Pushing the Limits With Light and Speed

by Theanos Nikitas

Photo by Sarah Silver, Dress by J. Mendel

Silver created this image of New York City ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns for the cover of Dance Magazine using rear curtain sync to show Mearns' 'explosive' style of dancing.

January 09, 2013

Rumor has it that in the late 1800s, railroad tycoon Leland Stanford wagered a significant amount of money that a horse’s four limbs come off the ground at the same time while running. To prove his point, Stanford—who owned a horse-training farm—hired Eadweard Muybridge to take what may be considered the first high-speed photographs ever recorded. Muybridge set up 12 cameras with wires that tripped the shutters as the horse passed by. All 12 images were captured in less than half of a second, an amazing feat considering that, at the time, most exposures took more than a minute. But Stanford’s theory was verified as Muybridge developed and arranged the plates side-by-side, showing the horse’s sequence of movement. Muybridge continued to expand the limits of photography throughout his career, pioneering the study of animal and human locomotion and motion pictures. 

Fast forward to 1931 when Harold “Doc” Edgerton developed the electronic strobe at MIT and, like Muybridge, showed us what was invisible to the eye. Edgerton photographed the full motion of a golf swing, a bullet piercing an apple, and a milk drop that took the form of a coronet as it splashed, to name just a few of his iconic images. 

Muybridge and Edgerton’s groundbreaking work paved the way for today’s photographers who are using 21st century tools to create images that would make those early pioneers of high-speed photography proud. We interviewed two photographers—Sarah Silver and Chris Garrison—to gain insight into how they use light and speed to capture motion. We chose to juxtapose these two photographers not only for their talent and amazing imagery, but also because while their goals are (in some ways) the same, the methods they use to achieve those goals are distinctly different. To create images with trails, Silver  uses slow shutter speed with a short flash duration while Garrison pushes shutter speeds to 1/1200th second and beyond. 

Sarah Silver

For New York City-based photographer Sarah Silver, movement and photography are almost synonymous, creating a synergy that extends from her work with dancers to images she creates for fashion and beauty clients. Capturing motion, says Silver, takes “good gut instinct, quick reflexes and a lot of practice shooting movement.” After that, the next challenge is “keeping the images fresh, the work modern and not dated or gimmicky.”  With a seemingly bottomless well of creativity (and, if you’ve ever seen her shoot, boundless energy), it’s no wonder that Silver keeps pushing the boundaries of her work. 

Silver currently shoots with a Hasselblad H4X medium-format camera outfitted with an HDV 90X viewfinder, a Phase One IQ140 digital back and Hasselblad HC 100mm f/2.2, HC 80mm f/2.8 and HC 120mm macro f/4 II lenses. When she switched to the H4X from a Hasselblad 503W body/Phase P45+ digital back, which she often shot tethered, with the camera on a tripod and triggered remotely, Silver went back to the “lo-fi” method of handheld shooting. “It allows me to shoot a little more rogue,” says Silver “. . .and for a more organic experience. The shots come alive more and the new [H4X] camera has allowed me to be much more connected with the subjects again, and I like that.” 

For lighting, Silver depends on her broncolor Scoro S packs to power her broncolor strobes, which she triggers with PocketWizard Plus IIIs. She supplements the strobes with continuous light from broncolor Kobolds and various modifiers. Naturally, each shoot requires its own lighting setup but Silver explains that, “I get into habits with light. I like to see how far I can push something until I get bored with it. That being said, I still haven’t gotten bored of using a simple broncolor Umbrella [silver, 82cm] for beauty. No matter what I do, I always go back to it for clean, beautiful light that accentuates skin and makeup texture and gives great color saturation to the makeup.” 

To create “trails” and a sense of motion, Silver uses a slow shutter speed (often averaging between 1/8th to 1 second in mixed lighting), low ISO and a stopped-down f/stop for depth-of-field. Strobes are dialed down to low power but set on a short (fast) duration of 1/2000th of a second or faster. But, Silver cautions, you need to try different shutter speeds “to see how you like it. Fabric, the speed of the movement and the placement of the hotlights will all change the outcome. If you go too crazy and use a super-long shutter, the look can get too messy.”

There are various ways to capture movement, and Silver finds that using rear-curtain sync often delivers the perfect balance of blur and sharpness. When asked to photograph New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns for the June 2012 cover of Dance Magazine, Silver and Mearns discussed various ideas for the shoot and, as Mearns explains, “A lot of the cover shoots had been static and posed and they didn’t really speak to me...I’m never in one position for more than a half second. [Static poses] are not what I’m known for. Sarah has that special way to accentuate the movement and we just knew that this was going to be something really awesome.” Mearns goes on to say that, “We wanted the cover to be like an explosion—that’s how people characterize my dancing on stage. We wanted a kind of glamorous explosion of what a ballerina is.” Mearns selected flowing dresses that would not only show off the strength of her legs and body, but would show movement and work well with the lighting. Posed against a gray backdrop and using a fan, Mearns flipped her hair up as Silver captured the image at f/18 and ¼ of a second. The combination of strobes (broncolor lightbars—one 120 and two 60s—to stop the action), hot lights (Kobold 800s for the burn on the hair and skirt) and rear-curtain sync not only provided a beautiful trail of movement (along with a sharp image thanks to the flash), but Silver lit the scene to give Mearns’ hair a “fiery” look. When everyone saw the image, “the place erupted,” says Mearns.

To capture trails, Silver says it’s important to use the “rear-curtain sync so that the trail comes before the flash freezes the movement. It gets tricky and you need to time the moment so that they end up where you want them in the frame and in their movement when the flash goes off.” 

But the subject doesn’t always have to be the one who’s moving. Silver will often move the camera (and sometimes even have one of her assistants shake her) for interesting lighting effects, as she did with a series of images she shot outdoors at night for Cosmopolitan magazine. Silver explains, “We wanted to find a way to give the idea that the city and the nightlife is vibrating and what better way to show that the city is electric by showing the model with undefined edges?” 

Whether she’s photographing dancers frozen in a firestorm of water or a Muybridge-esque running sequence for Nike, Silver’s lighting, timing and vision are spot-on at capturing exciting images at the peak of the moment. (Visit www.sarahsilver.com and be sure to scroll through the video section to get a behind-the-scenes look at her Dance Magazine shoot with Sara Mearns or check out the video here.)

Chris Garrison

At the other end of the lighting spectrum is Chris Garrison, whose @flashgarrison Twitter handle says it all. This Florida-based freelance photographer (first featured in Rangefinder in June 2011) also shoots for Red Bull and specializes in extreme sports by pushing shutter speed and flash to the edge and beyond. Although Garrison also does a lot of commercial and editorial photography, his wakeboarding and snowboarding images are some the best examples of how he uses PocketWizard’s HyperSync technology to stop action at shutter speeds often at 1/1200th second and above.

Elinchrom Ranger RX units and heads are critical components of Garrison’s kit, along with multiple PocketWizards (including FlexTT5s, ST4s), a couple of Nikon SB800s (for the occasional fill when he can’t use the Rangers at an event) and two Nikon D3s cameras. His go-to lenses include NIKKOR 24-70mm, 70-200mm, 85mm and 35mm fast lenses. Other assorted gear includes Hoya filters, Kupo Grip and assorted wires and accessories, which he fits into one F-Stop Gear Satori and two Loka packs. When he’s shooting in the snow, he’ll only take two of the Rangers with him (“you can hike and sled only so much weight”), but for his in- and on-the-water shoots, he generally uses three to four Elinchrom Rangers.

Unlike Silver’s use of slow shutter speeds and low-power flash technique, Garrison needs high-power output from his flash and a super-fast shutter speed to capture the action of extreme sports. As he explains, “Everybody pictures that a fast strobe freezes motion...and your flash will freeze what you see, but you’ll still have motion trails with a slow shutter.”

For wakeboarding, the setup often revolves around three boats: one to pull the wakeboarder, one for Garrison to shoot from (with a set of Rangers) and a third boat with additional Rangers. Speed, distance and overpowering the sunlight are three of the challenges that Garrison faces, not to mention capturing the “right” moment when the wakeboarder is in the perfect position and exhibiting the correct form during the trick or movement.

In order to light the wakeboarder—who may be 70 to 80 feet from Garrison’s boat and sometimes 30 to 40 feet from the chase boat—Garrison needs a lot of power. If he’s shooting at 1/1200th of a second or higher, the Rangers are on full blast. He also needs the strong output of light to overcome the bright ambient sunlight. 

Since the boats are moving and the wakeboarder is whizzing by at 20-plus miles per hour, Garrison needs a faster-than-average shutter speed. Although, he points out, if his boat is going the same speed as the wakeboarder, he can get away with a shutter speed of around 1/600th of a second but, more often than not, he’s using a high shutter speed.

One of the benefits of PocketWizard’s HyperSync versus High Speed Sync is not only super-fast shutter speeds, but also the ability, through the PocketWizard Utility, to adjust the sync and expose the image at the brightest peak of the flash. 

He has several FlexTT5s, labeled and set up for different settings and different distances. “If you’re shooting somebody 80 feet away versus 30 feet away, there’s a difference in the amount of time it takes for the flash to get there and get back.” 

But Garrison’s not always photographing from a boat. He’ll sometimes stand in the water up to his shoulders (and, no, he doesn’t use a housing for his camera), holding the camera out of the water and setting up his Rangers on ladders. Alternatively, he’ll also set up on land when photographing a rail (sort of like a banister, but for wakeboarders) shot. Because he’s closer to his subjects, he’ll still use flash on full power, but will slow down his shutter speed and open up the aperture to help separate the subject from the background.

Depending on the scene, Garrison will sometimes shoot at even slower shutter speeds at night in the snow to bring out the dark background and paint with light. But, if he wants to bring down or eliminate the ambient light, he’ll go back to HyperSync speed. 

As we all know, if the shutter speed is too fast, the full frame may not be totally exposed and Garrison will sometimes shoot at 1/4000th of a second to utilize the curtain fade to, for example, isolate the rider with no light spill on the water. “That’s why it looks fake to some people,” says Garrison, who post-processes his images in Lightroom but only for minor adjustments. 

Interestingly, Garrison uses HyperSync for his outdoor lifestyle shots, too. He’ll set up his Rangers with various modifiers and a scrim to soften the harsh sunlight shadows. He’ll shoot at 1/800th of a second in order to use a low f/stop (e.g., f/3.5) to achieve the bokeh he wants for the image. 

There’s no set formula for getting the best exposures when utilizing HyperSync—it varies depending on the camera/flash combination—but if you have the motivation, as Garrison did, to work through various settings to see what’s best for your gear, you’ll be well-rewarded. 

To see more of Garrison’s work, visit: www.chrisgarrisonphotography.com. PocketWizard (www.pocketwizard.com) has tons of great information about HyperSync on its site, along with an archived webinar—complete with videos—featuring Garrison demonstrating HyperSync. 

While you may not be photographing wakeboarders or even dancers anytime soon, the techniques used by these two talented photographers may well find their way into your shooting repertoire. 

Theano Nikitas, a full-time freelance writer and photographer, has been writing about photography for the past 18 years. Her digital imaging reviews, features, “how-to” articles and images have appeared in American Photo, CNET.com, DigitalCameraReview.com, DPReview.com, Imaging-Resource.com, Macworld, PC World, PDN and Popular Photography/PopPhoto.com. Although she loves digital, Theano still has a darkroom and a fridge filled with film thanks to her long-time passion for alternative processes and toy cameras. 

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