Freeze Frame


By: Nathan Cool.

Stopping action with super fast strobes.


Way back in the early days of photography, in the late 1800s, shutter speeds were so slow and lighting so limited that people had to hold their poses for sometimes seconds. This resulted in those super serious expressions in old time pictures, making our ancestors look like angry, unhappy folk. If they had the chance, I bet most folks would have smiled; after all, they must have had some good times, otherwise none of us would be here today (ahem). But alas, in the good-ole-days, technology just wasn't up to snuff enough to let the folks of yore show their true selves. Boy, have times change.


Photography is much speedier than it used to be, but a quick shutter is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In my last blog (here) I talked about the importance of flash duration, especially if you need to stop the action of a moving subject. As a follow-up, in this blog I'll talk about one of the speed demons of strobes that can not only freeze most fast-paced action, but also emit enough light to overpower the sun, allowing your subjects to be as expressive as they want to be with no fear of blur.


Just this last week I bought my first Einstein monolight from Paul Buff Inc., the makers of the popular Alien Bees line of lights. This light is a powerhouse for the price (about $500), and can generate 640 Ws of light (a heck of a lot more than other lights I talked about in a previous blog). While the quantity of light is more than sufficient for most needs, I bought it for the speed AND the amount of light it can generate.


When shooting indoor portraits, a flash duration of 1/300 second (t0.1) is more than sufficient nowadays, faster than the common 1/200 second sync speed of many digital cameras. But when I'm blowing hair on a model, jumping around the studio to catch fast action, splashing water, or capturing fidgety pets (or kids), I need all the speed I can get. As I mentioned in my last blog, if I'm shooting at a relatively shallow depth of field and only needing an f-stop of say f/5.6, then speedlights can most often do the trick (using a nice modifier to soften the light). But if I want to shoot with a small aperture, say f/11 or f/14 (or even f/16), then I need a lot of light. While many monolights can give me that kind of light, when I also need speed, then things get more difficult. That's where the Einstein comes in.


The Einstein shoots at about 1/600 second at full power, but it can get much, much faster. Unlike other monolights, The Einstein uses similar technology as speedlights, which results in the flash duration becoming shorter as the power is decreased. For instance, when you dial back the Einstein to 1/2 power, flash duration is a super fast 1/2000 of a second. And, when at 1/8 power, it is a blazingly quick 1/10,000 second. So in essence, when shooting an otherwise dark scene, no matter what you set your shutter speed to, if you use an Einstein at 1/8 power, you're shooting at 1/10,000 second -- that's fast...really, really fast!


To test this lightening fast strobe I setup just one Einstein in a softbox shooting at a deck of cards being thrown in the air. I shot at f/11 and 1/200 second at ISO 100 using about 1/4 power on the Einstein (about 1/5000 second flash duration). Below are the results:

Action was definitely stopped, thanks to the quick flash duration. In fact, besides some cards being out of the focal depth of field (due to shooting at 85mm and cards being within a couple feet in depth of each other in some cases), the results are tack-sharp. For instance, notice the second picture, and how some cards are turned sideways, showing only a thin white line, but no blur whatsoever. If this had been shot in ambient light (or with hot lights) without a strobe, a shutter speed of 1/200 second would have resulted in trails and blur. But shooting in virtual darkness with a flash duration of about 1/5000 second, time stood still.


Spending $500 for a light may seem a little steep when considering that you can pick up monolights for around $200. But, when you compare the Einstein to comparable strobes with this speed, the price can jump up easily over $1000 (similar to this Elinchrom).


So, all things considered: if you're looking for lots of light, but you still need a heck of a lot of speed, then one well-priced option comes to mind: The Einstein, built for speed, but at a price that won't burn you out...literally.




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