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High Speed Portraits

Sep 1

In Lighting at 12:28pm


No, not talking about those wonderful opportunities we have all been given to shoot the entire starting nine of the Lansing LugNuts in less than three minutes. Nor am I talking about the sessions with Mr. Corporate Kahuna with the fully erect ego or Mrs. I Am Who Am who just happens to sport a jewel encrusted timepiece that represents more dough than we’ve invested in equipment for the last five years.

You know those lovely, down to earth human encounters where the first thing that gets said to you is, “You’ve only got five minutes.” To which you craft the jaunty rejoinder, “How about we do this in three, cause you’re just not that interesting?”

Inside words!

No, no, no. Talking here about using high speed sync for portraiture. First off, why is this called, in Nikon land anyway, “Auto FP Hi Speed Sync?” Is it any wonder lots of folks don’t use this feature? I mean, imagine you’re just getting used to flash, and you turn a page in the manual and there it is in the header, “Auto FP Hi Speed Sync!” Your eyes glaze over. It might as well be a dissertation in the relationship of superconductors to condensed matter physics. You turn the page. Forget all this flash stuff! High ISO beckons.

But, that little check off doober in the menu that enables hi speed sync is pretty cool. (Go to flash sync, see the Auto FP function, check it. Done.) Costs you nothing, does not inhibit normal flash operation, but means that when you drift above normal flash sync, usually around 200th or 250th of a second, your flash will keep pace with the shutter and not give you the dreaded black line of death across some crucial part of your frame. Fast flash! 8000th of a second sync! Way cool! What’s the hitch? (In photography, there’s always a hitch.)

You give back power. Keeping up with the focal plane shutter quenches the flash power drastically. To ramp up the power, there are three basic strategies: Move the flash close, open up your f-stop, or use a boatload of flashes. Keeping things simple here, I used the first two. Moved my EzyBox Hotshoe Softbox in close to my subject, and opened my 50mm f1.4 all the way. Dropped the cursor on the left eye, let everything else do what it’s gonna do, focus wise.

My subject, Michael Zammitto, is a terrific character actor who can go from smiling country western star to a bad ass cowboy in a heartbeat. Here he is shot in “normal” flash sync at 1/60th @ f11.


Up to your taste, but I like the limited DOF look. Not always appropriate, ’cause some art directors want everything from the hair follicles to the background sharp, but in terms of shaping and directing your viewer’s eye right to the crucial part of the photo, hi speed sync rocks. More tk….

Jonathan Martinez says:

on September 1, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Wow great information Joe and i like how you dont keep rambling in circles like some people do. I’ve learned something today.

This information is does it job and informs people.


Rob says:

on September 1, 2009 at 12:54 pm

“You’ve only got five minutes.” To which you craft the jaunty rejoinder, “How about we do this in three, cause you’re just not that interesting?”

Hell, heard that enough times, love the comeback. Maybe I’ll use it one day if it doesn’t mean getting my @$$ kicked.

Skunk says:

on September 1, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Hi Mr McNally,

I’ve been confused with Auto FP flash since day one though feel like I have a pretty good grasp on things when shooting shutter priority locked on 1/200 and letting my D90 do the rest of the magic. Maybe you can help since you’re the expert on this blackmagic:

1. Do I have less flash power at 1/4000 sec than I do at 1/500 sec, or is it the same?

2. How close is close; are we limited to about arm’s length? I can’t seem to get a proper exposure, usually with the flash being a meter or two away.

Thanks in advance

TC says:

on September 1, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Love it. Another way of doing this, if your flash doesn’t support highspeed, is ND filters on your lens. Again, you’ll need a lot of power.

For the first kind of high speed portraits, my record is 30 couple-portraits in 40 minutes, as part of a wedding shoot. 😉

Robert Munro says:

on September 1, 2009 at 1:18 pm

Great post Joe – any reason we shouldn’t keep high speed sync on all the time just in case the shutter speed drifts into the red as it were?

Keep up the great work BTW

Rob Munro

Jim Frazier says:

on September 1, 2009 at 1:39 pm

Now I see what you mean about low DOF at 1.4. Gotta try that. And I agree – the 1.4 version is much cooler.

jakob says:

on September 1, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Nice post Joe, love the details even if I still shoot with Canon:-) But thanks for the detils!

Fotodog says:

on September 1, 2009 at 2:17 pm

I cannot wait to try this.

I’ve been meaning to test this, but timing has never worked just right, however now I will make the time.

Thanks for this!!

Levi Sim says:

on September 1, 2009 at 3:01 pm

I was just using Auto FP last night! I loved the images and posted a couple on my blog right away. My flash photography always goes better with it. I find that I am more in control of the light–faster shutter speeds, less ambient, more apparent flash–it’s great.

Thanks for the tip on moving closer–I didn’t realize that I was using more power, though I do notice that the batteries in my SB-600’s wear out more quickly.

I have a question for anyone with experience: Do you know why my on camera flash doesn’t seem to cooperate wit hthe Auto FP? I have a D90, and last night I had the pop-up set to TTL and SB-600’s being used as well. I couldn’t get the speed above 200 until I turned the on camera to commander only. I suspect it has to do with battery life. Anyone else?

Thanks very much!


steve says:

on September 1, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Lansing Lugnuts, love the reference as I used to live in Lansing.

For anybody who cares, the Lansing Lugnuts are the minor league baseball team based in the capital of Michigan.

MC Holloway says:

on September 1, 2009 at 4:29 pm

I leave my D300 in AFP all the time (*1/320). As Joe points out, flash output drops when climbing above 250th. Reason; the flash pumps more cycles timed to the shutter as the smaller slit moves across the sensor plane. Tricky stuff. I read that an SB800 at 1/8000th must be within about 4 feet of the subject to expose properly (variable with ISO, and aperture). But, I can invision multiple SB900’s could result in some cool results.

Alexander Ödman says:

on September 1, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Hi! And thank you for the web’s best blog!

What was the reason you needed to use High speed sync in this case? You wanted shallow DOF (wich I agree gave the most pleasent version) i assume, but you talked about high ISO also. Large apature, high ISO and short shutter time doesn’t make sense to me…? What in this situation forced you use a short shutter time, insted of lower your ISO?

High speed sync i really cool and opens up for your creativity! But… there’s is always a but… the pop-up flash (for D80/90/200/300/700) cannot sync on times faster then the sync time. (if I remember right =)) The master unit has to be a SU or a SB unit. Just a reflection.

Annyway thank you for a great blog! I stop by every day to se if you added a new post.

/ Alex, Gothenburg Sweden.

BebopDesigner says:

on September 1, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Great tip. Thanks for posting.

MC Holloway says:

on September 1, 2009 at 4:53 pm

I always leave my D300 in AFP (*1/320). Careful, as Joe sez, power will drop as shutter increases. This AFP works by pulsing very quick flashes as the shutter slit passes by the sensor plane at high shutter speeds. Imagine the flash is trying to pump the same light in high speed pulses (you really can’t see this cause its really fast). Shutter works like 2 curtains that open and close really fast. As shutter speed increases the 1st curtain is open but the second curtain starts closing sooner, causing a slit to “scan” the image onto the sensor (or film). Sorry for the techie brain dump.

Zntgrg says:

on September 1, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Those poor guy without FP avaible (d40/d60 users, sb24 users etc..) can achieve the same results with very low power settings and ND filters right?

Charles Verghese says:

on September 1, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Hmmm…..interesting article.

But what’s up with the look that Michael is giving? Does he not like Auto FP Hi Speed Sync?


Daniel says:

on September 1, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Which size of the EzyBox Hotshoe Softbox did you use, Joe?


chris heurich says:

on September 1, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Mongo like AFPHSS

Another fun way to slice ‘n dice pixels.

Patrick says:

on September 1, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Informative as usual Mr. McNally. P.S. – Can you get tickets to the Lansing LugNuts?

Jamie Carl says:

on September 1, 2009 at 7:41 pm

I’m with you Joe. I love that limited DoF look. I’ve been using FP Sync for my automotive photography for a while now just so I can clobber that DoF. That and it makes my lowly little SB600s suddenly turn into sun killing monsters.

Chiat Hau says:

on September 1, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Great Sharing Joe & always love the works you produced!!


T. C. Knight says:

on September 1, 2009 at 8:04 pm

I was wondering what that was for.


Mark HIggins says:

on September 1, 2009 at 8:20 pm


Thanks for the post. Great information and can’t wait to try this tomorrow!

Arthur says:

on September 1, 2009 at 10:24 pm

Joe, yet again, you da man…I shot a weeding on the beach at high noon this summer, and yes high speed sync was definatly in the house on that one…

Thanks Joe, you keep us on our toes

CallumW says:

on September 2, 2009 at 6:08 am

I’ve found f/1.4 too shallow a DOF on my portraits.
I normally dial f/4 as a shallow or f/2.8 in a pinch, but 1.4 doesn’t work for me unless they are facing flush to the lense (not often).


Eli Silva says:

on September 2, 2009 at 8:17 am

Great post joe… i tried myself and the look is very impressive.. thanks for sharing

Cole says:

on September 2, 2009 at 8:53 am

“To ramp up the power, there are three basic strategies: Move the flash close, open up your f-stop, or use a boatload of flashes. Keeping things simple here, I used the first two.”

Who are you, and what have you done with Joe??? :-) I kid, I kid!

Reuben Lim says:

on September 2, 2009 at 9:11 am

Joe, I like your prose as much as I love your photos.


Tom Peterson says:

on September 2, 2009 at 9:53 am

Thanks for the reminder. I’ll be out shooting some portraits in the sun on Saturday and it doesn’t hurt to check the settings. (As I thought, it was set to 320 FP.) You never fail to make your readers think. It’s either technique, reason, or humanity. It’s a joy reading each post. Thanks

Jim White says:

on September 2, 2009 at 1:02 pm

I was checking out your gear bag online Joe . . you must have a caravan of camels and a ton of assistants to carry “all” of that . . lol

Iden Ford says:

on September 2, 2009 at 1:39 pm

like the effect with the 50mm, my first thought was that it was your 200mm F2 which seems to be the god of lenses for DOF and portrait stuff. But does the auto sync also work with bigger strobes? Used the quadra for the first time the other night and seemed to still get the black line when I went to 1/320

Justin says:

on September 2, 2009 at 2:06 pm

I’m with you on that one Joe. I have found I really like the AFP for limiting depth of field. Not that I do a bunch of portraiture, but the pictures of my nephew and niece looked great using that technique.

Thanks for sharing. I always love reading what you are doing. Also, I really enjoyed the CLS video you and Bob did.

Hol says:

on September 2, 2009 at 2:30 pm

and people wonder why I occasionally giggle and mutter under my breath “I really like Joe McNally, I really like Joe McNally!”

Drew Gurian says:

on September 2, 2009 at 3:29 pm

Hey Iden,

High Speed Sync only works within the Nikon system. I believe the Quadra’s max shutter sync is 1/160th.

Iden Ford says:

on September 2, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Thanks Drew
I had it working at 1/250

Gwenn says:

on September 2, 2009 at 11:03 pm

Joe–you are too cool. I had no idea what that High Speed Sync thingie was. I think I’m in love. Will you marry me? Oh, yeah, you’re married. Oh, yeah, so am I. Nevermind.

Simon says:

on September 3, 2009 at 1:50 am

As usual informative & ammusing in all the right places Joe. Thanks for taking the time to share some of your life with us

Miika Ylhäinen says:

on September 3, 2009 at 6:15 am

Iden Ford: Elinchrom Ranger Quadras sync to your camera’s max sync speed. In most cases 1/250 or 1/200. Some cameras sync even faster. Basically, with electronic shutters you can reach as fast as 1/1000. But with DSLR’s you’re stuck with 1/250.

I use ND-filters to achieve shallow DOF. The downside is, that viewfinder is darker and it obviously affects the AF of the camera as well.

Ray says:

on September 3, 2009 at 1:39 pm

Both are great images but I definitely prefer the high speed sync. The depth of field is really cool.

Scott says:

on September 3, 2009 at 7:32 pm

Interesting, this came just on the back of a shoot I did using Canon High Speed Sync… so I decided to write a few quick words about it on my blog too.

Sarah Kavanaugh says:

on September 3, 2009 at 8:55 pm

DOF helps with the intensity of his look! It’s not as piercing in the other!

Someone mentioned using 2.8 instead of 1.4; as long as the eye closest to the camera is in focus, it will still be cool…well, I think so!

George Mattei says:

on September 3, 2009 at 9:25 pm

Can anyone tell me if the high speed sync will work using Pocket Wizards? I spoke to Nikon and they said no, but they also said that the flash would not lose any power which is incorrect.

Daniël B says:

on September 4, 2009 at 3:30 am


The new Pocket Wizard tt1 and flex5 do full TTL transmission, including hss.

Mike Ignatov says:

on September 7, 2009 at 1:23 am

Agreed, I prefer the limited DOF as well, but as you say, unless you’re shooting for yourself gotta aim to please.

JawBreaker says:

on September 7, 2009 at 10:21 am

Great post joe… i tried myself and the look is very impressive.. thanks for sharing

Fotodog says:

on September 7, 2009 at 9:39 pm

Just tried this with my D80 and two SB800s.

WOW, what I’ve been missing. THANKS SO MUCH!!!

I’ve done off camera for a few years, but now I’ve got so many more options. Cheers!

Gavin says:

on September 7, 2009 at 10:36 pm

Do I detect a bit of clarity (mid-tone contrast) softening in the f1.4 version of the image as well, or is that simply a quality of that lens wide open?

Johan Sopiee says:

on September 8, 2009 at 12:00 pm

hahahaha! your blog entries keep getting better and better and never fail to crack me up Joe. you rock!

video says:

on October 24, 2010 at 4:20 am

hi .. nice posting ..

Ewa Pankow says:

on May 4, 2011 at 6:02 am

With havin so much content do you ever run into any problems of plagorism or copyright infringement? My site has a lot of unique content I’ve either created myself or outsourced but it looks like a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my permission. Do you know any methods to help prevent content from being stolen? I’d certainly appreciate it.

Troy Stephen Augustine slc says:

on April 11, 2013 at 11:26 pm

I enjoy reading an article that can make people think. Also, thanks for allowing for me to comment!

Brent Marchant says:

on November 9, 2013 at 6:59 pm

I appreciate your insights and enjoy your photos and associate insights on lighting and photography. I have seen a number of your videos on Kelby Training including the recent Shriners Hospitals shoot – I attended your seminar in Kansas City, MO at Bartle Hall recently and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. You mentioned a Scottish Rite temple out west you enjoyed — I am on the Consistory board and CLDC for the fine Scottish Rite temple in Kansas City I would like to invite you to visit our temple here if you have time on your next visit, or entertain the possibility of hosting a seminar in our auditorium that has a capacity for nearly 1400. There are a few photographs of the auditorium in the photographs area of our website. So far this winter we have had two film crews at our historic building and I think you would enjoy the visit or possibly host your next seminar in Kansas City at our temple.

Thank you for all you share with your fellow photographers,
Brent Marchant
[email protected]

Joe McNally says:

on November 11, 2013 at 6:14 am

Many thanks Brent for the invite….we can stay in touch and see how things go. The temples are generally pretty amazing looking, in my experience. best, Joe

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