of the leaf shutter.

Focal plane shutters move across the sensor in a single direction, generally top to bottom. Leaf shutters open and close in a circular motion that is somewhat similar to how aperture blades open and close. It's this design difference that makes the biggest difference. Unlike focal plane shutters, leaf shutter mechanisms do not have a flash sync speed limit. Leaf shutter lenses can synchronize with flash at any shutter speed it can manage. 

For instance, current Hasselblad lenses can synchronize flash even at 1/2000s shutter speed without needing any kind of high-speed-sync mode. The downside with leaf shutters is that the highest speed currently available is 1/2000s, and this is considerably lower than what focal plane shutters can achieve, which is 1/8000s.

How Has Sony Managed This? 

A camera shutter mechanism generally operates with a spring-loaded system. In a focal plane shutter camera, the two curtains are loaded and then fire when you press the shutter button. The spring-loaded system has worked extremely well in cameras for decades. However, this system hasn't been updated for a long time either. 

In comes the Sony a1 with its dual-driven focal plane shutter. The shutter mechanism in this camera operates with a spring-loaded system and also a magnetic system. The spring-loaded system will be active for most shutter speeds fast and slow. The magnetic system is only active between shutter speeds of 1/320s and 1/400s. 

These are the two fastest points that The Sony a1 can synchronize flash in full-frame mode. The magnetic system allows the shutter curtains to move faster across the frame. The first curtain can drop open fast enough that by the time the second curtain is ready to close, the full sensor is open for exposure. 

This is the key difference. The magnetic system can move the shutter curtains faster than the standard mechanism. That extra speed helps ensure the full sensor is open for exposure as opposed to portions being blocked by the shutter blades. 

Why This Is a Big Update

The Sony a1 is the only full-frame camera on the market right now that can synchronize with flash at 1/400th of a second shutter speed. This is double the speed of most full-frame cameras, including flagship systems from Canon and Nikon. This sync speed can increase further to 1/500s shutter if you shoot in APS-C mode. This kind of speed is on the same level as some leaf shutter lenses. 

Interestingly, even with this higher sync speed in the Sony a1, the camera shutter is durable enough to manage more than 500,000 cycles. Although it's important to mention that Sony did not disclose the durability ratings for the shutter mechanism when flash sync priority is enabled. 

Nonetheless, for many working photographers, this increase in the sync speed offers more of a real-world benefit than improvements to dynamic range or increases in resolution. 

Having lots of resolution can be great, however, after a certain point, a few more pixels make very little difference to how you shoot and the results you produce. Even with dynamic range, most cameras now offer enough flexibility that an extra half stop doesn't make much or any difference to workflow. Features such as megapixels and dynamic range might make for great headlines, but in the grand scheme of things, it's just marketing. Even smartphones can now shoot up to 100 megapixels and higher. 

The increase in sync speed makes a real change to workflow. You're able to shoot at a higher shutter speed regardless of what kind of flash you're using. You can also delay the need to shoot with high-speed sync by a full stop. This is especially useful when shooting in a controlled or studio-based environment. 

For a long time, if you were shooting in a studio then the maximum shutter speed you could probably choose was 1/200s. Being able to shoot at a faster shutter speed in a controlled environment will very likely reduce potential issues. If you're photographing people for example, then introducing movement into the shots is less likely to result in motion blur. 

This is without a doubt one of the best and most difficult to achieve leaps in technology we've seen in a long time, and Sony should be celebrated for doing this. 

Final Thoughts

This is a huge leap forward for working professionals and the best thing is that it won't be too long before this feature starts appearing in less expensive cameras. As the cost of features becomes less expensive, we may start to see this become the standard synchronization speed for flash. 

What's not clear at the moment is whether Sony can take this dual-driven mechanism further. It's arguably fair to assume that the magnetic system could probably manage even faster shutter speeds. However, it was probably durability concerns that capped the synchronization speed at 1/400s. 

Hopefully, we're only at the beginning stages of what's possible with magnetic shutter drives. Who knows, the next flagship camera from Sony might even synchronize flash at 1/1000s. 

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Tony Northrup's picture

Agreed that this is a practical and useful improvement, especially for portrait photographers weighing the a1 against the Nikon Z9 @ 1/200. I didn't know the mechanics of it, so thanks for teaching me about the use of magnetics!

Usman Dawood's picture

Thank you so much :)

Paul C's picture

Agreed - this is a great mechanical advance but in practice - but high-speed flash for daylight portraits is nothing new.

For example, Nikon users, with the high speed sync mode with their Nikon (D7000 series and above) and Nikon Speedlight (SB-500 and up) allows you to synchronize the flash to shutter speeds all the way up to the highest speed the camera is capable of. High speed sync works with all exposure modes, and you can use it with a single Speedlight or multiple flash set-ups.

This means that 1/800 sec daylight flash shots can be made using a shallow DoF without needing ND filters.

I guess users of other camera makes will tell us that they can do the same with their own equipment too. Perhaps Tony can make a video about how to do this on his excellent YouTube channel !

Adam Palmer's picture

I avoid HSS as much as possible because you lose 2 stops of power and your flash starts overheating sooner. I love the new sync speed on the a1.

Benoit .'s picture

Wouldn't they be better off having build in hyper sync with a higher end flash line and cash on it? The only reason not could be that they may lose ttl.

Patrick Hall's picture

Hyper sync comes at a cost though. HSS and HS degrade your flash power by quite a lot.

Benoit .'s picture

Probably, but I don't know that HS would be affected that much at 1/400, it's not that fast.

Patrick Hall's picture

I need to do a test on this. I always thought you lost the most power the second you went into HS.

Benoit .'s picture

My simplistic view:
In Hyper Sync, camera and flash do not communicate at all with each other. The delay box is the only link but it just reads and passes on the most basic single function from the camera to the flash. Go. In other word the flash doesn’t need to do anything for the camera. What ever output is set is what is delivered. At least that’s the way I understand it.
You have probably noticed that any HSS capable flash is also TTL capable. I have searched yesterday for the possible connection and found multiple times people claiming that HSS splits/spaces its bursts evenly during the entire exposure for an even light the entire time the curtains moves. Makes sense, so I would suggest that HSS uses part of the TTL function and guesses the number and rate of flashes needed just before the shutter starts moving. From there, since in HSS mode, the camera does not have any control over when to stop the flashes and the flash unit only stops delivering when the curtains have cycled. Suddenly breaking the consistency would defeat the point of even light through the entire exposure. That’s my view, not saying that it’s the way it really works. Experts welcome to join.

Ken Yee's picture

Having zero mechanical parts like the Z9 seems like it would be a lot more reliable?

Usman Dawood's picture

I think long term, yes. Once sensors can read data fast enough we might be able to sync flash at much higher speeds too.

Christian Fiore's picture

Except under certain lighting. Then you're screwed if you don't have a mechanical shutter. ILC sensors aren't there yet. Nikon was just looking for something to wow early adopters, at any cost.

Maurice Waters's picture

You can still shoot at 1/200 in electronic mode on the Sony A1 as well, so if you dont want to worry about mechanical moving parts.

Bernard Languillier's picture

Frankly 1/250s vs 1/400s makes little to no real world difference.

The only goal of this article is to create an imaginary differentiator vs the Z9.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

You're not looking at the big picture:

1/250s vs 1/400s is almost a stop.
a) It could be the difference of having to turn on HSS or not.
b) It could be the difference of having to stop down the aperture or not.

--- "The only goal of this article is to create an imaginary differentiator vs the Z9."

The only thing imaginary is your conspiracy theory.

Christian Fiore's picture

APS-C mode increases it to 1/500, which actually is a full stop.

Adam Palmer's picture

This makes all your flashes twice as powerful outdoors. You can use it to shorten recycle times or get more distance.

Adam Palmer's picture

Or carry around a flash that weighs half as much.

ioas 12's picture

You can sync at any speed all the way down to 1/2000's with Hassy X1D, Lecia Q and many other cameras. So what?

Usman Dawood's picture

Discussed in the article.

Adam Palmer's picture

I used to shoot hasselblad in the 90's and that was my favorite part about it.

Adam Palmer's picture

It's the top reason for me when I bought the a1

Tiak Siew Sim's picture

Finally somebody catching up to 18 years old Nikon D70.

Usman Dawood's picture

Yes but that feature in that camera came with some major caveats. Not the same thing really and also not possible for current CMOS sensors as far as I’m aware.

Erpillar Bendy's picture

The original Canon 1D, introduced more than 20 years ago (2001) could synchronize with flash at 1/500th of a second.

Christian Fiore's picture

That was basically a global shutter sensor. Drop the A1 into APS-C mode and you can do the same with a mechanical shutter, at over 5x the resolution, with infinitely better IQ.

3ric Johanson's picture

I really wish people writing these articles would actually test these products. I own the Sony A1 and I have been pretty frustrated with its flash support. Specifically, it seems to mostly be Sony flashes that support the faster sync speed. If you try to get a studio strobe from any manufacturer to operate the faster sync speed through the external PC sync Port it simply does not work.

Usman Dawood's picture

Based on some testing, the camera worked fine with Godox strobes. I know some older strobes struggle even with 1/200s sync.

Do you think the pc sync port isnt up to task compared to modern hotshoe connections?

Benoit .'s picture

Most likely set by manufacturer to ignore optional 1/400 -1/500 function.

Adam Palmer's picture

I don't own any sony brand flashes but I have 10-12 different Godox flashes. Use them 4 times a week with the A1 and they all work at the 1/400 sync speed.

Benoit .'s picture

Would be useful if you mentioned using PC or a radio.

Adam Palmer's picture

I don't own any sony brand flashes but I have 10-12 different Godox flashes. Use them 4 times a week with the A1 and they all work at the 1/400 sync speed.

Adam Palmer's picture

If you are having trouble with flashes at 1/400 via the PC sync cable maybe try a godox wireless trigger. They have ones that can trip via PC sync port I think.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Aren't PC sync ports old school? Relics of the past? Did you even try it a modern remote trigger?

Benoit .'s picture

They are, but they are great back up if you are out of battery for your radio or the radio stops functioning. I have a cable with my back up tools so I don't waste my clients time if this ever happens.

Adam Palmer's picture

The godox triggers are so cheap that I have 3 of them so if a battery dies or the trigger is giving me any trouble I just swap it out on the spot.

Benoit .'s picture

I have 3 RFS 2.2 plus the cable. Not worth delaying or losing a client for a cable.

Tom Reichner's picture

I'm sure that Usman personally tested the camera extensively before writing an article about it. Why would you assume that is not the case?

Ruud van der Nat's picture

In a controlled studio environment, with external light eliminated , the only light source are your strobes. How can you have motion blur at 1/200 when the shutter speed is basically your strobe duration? Can you explain it to me please?

Jacob H.'s picture

The main advantage isn't with dark studio setups and external light eliminated, but with mixed light situations like outdoor shoots or interior shoots where the background is lit with natural light. Also consider (sports) photo journalists.

Ruud van der Nat's picture

I understand that , also with the use of wide aperture lenses with flash making high speed sync unnecessary. But in the article they say “ This is especially useful when shooting in a controlled or studio-based environment……Being able to shoot at a faster shutter speed in a controlled environment will very likely reduce potential issues. If you're photographing people for example, then introducing movement into the shots is less likely to result in motion blur. “. This is not true imho.

Jacob H.'s picture

Thanks for an interesting article. Depending on your needs, sync speed can be an important criterium for selecting a camera. It's one of the advantages of a MF camera with a leaf shutter. The difference between 1/200-250th and 1/400th can be decisive, but having the ability to go all the way to 1/2000th opens even more possibilities. Esp. in studio work with fast moving models and mixed lighting.

Funny anecdote: in 2019 Panasonic introduced the S1 and S1R both with a max. sync speed of 1/320th. During a trial session with the S1R by accident I'd had it set to 1/400th and the sync was almost perfect with a couple of D2's. Only the top 2mm were dark. Something you could easily crop. In my experience these S1 and S1R (and S1H too) are amongst the best build mirrorless cameras and unfortunately Panasonic received very little credits for those cameras.