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Electronic Guidebook for High-Speed Flash Photography

revised 12-00

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Essential Components of a High-Speed Flash Photography System


A complete listing of all the equipment used for the activities in the Guidebook is given in Appendix A.


The Camera  The more automatic the camera, the less useful it's likely to be for high-speed photography. Totally manual cameras are great. That means manual focus, manually-selectable f-stops, and a B shutter speed setting. (This allows the shutter to be held open in the dark in readiness for the high-speed event.) Some of the cameras that I use are the Pentax K1000, the Olympus OM-1, and the Nikon FM2, but there are many other possibilities. I've even used a pinhole camera. Unfortunately, point-and-shoot cameras are generally too automatic to be used for high-speed photography.


The Film  There's nothing special about the film that you'll need. Many people think that high-speed film is necessary. I've even seen misleading ads from major photographic companies implying that by purchasing their fast film, you'll then be able to take high-speed photographs. I've used films as slow as ISO 25 and as fast as ISO 3200. It's the flash of light--not the film and camera--that freezes the action. The advantages of fast film are i) you don't need as much light to provide a good exposure and ii) you can use smaller apertures to increase depth-of-field.


The Flash Unit  Most inexpensive flash units (sub $100) can provide a burst of light as short as 1/30,000 second. This allows you to freeze many high-speed actions or at least to reduce the blur enough to clearly show the action. The trick is in getting the unit to give that short of a burst whenever you need it. A flash unit with automatic exposure is required. The flash unit that I've found most convenient for high-speed photography is the Vivitar 283. No, I don't get anything from Vivitar for recommending the use of this unit. It's just that most flash units are designed for controlling the flash exposure, not the duration. Exposure control is great for most photographers, but a high-speed photographer needs to control the duration of the flash of light. The 283, more than any other that I've used, makes duration control easy. It's not that Vivitar intentionally designed the unit that way. It's just that the modifications necessary to convert the exposure control circuit to duration control are easier.


The Trigger  How do you capture a photograph of, say, a bursting balloon when it's actually ripping open? You just have to manage to get the flash unit to discharge at the right time. It's easy with a sound trigger. A simple one can be made with a tape recorder and one electronic component. The Guidebook will describe how to use all the basic trigger types.  For information on constructing your own triggers, see Tools.


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