Using High-Speed Sync for Studio Portraiture

Four years ago I purchased my first set of studio strobes in an attempt to learn how to shoot portraits like the ones I saw in my favorite print magazines. Having shot most of my portraits using available light at f/2 and under, I thought this would translate over easily when I switched to shooting with strobes. As I snapped my first frame and realized that even at the lowest power setting on the strobe the image was overexposed, I set out to find a way to be able to accomplish the effect. The answer was high-speed sync.

High-speed sync (HSS) allows you to shoot beyond your camera's shutter speed limit when shooting with off-camera flashes. For most cameras, the max is 1/250 s which isn’t enough when shooting at lower apertures like f/1.4. A strobe with HSS will allow you to shoot at a shutter speed of up to 1/8,000 s, which is typically more than enough to get the job done for studio work. The key is to have a studio flash that allows the use of HSS, which typically cost a little bit more than your garden variety studio strobes.

In the video above I share my technique for shooting shallow depth of field portraits using high-speed sync. The setup is pretty easy, but I’ll break it down in detail so you can achieve similar results on your own.

Gear

As mentioned earlier, you’ll need a studio head that allows you to shoot with HSS. I have been using the Phottix Indra 500 for almost two years now and it’s treated me well. HSS functionality has been available for Canon and Nikon shooters for some time, and now it’ll be available via a firmware update and a new trigger (Phottix Odin II) for Sony a7 shooters. There are other HSS strobe heads on the market that will also work, but for me these have offered the best bang for your buck. You’ll also need a trigger like the Odin II in order to get your flashes to work with HSS.

The other thing you’ll want to consider is your background. While I’ve done portraits using HSS with standard colored seamless paper, my personal favorites are the ones that have some sort of texture. For that I typically use Savage collapsible backdrops. They open up and close quickly and easily, and give you a lot of flexibility to change the color in post. Some of my favorites they offer are the “Lakeside,” “Morning Haze,” and “Indigo Nights.” There are other companies that offer textured backgrounds as well so find one that you like and have fun.

Settings

This is the part of the equation that takes a little bit of thought. When you’re shooting in your desired location, the first thing you need to do is negate the ambient light that is in your room. Let’s say you want to shoot a portrait at f/1.4. First, turn off your strobe. If you dial in that setting and put your shutter speed at 1/500 s to start with ISO 100, your goal is to see an image on the back of your screen that is completely dark (literally a black box). If you take the shot at those settings and still see a bit of ambient light bleeding into the image, then you would dial your shutter speed up a few clicks until you achieve that result. Once you have the right settings dialed in that give you a black box for an image you can turn on your strobes and adjust the power from there. I typically start at 1/64 power and go up or down from there depending on my desired look.

Examples

Here are a few examples of the type of portraits I’ve shot using HSS over the last few months:

Other Methods

What if you already own a studio strobe that doesn't offer HSS? You may be wondering, how can I shoot at a shallow depth of field too? One option would be to use a hot shoe flash off camera that offers HSS. While this could work in most scenarios, there is one downside: no modeling light. Without a modeling light you may have to add your own lighting (maybe via a cell phone light) in order to achieve proper focus on your subject. The other method would be to use an ND filter, which will drop the overall exposure so that you can shoot at your 1/250 s or under shutter speed without overexposing your image. This is the method I used for years prior to using HSS which also works great, however, you will notice that a number of your images may be soft due to the difficulty of trying to focus through a dark piece of glass. To work around that I picked up a set of ND filters from Vu Filters along with their filter holder. It allows me to slide the filter out so I can get the camera in focus, and then slide the filter back in place quickly so I can take the shot. I have an ND2 and ND3 filter that I keep on hand when shooting this style, both of which should work fine for anything f/1.2 or above. Using either method, you still want to make sure your starting image before turning on your strobes is a completely black image, and then go from there.

When To Use It

There are many applications where I would use this. For me I’ve noticed that the dark background, shallow depth of field look works great when photographing older men. If you work with their expression you can get a very interesting portrait look that will hold people’s attention. If you’re photographing a woman and want to get a dreamy, flowy-hair look, add a fan and use the technique described to give you a whimsical, beautiful look like the image in the example section above. While this isn’t a style that I use every time in the studio, it’s definitely one to keep in your back pocket in the event the right person is standing across from your camera.

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49 Comments

Is this a joke? I'm serious, what?! You must not have heard of TTL flash. I shouldn't read this stuff.

Jayson Carey's picture

HSS and TTL are VERY different things.

No? Really? Duh. The point is that there is much easier ways to have dark backgrounds with wide open apertures.

Jayson Carey's picture

Again, you are making zero sense. TTL has NOTHING to do with this, since he clearly stated that his studio strobe was too bright even at it's lowest standard setting. TTL ONLY chooses the right power setting (which we already established would be too bright, no matter what).

Actually you have it reversed, I believe you don't understand how TTL works, it is infinitely variable. If he used a TTL enabled flash (which he is) there wouldn't be a need for HSS in the studio. I use Profoto B2s. I can shoot wide open and the flash adjusts to the needed power.

Miguel Quiles's picture

Guess what? Profoto B2 uses HSS which is what allows it to do what the Indra does in my examples above. The points in my article still stand.

TTL is just auto for the flash/strobe/speedlight.

Robert Raymer's picture

Without HSS, TTL will still over expose your images if the minimum power of the flash is still too bright for your sync speed. Next time if you are going to be a jerk, at least try to be right.

Lane Shurtleff's picture

Calm down there buckaroo. I think he was trying to use HSS as a crutch to allow him to shoot at very large apertures ( f 1.4, 1.2, etc) which would require certain cameras to go into HSS in order to allow for proper exposure. As he stated at the end, he doesn't use it often, but to give him a look he prefers when a subject warrants it.

Miguel Quiles's picture

Well said guys. Sometimes the comments around here make me chuckle.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Its pretty amazing the speed with which someone will jump to show the internet how wrong the can be. Well done, Miguel. Dont worry about the hater. :)

Ethan Chin's picture

TTL is very different from HSS. TTL, or "Through-The-Lens" metering, can be thought of as something of an "Auto" mode for your strobe. It usually works by the strobe firing a pre-flash and the camera metering the amount of light passing "through the lens" and hitting the sensor. The flash can then adjust the power output itself to allow the camera to achieve a "proper" exposure. However, TTL is powerless to help if even the lowest power is too much, because the strobe cannot go any lower (as it is already at its lowest). HSS on the other hand allows for faster shutter speeds to be used with strobe flash than normally possible. Miguel in this case is using HSS to ensure a proper exposure as the 1/250s X-sync shutter speed is too slow and lets in too much light.

Andrew Richardson's picture

Dude, great article and great photos! I just finally got HSS triggers for my Dynalite Bajas last week, looking forward to trying them out!

Miguel Quiles's picture

Thank you! Give them a try and come back to share your results, I'd love to see them. :)

Jayson Carey's picture

ND gel (or an ND filter) works the same way for FAR cheaper than a new studio strobe.

michael andrew's picture

Yes but they are not new and exciting shiny toys.

Miguel Quiles's picture

If you read the article, I mentioned ND filters as an option.

Lane Shurtleff's picture

Unless you have of a TON of ambient light in your studio, using ND filters are a PITA. to focus. Better option is tp ND gel the strobes.

Jayson Carey's picture

which is why I listed that first ;)

Chris Himstedt's picture

They also create another layer of "glass" which can (not always) create other issues. (flare, sharpness, etc..)

Jayson Carey's picture

again, this is why I listed ND gels first.

william mitchell's picture

In the digital age small strobes with wide power range is the way to go. This video is really an ad.

Miguel Quiles's picture

Its all about variety and options which I think I covered in some detail here.

the problem when shooting with wide apertures is that you also get the ambient light as well.
tried that. So HSS is the best option for this.

yes, you could dim the light in the studio very low, but then the model would get very big pupils due to the low ambient. And the flashes would hurt your eyes more.

This must be some type of sponsored content. I've never had to concern myself with ambient light in a studio. Strobe power output and flash-to-subject distance determines f-stop. HSS outdoors is extremely helpful when balancing strong ambient light, but in a studio?

Better said than my comment.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

From now on, that Zeiss lens should be pronounced badass. ;)

Nico Socha's picture

@Jason Carey: TTL is a measuring method and HSS (Canon) / FP (Nikon) is a Strobe type based on IGBT (Insulated-gate bipolar transistor).

But there is another very affordable way to get the depth of field in the studio. If your strobe is to strong, cover it with non flammeable paper or diffusor sock from a different soft box to bring the brightness down. Then you can adapt the normal softbox and voila, the light will be dark enough to shoot wide open. I did that a couple of times and it was very easy to focus because the is no ND filter involved.

Sort of along these lines, I remember Paul Buff saying that folks buy way too much power for studio. We're not shooting Kodachrome 25 anymore. Power is not so important, especially since higher ISOs are not problematic with current sensor technology. Also, having 7-9 stop ranges in high powered strobes can get the power down to 2.5 WS or so, which allows for wide aperture shooting. Outside is a different story, but inside moderate power with a wide range can let you shoot wide aperture portraits and smaller for depth of field for product.

Zoli Tarnavölgyi's picture

I think, a few people just doesn't know basics. If your strobe's minimum power is too strong to shoot at f1.8 (inside 1/200s or the camera's max sync speed!), your picture will be unusable bright.
TTL is just an automated power setup instead of your fingers. :) Doesn't matter in this question. Profoto's B2 is a great - and expensive - strobe with a small 250Ws power, AND 9 fstop range! Of course he doesn't need HSS... ;) Or it uses HSS, just he doesn't even know, because HSS is also in B2...