How to do High-Speed Photography – the Fundamentals

High-speed photography is capturing the moments that happen in a fraction of time which you can’t see with the naked eye, like a bursting balloon or a splash of water.

What camera and lens do you need?

Let’s talk about the gear you need for high-speed photography first. Of course, you need a DSLR camera and the good news is that any DSLR will work. If you have any other camera that has manual controls, it will also work fine. Next is the lens and just like the camera, any will work. I use a 100mm macro lens for close-up shots like liquid sculptures and a 24-70mm zoom for balloon shots.

The only lens requirement is that the focal length should be long enough so that you have sufficient distance between your camera and the subject, to keep your gear safe from colors and water splashes. I found that 100mm macro is the best lens as it has 1:1 magnification so you can fill the frame with your subject. Because of the 100mm focal length, your camera will also be far enough from the subject.

Have patience

The most important requirement for this kind of photography is practice and lots of patience. Sometimes you’ll take hundreds of shots and none of them will be good, and you may think that it’s not your cup of tea. But don’t give up, as with practice and patience you can get desired results easily.

When I was trying to take following water drop shot, it took me almost 3 months and over 3,000 shots to get my first accurate shot. Eventually, I discovered a trick that made everything easy for me. I’ll share that trick later in this article so keep reading.

Get a helper as well

You may also need an assistant as you have to do lots of tasks all at the same time, and you can’t do everything on your own. Also, there will be a lot of mess after your shoot and it’s very boring to clean it up all alone. Last but not least, you need to find some creative hacks. For example, for “Dancing Colors” shots I made this setup using a soap dish, a plastic pipe, a black swim cap, some Velcro and fixed this in the air vent of the subwoofer of my computer speakers.

Camera settings

Before we talk about camera settings, I am going to reveal a truth. Are you ready for this? Okay, the reality is that camera shutter speed doesn’t matter in high-speed photography. In fact, in this image, my shutter speed was 1/10th of a second.

What, have I lost my mind? I just wrote that you need 1/20,000th of a second to freeze the moment and now I am saying that shutter speed doesn’t matter. Relax, I’ll explain everything.

In such photography, we usually shoot in a dark room with a narrow aperture and using bulb mode. We open the shutter and fire the flash at the right time to expose the image. So, regardless of whether the camera shutter speed is 1/10th or 1/250th, the exposure time is only when the flashes fire (for the duration of the flash).

Hence, these are the camera settings required:

  • Camera mode: Bulb
  • Aperture: f/11 – f/16
  • ISO: 100 – 400
  • Focus: Manual
  • Flashes with the lowest power setting possible.

Why do you need to use your flashes on the lowest power setting? Because that will give you the shortest flash duration. If you fire a flash on full power the flash duration is around 1/1,000th of a second. But at 1/128th power, it comes down to almost 1/35,000th of a second, which will freeze the subject completely.

Work flow

Set your camera on a tripod with a shutter release cable. Set the lowest possible ISO, go for 100 and increase it only if you don’t have enough flash power. Then, set the aperture between f/11-f/16, focus manually, and leave the camera. Now you need to train someone to press the shutter release button on your mark and release it as soon as the flash has been fired.

Your job is to do the action using one hand (like bursting the balloon, playing the beats or releasing the water drop) and fire the flashes using a switch at the perfect moment. You’ll need some practice but eventually, you will do it accurately.

Points to remember

Shoot in dark room: You should always shoot in a dark room as you are using bulb mode and sometimes your shutter speed will come down to 1/10th or 1/5th. So, if the light in the room is bright, it’ll affect the shot. The room should only have a small (low) light source so that you can see everything.

Small Aperture: Always shoot between f/11 – f/16 so you can get deep depth of field and everything comes into focus. Also, with a narrow aperture, the ambient light won’t affect the shot as much.