How I Fooled 316 Photographers

Rock star air guitar

This is the photo that I put on Facebook and held a contest to have people guess what shutter speed and aperture I used.

I know…it probably isn’t unfair to title this article “How I fooled 316 photographers” but nobody would have clicked on it if I named the article “How nobody on Facebook correctly guessed the aperture and shutter speed of this photo even though it was really tricky.”

The background story

I was on a big shoot two weekends ago with multiple models and multiple assistants.  One of the models is a great dancer, so I decided to do some edgy portraits of her dancing around the studio.  Then, we decided to try something fun and make a shot of her like a rock star (the photo featured on this page).  So, we grabbed a few flashes, gelled them with various colors, and put them behind the model.  Since I short one flash (my fourth got knocked into the lake earlier this day), I had an assistant shine a cell phone on the front of the model for a little fill light (I know… totally low budget, right?).

The photos looked cool, but we needed something with more action, so  I asked the model to swing her hair around and rock an air guitar (probably not what she had in mind when we agreed on $20/hour for her modeling services).  Anyway, it made for a really fun shot.

When taking the shot, I used some NON-traditional camera settings just to prove a point.  As a teaching experience, I uploaded the shot on the Improve Photography Facebook Page and held a little contest to see what member of our community could guess the shutter speed and aperture.

316 photographers submitted guesses in the contest… but none of them were right.  In fact, none of them were even close.  Here is how I “fooled” all of them.

Young female dancer standing in the dance studio

Another photo from the same studio shoot. f/8, 1/200th, ISO 200. One small softbox directly above the camera and two bare flashes 5 feet behind and off to each side of the model on 3/4 power as rim lights.

The answer

During the shoot,  one of my assistants asked what shutter speed I was using to freeze the action of the model’s hair.  I responded, “It doesn’t matter!”  Obviously, a discussion ensued.  How could it not matter what shutter speed I was using?  The hair was moving very fast, so a slow shutter speed would ruin the shot, right?  Not at all.

In fact, (drum roll) the shutter speed I used on this photo was 1 second.  Yes, a full second.  The aperture was f/8 and the ISO was at 800.

How did you do that with a slow shutter speed?

The photo was taken in a studio with all of the room lights turned off.  Because it was completely black in the room, only the flashes illuminated the model.  A little-known fact about flashes is that they only light up for only a tiny fraction of a second.  The duration of a flash completely depends on the particular speedlight, but suffice it to say that it is VERY fast (around 1/1000th of a second).

So, if the scene is completely black during the exposure for only the instant that the flash emits its light, then it makes no difference what the shutter speed is.  It doesn’t matter if the shutter speed is 1/200th of a second or 5 seconds.

In defense of all entrants in the contest…

Because the shutter speed doesn’t matter, it was impossible to know the camera settings by just looking at the picture.  The most common guess sent in by readers was f/8 at 1/200th of a second.  The reason that most people guessed this is that f/8 is often the sharpest aperture and 1/200th of a second is a common flash sync speed.  If you are flash sync speed illiterate, check out this article that explains it in easy-to-understand terms.

HOWEVER, I would have given the prize to anyone who saw the trick and simply wrote in that the shutter speed didn’t matter, or anyone who guessed a slow shutter speed.  Nobody did.  Not one person.  I gave the prize to the closest person, though.