East Grinstead photographer and filmmaker Nitsan Simantov. Wedding photography and commercial video production in London and West Sussex.

High-speed photography with Pixapro's continuous lighting

Here's the creepy photo of my desk. I wonder if some ghost can claim copyright of this. (Joking of course)

[Note: As always, I do not work for Pixapro or any other manufacturer..]

I woke up at 4am this morning when my 5D Mark III took a photo all on its own. Yes, creepiest thing ever.

I spent a bit of time looking at some lighting tutorials online, as a lighting geek it's something I enjoy any time of the day. Now I already knew that these Pixapro 100D continuous LED lights are amazing for photography just like they are for video (and I have already claimed they are probably the best lights ever), but I didn't realize until this morning that they are actually bright enough for high-speed photography. A quick test confirmed my suspicions.

Now I'm not talking about extreme "bullet stopping" stuff, which needs to be done with some specialized strobes and dedicated high-speed trigger systems, but I'm able to easily get photos of people jumping, liquid splashes, even some photos of shooting stuff with an air gun using some cheap sound triggers [LINK], although I won't be able to "freeze" the pellet in mid air at my maximum 1/8000. Even just two of the Pixapros with their huge softboxes on gave me enough light at a normal shooting distance from the subject, about 1.5m away, easily enough for lighting a person.

Me throwing a shirt at 1/8000 shutter speed. This sort of photo seems simple but it's actually not that easy to do well with artificial lighting.

Shutter speeds and exposure:

My aim was to get to a 1/8000th of a second shutter speed, which is the fastest you can do on professional full frame cameras, although a few recent crop-sensor cameras can reach a faster 1/16,000th of a second. To do this with the lighting setup above, I set my aperture to f2 on my Voightlander 35mm f1.4 and the ISO to 12,800, which is a cakewalk for the Sony A7s. This ISO is reachable on the 5D Mark III and other professional cameras but only a few perform well at this ISO, so if we want to keep to a lower ISO we actually still have a lot of wiggle room to allow for fast shutter speeds, here are the variables we can control to allow for some high speed shooting:

  • First of all, the photo above was back-lit. The front of the shirt was mainly lit by light bouncing around the room. Lighting the subject more from the front or sides would give a brighter subject.
  • A lower shutter speed. 1/8000 is often overkill. As a rough example, starting at 1/1000 should be better for most uses, such as a person moving, this gives us back a lot of light.
  • We can remove the fabric diffuser from the front of the softboxes to get more light. This would give a slightly harsher light. Or removing the softbox completely and using the small bowl reflectors that come with the Pixapros, which would give a much brighter and harder light. (Hard lighting means lighting from a small area, which causes stronger shadows.)
  • Bring the lights closer. We get four times as much light every time we half the distance to the subject. This is just how light works, it's called the inverse square law.
  • Use more lights. My pixapro kit is currently three lights (two of which were used in the examples here) but I will likely add one or two more soon.  
  • Open the aperture, I often prefer shooting wide open anyways so for me this is not a problem.

Me dropping some balls into my half-made tool box. Click for larger.

Here's a photo shot at 1/2000, ISO 500, f2.8, with two lights up close with their bowl reflectors on. These settings are easily done even on the cheapest entry level DSLR or mirrorless camera these days.

Remember to disable the "electronic front curtain shutter" setting if your camera has it, because it may cause some minor flickering (horizontal lines on the image). This is a setting which tells the camera to start scanning the sensor electronically rather than doing it all using the mechanical shutter. I am not sure if there are any other things that might cause flickering. If you look hard enough you can see it in the shot of the flying shirt which I took before I turned off that setting.

Now of course there are other options for high speed photography, but personally I much prefer to shoot with continuous lighting rather than strobes. 

Advantages to using continuous lighting:

  • No straining on the eyes from bright flashes in a darkened room.
  • No syncing limits or issues between the lights and the camera.
  • I only have to invest in one good lighting kit for both video and photography.
  • Allows you to work in a very brightly lit room so you can see what you're doing.
  • I don't have to use lower power outputs in order to get faster speeds. I can shoot at very high shutter speeds to stop motion, rather than rely on flash durations.
  • I can shoot as many frames as my camera can handle without ever having to worry about strobe recycling times.
  • I can see my lighting while I'm setting up without the need to take a photo.
  • I can use any camera I want without needing compatible triggers, which are not always available or affordable.

Advantages to strobes:

  • Much cheaper batteries, which is good if you want to use it outdoors.
  • Shorter flash durations, depending on how much you spend it can be enough to take a photo of a real bullet mid-flight.
  • Let me know in the comments if I've missed something. 

[Note: The test shots in this article were processed, just like I do for most my photography.]

me in front of the 150cm (5 foot!) Pixapro quick-open octodome "umbrella-softbox" that arrived from Pixapro this morning. Hard to get an idea of the size of the octodome in this photo since I'm closer to the camera, but just imagine 5 feet of pure lighting awesomeness and you'll get an idea of what this thing is like. Shot using the wireless Sony/NEX/A7S remote I just reviewed {LINK}.

Update 1:

This worked amazingly well in a real shoot. My friend Andi was jumping to get a "floating" look. everything was shot at 1/4000, approx 3200 ISO and f2.8 on the Sony A7s and Samyang 35mm f1.4 lens.

One of the first test shots. Lights a bit too close, background a bit too low, and front light a bit too bright for the style I wanted.

Screenshot of one of the raw images. Unedited.

Here is the final one. Lit with two 100D lights at maximum brightness (the two back lights) and one 100D at the front at minimum power with a piece of black foil in the softbox to lower its brightness even further, something I talked about in my video review of this light. The back lights had the 120cm softboxes and the front used the 150cm octodome softbox.

After some editing in Photoshop, this is the final result. I left the softboxes in the shot to give the feeling of some sort of location rather than just a blank background.

I tried a version that looked like this as well, but I preferred the clean one, as did some people I asked.

A screenshot from the tutorial. Video below.

Another photo from this shoot. This one was edited very quickly so it is far from perfect.

The background for this was the scrim (white translucent piece) from the huge Pixapro 7-in-1 reflector kit.  It's a really nice easy way to get a perfect white background. Lit with three 100Ds.

Another quick shot from this shoot. All back-lit using one 100D through the large scrim.

Here is the video

Pixapro items are available via these links:

Click here to see my full Pixapro 100D LED light written and video review.  There are also alternatives at the bottom of the article for those of you in the USA.

Click here to see my full Pixapro 100D LED light written and video review. There are also alternatives at the bottom of the article for those of you in the USA.

(As far as I know there is only one distributor for Pixapro products, all these links are the various ways you can buy from them. The first two links are my affiliate links, so I get a small commission from Amazon or eBay them if you purchase through them.)
The TSL-2009 eBay store here (LINK)
Pixapro on Amazon (LINK) (LINK)
Those of you in the USA can now get them too! (Rebranded as Neewer.)
Here are eBay and Amazon links.