High Speed Photography

I still remember the first time I saw the work of Stephen Dalton, one of the earliest pioneers of high speed nature photography. I knew right then, I wanted to create images like that! So began a long journey that continues today.

Things were a lot tougher back in the days of film, no instant feedback to check your setups and lighting. The equipment was also very specialized and hard to find, things like, Dale Beam triggers and Vivitar 283s with vari-power adapters. Today it is significantly more accessible. Most off the shelf flash units have the ability to do high speed work, and companies like Cognisys make an entire family of well thought out, beautifully designed, products created specifically for this specialized type of photography. Changes like this have opened the door for all kinds of creative and exciting new photographic possibilities!

Pallid Bat Drinking, Elephant Head Pond Arizona Nikon  D4S, 600mm, 20 seconds @ f20, ISO 400 4 flashes Infrared Trigger Image cropped 20% for final composition
Pallid Bat Drinking, Elephant Head Pond Arizona Nikon
D4S, 600mm, 20 seconds @ f20, ISO 400 4 flashes Infrared Trigger
Image cropped 20% for final composition

High Speed Photography Basics

Many photographers don’t realize they can do some amazing stop-action photography just by using their standard flash units in manual mode. There are two principles you must understand to get started.

First, when using flash as your main light source, the duration of the flash burst becomes your effective shutter speed. Your flash must be the main light source though, completely overpowering the ambient light. In this way your actual camera’s shutter speed is irrelevant as long as the shutter is open when the flash fires. But it cannot be open so long that it lets enough ambient light in to affect the exposure.

As an example, when I am photographing bats in the dark I will often leave my shutter open on bulb and set the trigger to fire the flashes. Now when the beam is tripped it fires the flashes which makes the exposure. I then reset the camera shutter and wait for the next bat to fly through the beam which will again trigger the flashes.

Secondly, most flash units cut the power in manual mode by shortening the flash duration. This means when you manually dial your flash back to 1/8th power you get an approximate flash duration (effective shutter speed) of 1/6,000th of a second. At 1/16th power this becomes a blazing 1/11,000th of a second! That is fast enough to freeze a hummingbird’s wings in flight. For insects in flight, I use 1/64th power which is a mind-numbing 1/32,000th of a second!

Wren Pair, Brighton, MI  DM  Nikon D300, 200-400 zoom, 1/200th @ f22, ISO100 f flashes infrared trigger Digitally Manipulated image: This is a two image composite, the right side and the left side, are two different images combine
Wren Pair, Brighton, MI DM
Nikon D300, 200-400 zoom, 1/200th @ f22, ISO100 f flashes infrared trigger
Digitally Manipulated image: This is a two image composite, the right side and the left side, are two different images combine

Equipment for High-Speed Photography

Lighting

For most true high-speed photography electronic flash is required. When the flash is the main light source (overpowering the ambient light) the flash duration becomes the effective shutter speed. So even though your camera’s sync speed may be 1/200th of a second, the flash duration of 1/11,000th of a second is what actually makes the exposure and freezes the action.

Nikon SB-800s – Usually dialed down to 1/16th power for a 1/11,000th of a second flash duration
Nikon SB-600s – Usually dialed down to 1/16th power for a 1/11,000th of a second flash duration
Fotronix Stoplight SL-80 – Giant custom made flashes created just for high-speed work.

Violet-tailed Sylph , Tandayapa Valley Ecuador  Nikon D300S, 200-400 zoom, 1/200th @ f16, ISO 200, 7 flashes @ 1/16th power
Violet-tailed Sylph , Tandayapa Valley Ecuador
Nikon D300S, 200-400 zoom, 1/200th @ f16, ISO 200, 7 flashes @ 1/16th power
I use the Nikon flashes (dialed down) for the bulk of my high-speed work. If I need durations of 1/25,000th of a second and a lot of light I use the Fotronix system. The Nikon’s dialed down to 1/64th power are a blazing fast 1/32,000th of a second. However, at that power light output is greatly diminished.

Triggering Systems

While you can do some types of high-speed photography without a trigger (hummingbirds for instance), a trigger system will greatly expand your photographic possibilities, as well as give you more precise control over your final compositions. A trigger system is simply a beam, either infrared or laser, that when tripped will fire your camera, and or flashes. More advanced trigger systems like the Cognisys StopShot and Cognisys Sabre can be setup with two beams in a cross-beam configuration (forming an X) so that the camera will only fire when both beams are broken allowing for pinpoint accuracy so you know exactly where your subject will be when the camera fires!

Cognisys Sabre – Infrared LIDAR trigger device extremely versatile and completely configurable. The Sabre can also be used as a trail camera.
Cognisys Range IR – Infrared trigger device transmitter and receiver in one device. Very simple to use can be setup as a trail camera
Cognisys StopShot – A truly multipurpose, configurable, and programmable trigger system. The most versatile triggering system available!
Cognisys Insect Rig – Simply the best way I know to photograph insects in flight!

High-Speed Shutter

One of the challenges of certain types of high-speed photography is shutter lag. In most modern DSLRs the shutter lag can be anywhere from 35ms to as long as 300ms! Not a big deal in normal photography but 150ms is a lifetime when dealing with a fast moving insect and very narrow depth of field due to working at magnification. The Cognisys high-speed shutter which opens in less than 6ms solves this problem. It mounts on the front of your lens and you leave your camera’s shutter open on the bulb setting. Then when your trigger system trips, it opens the high-speed shutter and fires the flashes to make the exposure.

Cognisys High-speed Shutter – Mounts to the front of your lens and has a response time of less than 6ms.

Support

Skullcap Fungus releasing Spores.  Nikon F4, 200mm macro, 1/200 @ f16, 2 Flashes @1/16th power
Skullcap Fungus releasing Spores.
Nikon F4, 200mm macro, 1/200 @ f16, 2 Flashes @1/16th power
Positioning all of your lights, triggering system, and props etc. can be a challenge. Here is a list of some of the things I find very useful for holding all of the gear in the studio or the field.

Manfrotto 001B Light stands – Very compact great for travel
Manfrotto 367B Light stands – My main studio light stand
Manfrotto 196 AB-2 – Articulating Arm I clamp two of these to a light stand to hold flashes etc.
Manfrotto Nano Clamp – I use these to clamp the arm above to a light stand
Giotto MH-1004 – Mini ballhead for light stands
Impact #3045 Mini Boom Arm – Great for positioning lights in hard to reach spots.
Whimberley Plamps – Great for holding props and other small items. Very versatile

Focus-stacking

There are many things I really enjoy about macro photography. I love that by moving in close I can show people things they would normally never really see. But as I began to move in closer and closer I quickly discovered that, the higher the magnification, the less depth of field (zone of sharpness) I had. So my photographic journey into the world of the really small stopped. Until now!

Now we have the ability to “focus stack” images in the computer. What that means is that we can take several images shot at different focus points of our subject. Then use a computer program designed specifically to combine just the sharp parts of these images creating one sharp image, with what before now, would have been impossible depth of field!

Green Darner Headshot, Brighton, MI  DM  Nikon D300S, Nikon 200mm macro with an old Nikkor movie lens used as a diopter + extension, 1 second @ f20, ISO 200, Six images used for focus stack at bottom. Final stacked image above.  Click to enlarge
Green Darner Headshot, Brighton, MI DM
Nikon D300S, Nikon 200mm macro with an old Nikkor movie lens used as a diopter + extension, 1 second @ f20, ISO 200, Six images used for focus stack at bottom. Final stacked image above.
Click to enlarge

Most serious Macro Photographers use a rail system to hold their camera on the tripod. Because when photographing at magnification it is usually easiest to fine tune the focus by moving the camera back and forth using a rail system. A rail makes creating images for focus stacking a little easier, because it allows you to make a picture move a little closer (which changes the focus point) take another picture, repeat, until you have all of the images you think you will need to create your final “stacked” image. Although it is not at all precise, in fact, it’s downright sloppy, and very hard to have consistent results.

Enter the Cognisys StackShot which is a very precise automated rail that not only moves your camera through your stack sequence, it actually fires the camera and does all of the math for you as well! This makes creating images for focus stacking very precise and easy.

Horsefly Face, Brighton, MI DM  Nikon D4S, 200mm macro with 105mm Bellows lens reverse mounted + extension tubes, 1/2 @ f22, ISO 200, Cognisys Stack Shot  Digitally Manipulated image: 10 shot focus stack
Horsefly Face, Brighton, MI DM
Nikon D4S, 200mm macro with 105mm Bellows lens reverse mounted + extension tubes, 1/2 @ f22, ISO 200, Cognisys Stack Shot
Digitally Manipulated image: 10 shot focus stack
I simply set up on my subject, manually set my exposure. Then I use the StackShot rail to move my camera back and forth until the part of my subject that is closest to the camera is sharp. I then tell the StackShot to use that as my starting point. Then I move the camera closer to the subject until the farthest point I want sharp is in focus. I then tell StackShot to use that as my endpoint. The last bit of information required is to tell StackShot how many images I want it to create. This comes from experience, and depends on the magnification I am working at as well as how much depth I am trying to cover. StackShot then calculates precisely how far it needs to travel between each shot. I find for the subjects I am working on it usually ranges from 4 to 10 images. Although I have seen stacked images using hundreds of shots!

Once I have input all of the information, which I can do surprisingly quickly. I simply push the start button. The StackShot rail automatically moves the camera back to the starting position, waits a pre-programmed settle time for any vibrations from its movement to dissipate (I have mine set up for a 2.5 second delay). Then it makes the first image, moves to the next spot, waits the settle time, then creates another image etc. until it creates all of the images for “the stack”. Then it travels back to the start position and asks me if I want to run the sequence again? In case I bumped the tripod or my subject moved during the sequence. Simple, elegant, precise, brilliant!

Once I have all the images downloaded onto my hard drives, I use Zerene Stacker software to combine them. Those of you who know me know that I am not much of a “computer guy”. This program is very simple I just drag the images into a box and let it do its thing. Although, I am sure I am just scratching the surface of the capabilities of this program. It works very well for me. The other dedicated focus stacking program to consider is Helicon. Photoshop also has the ability to stack images, although from my understanding, it is not nearly as precise as the dedicated stacking programs.

Partners

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Steve's Gear

Getting all the gear ready to lead a Photo Tour to Costa Rica Not a lot of room for clothes here!

I have a lot of gear! Mainly because I do a lot of different types of nature photography, which require different kinds of tools. But also because I have been accumulating this gear over the course of a 30-year career. Remember, while the right gear can certainly open up some creative doors in your photography, it can never replace hard work and a good eye.

Camera Gear

Nikon D4S
Nikon D500
Nikon D300S
Nikon D600
Nikon 600mm f4
Nikon 200-400mm f4
Nikon 80-400mm f4
Nikon 300mm 2.8
Nikon 80-200mm f2.8
Nikon 24-85mm f2.8-4
Nikon 17-35mm f2.8
Nikon 200mm Macro
Nikon 105mm Macro
Nikon TC14E II Tele-converter
Nikon TC17E II Tele-converter
Nikon TC20E II Tele-converter
Nikon SB-800 and SB-600 Flashes

Support

Gitzo 3542-LS Tripod
Arca Swiss Z1 Panorama Ballhead
Whimberly Gimbal Head

Specialty Macro Equipment

Nikon PB-6 Bellows
Nikon 105mm f4 Bellows Lens
Nikon Extension Tubes
Nikon 4T Close-up Diopter
Velbon Focusing Rail
Cognisys StackShot Automated Rail System
Nikon R1-C1 Macro Flash
Canon 70D
Canon MPE-65 1X-5X Macro Zoom
Olympus Plan-N 10X Microscope Objective
Mitutoyo M-Plan 2X Microscope Objective
Mitutoyo M-Plan 5X Microscope Objective

Macro Support

Gitzo 340 Tripod
Manfrotto 405 Geared Pan Tilt Head
Kaiser RS-1 Copy Stand

Camera Bags

Lowepro Super Trekker
Think Tank Airport Addicted

Hunt’s Photo Video

You can purchase your equipment a lot of different places I choose Hunt’s Photo Video for many reasons. Their customer service is absolutely second to none, they will actually take time to answer questions and help you. They are a family owned business rooted in the local community, not a big faceless corporation. They have the same prices as everyone else, often better.

Gary Farber (the companies Vice-president and the hardest working man in photography) works tirelessly to support photographic organizations. He sits on the board of NANPA and is involved in many other organizations. If you have been to a high profile photography event, you have likely run in to Gary.

I feel I should note here that Hunt’s does not pay me for this endorsement. I do this because Hunt’s supports photography and photographers and we all should support them.

My “guy” at Hunt’s is Alan he can be reached at: 781-662-8822, or by email at alansamhunts@gmail.com.
Try them out you will thank me.