Stop Action Photography Splash Duration: Using Flash Duration to Freeze Water (or Paint) Droplets

Freezing Motion – What is stop action and how is it achieved?

Among many reasons that people love making magic in photography, one of the top is the ability for a camera to freeze a perfect moment in time. In our day-to-day lives, everything moves quickly as an unfolding chain of events. But being able to control and capture the small details in the seconds that pass by grants us the ability to see things clearer.

That’s why photographers are often asked to “stop action in a shoot,” using a technique called stop motion or stop action photography to “freeze” elements in a frame and capture the details of an event within fractions of a second. From capturing action pictures of a glass of wine shattering to tennis players mid-swing to dancers midair, motion can be frozen in a picture using flash duration.

glassbreak image by Steven Duong

glassbreak“, © Steven Duong, November 4, 2010. Some Rights Reserved, no alterations made.

young man playing tennis image by Amanda Mills

young man, play, sport, game, tennis, stadium“, © Amanda Mills, USCDCP,  February 2, 2017. Free to Use CC0, no alterations made.

Flying Dancer by R.A. Killmer

Flying Dancer“, © R.A. Killmer, May 31, 2015. Some Rights Reserved, no alterations made.

This blog will cover the technical sides of stop action photography – understanding flash duration, shutter speeds, and how to understand a manufacturers spec sheet – as well as the creative sides on exactly how to do stop motion photography, plus some helpful tips to get you started.

The Technical Side

What is Flash Duration, and what are the standards for it?

To establish a comparison of technical specs, there HAS to be apples–to–apples comparisons and this is done through standardization. The International Standards Organization (ISO) has decreed that through the ISO 2827 for Photography / Electronic Flash Equipment, there is a Standard of Light Output and Performance, known as Flash Duration. Flash Duration by its simplest definition is the amplitude (or power), measured over time.

standard flash duration graph - amplitude over time

A standard graph of flash duration, measuring amplitude (power) over time.

flash duration graph - t0.5, 50% power

T0.5 vs. T0.1 ISO-2827 states there is a flash measuring calculation of t0.5 and t0.1, where t0.5 is the Effective Flash Duration and t0.1 is the Total Flash Duration. Table 2 shows the t0.5 measurement and it is 50% of power within the overall duration of the flash.

flash duration graph - t0.1, 10% power

The real measurement that photographers should be studying is the t0.1 number and that is the Total flash duration at 10% of the overall duration as illustrated in Table 3.

flash duration graph - t0.5 vs t.01

What can get confusing is the t0.5 measurement and how it stacks up against t0.1. If Tables 2 and 3 above were married for comparison, they would look like Table 4, where the t0.5 and t0.1 measurements are combined. In Table 4 below, the blue shading shows the amount of duration not calculated within the t0.5 specs. This means that there is still a fall-off of power while the strobe head and capacitor are being discharged.

All tables shown courtesy of Urs Recher

At what shutter speed stops motion?

The camera’s shutter speed is another factor to pair with flash duration in order to do stop action photography, as it will determine how the action in a photo is recorded.

A camera’s shutter determines how fast its aperture will open and close (maximum aperture), controlling the amount of light that enters a camera; a slower shutter speed allows more light into the camera. The shutter speed of a camera can stop motion depending on the speed of the action.
For example, the speed of the flapping wings of a hummingbird is much faster than the speed of a child riding a bike. To freeze the hummingbird wings, you would need over 1/2000s shutter speed, whereas a bike might be frozen in picture at a slow shutter speed 1/250s. But if your shutter speed is too slow for your action scene, action & blurred motion will be captured and in some instances, elements in your photo may disappear. You will always need to adjust shutter speed depending on how fast your action shots are, but a general rule of thumb would be to start at 1/500s for fairly quick motion.

How to understand the minimum and maximum power on your spec sheet

Manufacturers want to put their best foot forward for their products, and why not? Just make sure you are reading ALL of the information and not just some snippets of data. Manufacturers are not going to publish false data but they could always include just a little more. Below are some screen grabs of published spec sheets where some list minimum and maximum power of both t0.5 and t0.1.

Flash Duration - Normal Model Table for MobileFlash Duration - Freeze Model Table for Mobile
Flash Duration - t.01 Table Part One MobileFlash Duration - t.01 Table Part Two Mobile
Flash Duration - t.5 Table Part One MobileFlash Duration - t.5 Table Part Two Mobile

Now you understand the t0.5 and t0.1 settings, so how does flash duration and shutter speed relate to stopping action? Simple, flash duration controls the freezing action and shutter speed controls the ambient exposure. A couple rules to remember:

  • The more power, the slower your flash duration
  • The faster the flash duration, the more shift in degrees K
  • The slower the shutter speed on camera, the more ambient light can affect the image

The results from pairing flash durations, shutter speeds and lighting

Flash Duration - Fan Image at 1/1870

Image 1 shows a high power setting of 7.0 (400Ws) which brings the flash duration to 1/1870th of a second. The shutter speed on the camera is 1/4 sec. Note the fan blades are “transparent” and the background has a warm colorcast. This means there was an initial flash at a very low duration (blurred blades) and some residual exposure on the end of the flash duration causing the color.

Flash Duration - Fan Image at 1/10000

Image 2 shows the exact same shutter speed but at a lower power, thereby decreasing (shortening) the flash duration which then “freezes” the fan blades. One should note that if there are any other objects in the image that require stop-action, and are lit with a different flash head, the same parameters for power must be met.

Flash Duration - Fan Image at 1/1870 with Shutter at 1/160

Image 3 is now set at 1/160 sec taking out any ambient influence of light. This illustrates the effect of a high power at a normal flash sync speed, which does not allow stopping motion. To combat this, refer to image 4.

Flash Duration - Fan Image at 1/10000 with Shutter at 1/160

Image 4 illustrates fast flash duration with normal sync speed and the trade-off is less power. Combat the trade-off by opening the aperture or raising the ISO.

The Creative Side

Freezing minimal action (Aperture Priority Mode) vs. freezing a moving subject (Shutter Priority Mode)

Minimal action compared to moving subjects when captured in photography will require different aperture settings and your creative priorities. When shooting little to no motion in photography, usually you would focus on depth of field and the aperture priority for a slow shutter speed to prevent unnecessary blur. Typically, if motion is involved you would focus on shutter speed priority in order to freeze the motion. When a subject is moving in an action event, you would need to modify your shutter speed to stop the motion.

How to do Stop Motion Photography: A Step by Step Guide

  1. Secure your camera on a tripod or mount .
  2. Select your focal point to capture action, making sure you avoid distracting background elements.
  3. Set your camera to Shutter Priority Mode to set your shutter speed, and your camera will calculate the aperture.
  4. Set your camera settings for the kind of image you intend to take and take a few practice shots.
  5. Check your composition. Make sure you have the proper exposure, and make sure there are no background distractions.
  6. Open and release the shutter quickly at your desired moment to freeze motion
  7. If need be, adjust the Exposure Compensation, focus, composition, and/or shutter speed, then shoot again until you have achieved your desired results.

How To Do Stop Action Photography With Triggers Demonstration

In some instances, triggers can be used to do stop action photography as well. You can set timers, lasers, sound cues, or use other technology to trigger the camera to take a photo when the action is performed. Triggers can also be used to set the camera off at various intervals . And if you have properly set your shutter speed, you will see freezing action.

Check out the video below to see Urs Recher and Karl Taylor demonstrate how to use Broncolor Scoro Power Packs with 1/10’000s at t0.1, smashing two wine glasses and capturing the breaking glass and flying liquid.

Conclusion

Capturing continual action in photography is not always easy, but understanding how flash duration and shutter speed work in tandem will give you better insight on how to execute your creative vision. Flash duration is a key specification when renting or buying gear, especially if you intend to freeze action. With enough practice, experimentation, and the right technical knowledge, you can achieve the shot you want when you want it.

In general, if you do a little research and read into the spec sheets provided by the manufacturer you will be able to achieve your goal for stopping action. The best advice is to rent some gear and try before you buy. Many rental houses that are dealers will allow a substantial discount, if not refund, of the rental based on the purchase. At the very least, talk to your local rental house and get some advice on what they recommend for the job you are shooting.

Stop Action Photography Splash Duration: Using Flash Duration to Freeze Water (or Paint) Droplets

Freezing Motion – What is stop action and how is it achieved?

Among many reasons that people love making magic in photography, one of the top is the ability for a camera to freeze a perfect moment in time. In our day-to-day lives, everything moves quickly as an unfolding chain of events. But being able to control and capture the small details in the seconds that pass by grants us the ability to see things clearer.

That’s why photographers are often asked to “stop action in a shoot,” using a technique called stop motion or stop action photography to “freeze” elements in a frame and capture the details of an event within fractions of a second. From capturing action pictures of a glass of wine shattering to tennis players mid-swing to dancers midair, motion can be frozen in a picture using flash duration.

glassbreak image by Steven Duong

glassbreak“, © Steven Duong, November 4, 2010. Some Rights Reserved, no alterations made.

young man playing tennis image by Amanda Mills

young man, play, sport, game, tennis, stadium“, © Amanda Mills, USCDCP,  February 2, 2017. Free to Use CC0, no alterations made.

Flying Dancer by R.A. Killmer

Flying Dancer“, © R.A. Killmer, May 31, 2015. Some Rights Reserved, no alterations made.

This blog will cover the technical sides of stop action photography – understanding flash duration, shutter speeds, and how to understand a manufacturers spec sheet – as well as the creative sides on exactly how to do stop motion photography, plus some helpful tips to get you started.

The Technical Side

What is Flash Duration, and what are the standards for it?

To establish a comparison of technical specs, there HAS to be apples–to–apples comparisons and this is done through standardization. The International Standards Organization (ISO) has decreed that through the ISO 2827 for Photography / Electronic Flash Equipment, there is a Standard of Light Output and Performance, known as Flash Duration. Flash Duration by its simplest definition is the amplitude (or power), measured over time.

standard flash duration graph - amplitude over time

A standard graph of flash duration, measuring amplitude (power) over time.

flash duration graph - t0.5, 50% power

T0.5 vs. T0.1 ISO-2827 states there is a flash measuring calculation of t0.5 and t0.1, where t0.5 is the Effective Flash Duration and t0.1 is the Total Flash Duration. Table 2 shows the t0.5 measurement and it is 50% of power within the overall duration of the flash.

flash duration graph - t0.1, 10% power

The real measurement that photographers should be studying is the t0.1 number and that is the Total flash duration at 10% of the overall duration as illustrated in Table 3.

flash duration graph - t0.5 vs t.01

What can get confusing is the t0.5 measurement and how it stacks up against t0.1. If Tables 2 and 3 above were married for comparison, they would look like Table 4, where the t0.5 and t0.1 measurements are combined. In Table 4 below, the blue shading shows the amount of duration not calculated within the t0.5 specs. This means that there is still a fall-off of power while the strobe head and capacitor are being discharged.

All tables shown courtesy of Urs Recher

At what shutter speed stops motion?

The camera’s shutter speed is another factor to pair with flash duration in order to do stop action photography, as it will determine how the action in a photo is recorded.

A camera’s shutter determines how fast its aperture will open and close (maximum aperture), controlling the amount of light that enters a camera; a slower shutter speed allows more light into the camera. The shutter speed of a camera can stop motion depending on the speed of the action.
For example, the speed of the flapping wings of a hummingbird is much faster than the speed of a child riding a bike. To freeze the hummingbird wings, you would need over 1/2000s shutter speed, whereas a bike might be frozen in picture at a slow shutter speed 1/250s. But if your shutter speed is too slow for your action scene, action & blurred motion will be captured and in some instances, elements in your photo may disappear. You will always need to adjust shutter speed depending on how fast your action shots are, but a general rule of thumb would be to start at 1/500s for fairly quick motion.

How to understand the minimum and maximum power on your spec sheet

Manufacturers want to put their best foot forward for their products, and why not? Just make sure you are reading ALL of the information and not just some snippets of data. Manufacturers are not going to publish false data but they could always include just a little more. Below are some screen grabs of published spec sheets where some list minimum and maximum power of both t0.5 and t0.1.

Flash Duration - Normal vs Freeze Mode Table
Flash Duration - t.01 Table
Flash Duration - t.5 Table

Now you understand the t0.5 and t0.1 settings, so how does flash duration and shutter speed relate to stopping action? Simple, flash duration controls the freezing action and shutter speed controls the ambient exposure. A couple rules to remember:

  • The more power, the slower your flash duration
  • The faster the flash duration, the more shift in degrees K
  • The slower the shutter speed on camera, the more ambient light can affect the image

The results from pairing flash durations, shutter speeds and lighting

Flash Duration - Fan Image at 1/1870

Image 1 shows a high power setting of 7.0 (400Ws) which brings the flash duration to 1/1870th of a second. The shutter speed on the camera is 1/4 sec. Note the fan blades are “transparent” and the background has a warm colorcast. This means there was an initial flash at a very low duration (blurred blades) and some residual exposure on the end of the flash duration causing the color.

Flash Duration - Fan Image at 1/10000

Image 2 shows the exact same shutter speed but at a lower power, thereby decreasing (shortening) the flash duration which then “freezes” the fan blades. One should note that if there are any other objects in the image that require stop-action, and are lit with a different flash head, the same parameters for power must be met.

Flash Duration - Fan Image at 1/1870 with Shutter at 1/160

Image 3 is now set at 1/160 sec taking out any ambient influence of light. This illustrates the effect of a high power at a normal flash sync speed, which does not allow stopping motion. To combat this, refer to image 4.

Flash Duration - Fan Image at 1/10000 with Shutter at 1/160

Image 4 illustrates fast flash duration with normal sync speed and the trade-off is less power. Combat the trade-off by opening the aperture or raising the ISO.

The Creative Side

Freezing minimal action (Aperture Priority Mode) vs. freezing a moving subject (Shutter Priority Mode)

Minimal action compared to moving subjects when captured in photography will require different aperture settings and your creative priorities. When shooting little to no motion in photography, usually you would focus on depth of field and the aperture priority for a slow shutter speed to prevent unnecessary blur. Typically, if motion is involved you would focus on shutter speed priority in order to freeze the motion. When a subject is moving in an action event, you would need to modify your shutter speed to stop the motion.

How to do Stop Motion Photography: A Step by Step Guide

  1. Secure your camera on a tripod or mount .
  2. Select your focal point to capture action, making sure you avoid distracting background elements.
  3. Set your camera to Shutter Priority Mode to set your shutter speed, and your camera will calculate the aperture.
  4. Set your camera settings for the kind of image you intend to take and take a few practice shots.
  5. Check your composition. Make sure you have the proper exposure, and make sure there are no background distractions.
  6. Open and release the shutter quickly at your desired moment to freeze motion
  7. If need be, adjust the Exposure Compensation, focus, composition, and/or shutter speed, then shoot again until you have achieved your desired results.

How To Do Stop Action Photography With Triggers Demonstration

In some instances, triggers can be used to do stop action photography as well. You can set timers, lasers, sound cues, or use other technology to trigger the camera to take a photo when the action is performed. Triggers can also be used to set the camera off at various intervals . And if you have properly set your shutter speed, you will see freezing action.

Check out the video below to see Urs Recher and Karl Taylor demonstrate how to use Broncolor Scoro Power Packs with 1/10’000s at t0.1, smashing two wine glasses and capturing the breaking glass and flying liquid.

Conclusion

Capturing continual action in photography is not always easy, but understanding how flash duration and shutter speed work in tandem will give you better insight on how to execute your creative vision. Flash duration is a key specification when renting or buying gear, especially if you intend to freeze action. With enough practice, experimentation, and the right technical knowledge, you can achieve the shot you want when you want it.

In general, if you do a little research and read into the spec sheets provided by the manufacturer you will be able to achieve your goal for stopping action. The best advice is to rent some gear and try before you buy. Many rental houses that are dealers will allow a substantial discount, if not refund, of the rental based on the purchase. At the very least, talk to your local rental house and get some advice on what they recommend for the job you are shooting.