Flash Sync Speeds… No Experience Necessary

Bar caused by too high a shutter speed

First, a disclaimer.  This is a very complex and scientific subject, and I’m going to do my best to explain this topic in very simple terms because this is an oft-misunderstood subject.  So if you’re an advanced super-photographer, just feel free to tell me what I missed in the comments below, but know that I probably skipped it on purpose.

The path to understanding flash sync speeds begins with understanding the shutter in your DSLR camera.  The shutter is made up of two curtains that quickly slide from the bottom of the frame to the top of the frame, thus revealing a slit of light.  The two curtains move very quickly.  In fact, on most cameras, if the shutter speed is under 1/200th of a second, then the entire sensor will be revealed before the second curtain begins to slide across the sensor.

Like shutters, the light coming from a flash is extremely fast.  One burst of light from a flash begins and ends in 1/500th of a second or faster.  The trouble with flash is that, if a shutter speed of over (or faster than) 1/200th of a second is used, the flash can only illuminate the portion of the image that is not covered by the sliding shutter.  That leaves part of the image correctly exposed, and part of the image dark and untouched by flash.  Woops!  In case you are wondering what that looks like, check out the disastrous piece of photography to the left.

So what can you do to fix this short-coming of flash photography?  Two answers.

First, if you are using the flash made by the manufacturer of your camera, you can often bump it up a little higher–often to 1/250th or 1/320th.  There is a setting in your camera menu that will allow you to enable this function.  This is convenient for shooting a wedding or other event where you’ll often have the flash on the camera and bounce the light off walls or the ceiling.

Second, if you buy one of the new fancy flashes from either Canon or Nikon, you can use what is called high-speed sync.  This turns your flash into a machine gun, but with less destruction.  It makes the flash fire several low-power extremely quick bursts of light.  The multiple bursts will occur at planned times during the exposure so that the whole frame will be illuminated.  With high speed flash sync, photographers can use shutter speeds of over (or faster than) 1/1000th of a second.  If you turn on high-speed flash sync and you only detect one burst of light, it is because the bursts occur so quickly and in such rapid a succession that it is impossible to detect the multiple bursts.

There you have it… flash sync speed.   Have a question about something that wasn’t quite clear?  Leave a comment below!

  • Lacie Oakey

    Hi Jim. I’ve understood flash sync speed for some time now after the first time I had that black bar at the bottom of my picture, so I have since made sure to keep my shutter below 1/200/s. I thought, Ok problem solved. Well it solves one problem and creates another. I have been using a couple of the Yongnuo speed lights that I know you like. But I have a Canon camera. So If I don’t have a Canon speed light, I’m not able to set it to a higher sync speed? Here is my problem. Sometimes, I’m shooting sunset shoots on the beach and want to take a picture of a dad throwing his child up in the air or a person running on the beach. I want my flash for better lighting, but the 1/200 is too slow for the action especially when shooting at longer focal lengths. Is my only option to get a Canon speed light instead of using Yongnuo?

    • Lacie Oakey

      I think I found a solution. I’d have to use a different transmitter and receiver than that generic one I use. Yongnuo YN622 Wireless ETTL Flash Trigger Receiver. It is $80 on Amazon.

      • Jim Harmer

        Hey Lacie!

        Two possible solutions: (1) You’re exactly right. You could use the YN flash that does high speed sync, or (2) You could just turn up the flash power higher. Since the flash DURATION is incredibly fast (MUCH faster than the 1/200 shutter speed), if there is more flash and less ambient, the problem is solved.

        Also, sometimes I cheat this and go up to 1/250 or 1/320 and then just plan to crop off little black bar at the bottom. Not the best solution, but it does work…

        Good to hear from you! Hope all is well.

  • Rob Ruttan

    Here’s a question, and it’s probably quite niave. I have a Canon EOS 7D and Canon 320EX Speedlight. I think my problem is that I have a very second-rate transmitter, something called a Micnova. When I mount the Speedlight directly onto my camera, I can change various setting on the flash — Second Curtain and a few other things — but when this ratty little trigger is on the camera tells me it’s incompatible. Would a better trigger let me at those controls?