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Shooting Outdoor Extreme Sports with Hypersync Strobes

Shooting Outdoor Extreme Sports with Hypersync StrobesAmong the myriad of technological developments in photography, high speed flash synchronization allows for the creation of photos that wasn’t possible a few years ago. Outdoor/Adventure photographer Michael Clark has been experimenting with PocketWizard’s version called Hypersync along with Elinchrom strobes for his latest Hypersync Ice Climbing and Hypersync Surfing projects, which were recently featured on the Elinchrom blog. To see more images and get some background on these projects please visit the links provided here.

What is the appeal of overpowering the sun with strobes? Are you looking to heighten the drama?

Typically when using strobes if you want to create a dramatic mood you light the subject so they are a bit brighter than the background – usually you want the subject around half a stop to one stop brighter than the ambient light. This darkens the background and directs all the attention to your subject. You can certainly light your subject so that the background is brighter than your subject or the background and your subject are evenly lit. It just depends on what you are going for.

Photo by Michael ClarkFor my latest work where I used strobes to shoot ice climbing and surfing, I wanted to highlight the athletes and bring out all the crazy details in the ice and the flying water droplets. For the ice climbing images in particular, using strobes brings an incredible amount of drama that just isn’t there when you shoot using just the available light.

What is Hypersync?

The explanation of what is actually happening when using Hypersync lighting techniques is a bit complex. Basically, the PocketWizard transceiver is timing the flash sync so that when the shutter slit opens and closes it does so during the brightest part of the flash burst, which in this case is longer than the actual shutter speed. Hypersync allows us to use much higher shutter speeds and still sync with the flash. So, in effect, you are using a slice of the light emitted by the strobe to light your subject. The ability to use a much higher shutter speed allows us to darken the background and therefore overpower daylight with less light output from the strobe or from farther away.

Photo by Michael ClarkAs an example, with the 1, 100 Watt/second Elinchrom Rangers strobe, when using Hypersync at full power on the Rangers, I am not using all 1, 100 Watt/seconds of the light emitted by the strobe because I am only using a slice of that light. When using Hypersync, dialing in your exposure settings can be tricky because a light meter would read the entire flash output not the slice of light actually used. To get a correct exposure using Hypersync, I adjust the flash output and the exposure settings until the histogram is lined up just right on the camera’s rear LCD. I have heard some photographers call Hypersync “voodoo” lighting because it requires a bit of experimentation. I will confess, it does require some experimentation and the right gear to make it work. But in my experience, it is fairly easy to figure out and when you get it dialed in, it can help to create stunning images as shown here. The gear required to make Hypersync work is extremely specific and was pioneered by the folks at PocketWizard. Hence, this isn’t a technique you can use with any strobe on the market.Photo by Michael Clark It only works with a very few specific strobes and even a small selection of cameras.

I can understand the necessity of a higher shutter speed for the surfing shot, but why does Hypersync matter for an ice climbing photo? Why can’t you just use a neutral density filter and a lower shutter speed?

I have shot ice climbing using standard shutter speeds before and it works but you have to wait until dark or just after the sun sets before you can actually get enough light on your subject with one flash head. Of course, I could pull out multiple flash heads and power packs and create enough light with enough gear but then I am still locked into the 1/250th second flash sync of my Nikon cameras. Using Hypersync allows me to shoot in the middle of the day and make it look like it was shot at night with one flash head. The high shutter speed used for the ice climbing images, which was 1/1, 000th second, also allows me to get sharper images with the Nikon D800 because it is quite sensitive to motion blur and at 1/250th second shutter speed I am right on the edge of what I can handhold with that camera. Of course, I could have shot with a Nikon D4s or another camera with less resolution that wasn’t as sensitive but I really wanted the high-resolution files that the D800 produces for these images.

The other bonus of using Hypersync with the ice climbing shot is that it lit up the entire gorge all the way to bottom. When I tried this with normal flash techniques and one flash head a few years ago, I had to wait until the climber was at least half way up the climb before the lighting was really effective.

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