Shooting Outdoor Extreme Sports with Hypersync Strobes

Shooting Outdoor Extreme Sports with Hypersync Strobes

Among the myriad of technological developments in photography, high speed flash synchronization allows for the creation of photos that wasn’t possible a few years ago. Outdoor/Adventure photographer Michael Clark has been experimenting with PocketWizard’s version called Hypersync along with Elinchrom strobes for his latest Hypersync Ice Climbing and Hypersync Surfing projects, which were recently featured on the Elinchrom blog. To see more images and get some background on these projects please visit the links provided here.

What is the appeal of overpowering the sun with strobes? Are you looking to heighten the drama?

Typically when using strobes if you want to create a dramatic mood you light the subject so they are a bit brighter than the background – usually you want the subject around half a stop to one stop brighter than the ambient light. This darkens the background and directs all the attention to your subject. You can certainly light your subject so that the background is brighter than your subject or the background and your subject are evenly lit. It just depends on what you are going for.

For my latest work where I used strobes to shoot ice climbing and surfing, I wanted to highlight the athletes and bring out all the crazy details in the ice and the flying water droplets. For the ice climbing images in particular, using strobes brings an incredible amount of drama that just isn’t there when you shoot using just the available light.

Photo by Michael Clark

Photo by Michael Clark

What is Hypersync?

The explanation of what is actually happening when using Hypersync lighting techniques is a bit complex. Basically, the PocketWizard transceiver is timing the flash sync so that when the shutter slit opens and closes it does so during the brightest part of the flash burst, which in this case is longer than the actual shutter speed. Hypersync allows us to use much higher shutter speeds and still sync with the flash. So, in effect, you are using a slice of the light emitted by the strobe to light your subject. The ability to use a much higher shutter speed allows us to darken the background and therefore overpower daylight with less light output from the strobe or from farther away.

As an example, with the 1,100 Watt/second Elinchrom Rangers strobe, when using Hypersync at full power on the Rangers, I am not using all 1,100 Watt/seconds of the light emitted by the strobe because I am only using a slice of that light. When using Hypersync, dialing in your exposure settings can be tricky because a light meter would read the entire flash output not the slice of light actually used. To get a correct exposure using Hypersync, I adjust the flash output and the exposure settings until the histogram is lined up just right on the camera’s rear LCD. I have heard some photographers call Hypersync “voodoo” lighting because it requires a bit of experimentation. I will confess, it does require some experimentation and the right gear to make it work. But in my experience, it is fairly easy to figure out and when you get it dialed in, it can help to create stunning images as shown here. The gear required to make Hypersync work is extremely specific and was pioneered by the folks at PocketWizard. Hence, this isn’t a technique you can use with any strobe on the market.  It only works with a very few specific strobes and even a small selection of cameras.

I can understand the necessity of a higher shutter speed for the surfing shot, but why does Hypersync matter for an ice climbing photo? Why can’t you just use a neutral density filter and a lower shutter speed?

I have shot ice climbing using standard shutter speeds before and it works but you have to wait until dark or just after the sun sets before you can actually get enough light on your subject with one flash head. Of course, I could pull out multiple flash heads and power packs and create enough light with enough gear but then I am still locked into the 1/250th second flash sync of my Nikon cameras. Using Hypersync allows me to shoot in the middle of the day and make it look like it was shot at night with one flash head. The high shutter speed used for the ice climbing images, which was 1/1,000th second, also allows me to get sharper images with the Nikon D800 because it is quite sensitive to motion blur and at 1/250th second shutter speed I am right on the edge of what I can handhold with that camera. Of course, I could have shot with a Nikon D4s or another camera with less resolution that wasn’t as sensitive but I really wanted the high-resolution files that the D800 produces for these images.

Photo by Michael Clark

Photo by Michael Clark

The other bonus of using Hypersync with the ice climbing shot is that it lit up the entire gorge all the way to bottom. When I tried this with normal flash techniques and one flash head a few years ago, I had to wait until the climber was at least half way up the climb before the lighting was really effective.

For the surfing shot, the only reason it was even possible to get the light on the surfer is because of the high shutter speed allowed for when using Hypersync. The bonus for that image is that the high shutter speed stopped the motion. We had five strobes out there for a total of around 5,500 Watt/sec of power. If I was trying to shoot that with normal flash sync speeds I would have need a truck load of strobes and we would have had to shoot it at night, which would have been close to impossible.

Photo by Michael Clark

Photo by Michael Clark

In theory, you could have hauled a gas-powered generator and more powerful studio packs to produce the same images. But I’m assuming the choice to use battery packs was dictated by the location and practicality?

For the ice climbing images, yes, I could have hauled out a few 2,400 Watt/sec studio packs and a generator and created something similar. But that would have required a lot more set up and a lot more expense and effort. Alternately, I could have also just used a medium format camera with a leaf shutter, like the Phase One 645DF+, and shot at a higher shutter speed with one strobe kit since it syncs with flash at all shutter speeds. Hypersync allows me to effectively do the same thing as the medium format cameras but with my DSLRs.

For the surfing shot, more lighting gear would not have produced the same effect. We could have possibly done the same thing with a medium format setup if there was a big enough lens to get that perspective (which there isn’t) and a medium format camera that had good enough autofocus to track the surfer (which there isn’t), but those don’t exist so no go there.

When you conceived of the surfing shot, did you only picture Tommy “catching air” as being an effective use of the lighting technique?

I had originally wanted to try this technique out at Pipeline, which is a few hundred feet away from where we shot this “catching air” shot at Rocky Point. For the Pipeline shot, I envisioned a surfer in the barrel and the lighting positioned perpendicular to the incoming wave. With that setup, I would walk down the beach and shoot with a 600mm f/4 lens so that the lighting was fairly far off axis from my position and I would be looking straight into the barrel of the wave at the oncoming surfer. The thinking was that this would, like the ice climbing shot, create a really dramatic image.

Once I was out on the north shore, the waves weren’t cooperating. Pipe never came up to the size I was hoping for in the two weeks I was there and that is when Rocky Point became the go to option. Rocky Point is known as a great wave for aerials. Because of that, and because Rocky’s wasn’t in perfect shape either but big enough for surfers to pull into waves and catch some air that became the obvious action shot to get. Also, Rocky’s breaks a little closer to the beach so my thinking was to try it out there first and then if Pipe came up I would try it again there. Sadly, there weren’t really any stellar swells that came in at Pipeline during the two weeks I was out there so I didn’t give it a go at Pipe.

Photo by Michael Clark

Photo by Michael Clark

I also wanted the shot to not just be a lit surfing shot but a respectable surfing image that happens to be lit and also uses some pretty cutting edge techniques. I think we succeeded on both fronts as this has never been done before—at least not in the normal “civilian” world.

[Side note: I recently discovered that in 1939, Harold “Doc” Edgerton at MIT developed a super high-powered flash lamp to take aerial reconnaissance images at night from a height of 2,000 feet or higher. This flash lamp was commissioned by the US Military and used throughout World War II. Hence, I can’t say no one has ever lit anything from the 500-feet away before. But since the flash lamp they used weighed 500-pounds and the Smithsonian Museum was unlikely to loan it to me, the fact that we got this to work with Elinchrom battery-powered strobes and a handful of  PocketWizards is pretty amazing.]

You are a meticulous planner and photographer, but there are so many variables in this type of shoot. Was there any factor that caught you off-guard?

About an hour into the shoot, we realized that the sports reflectors we were using were so focused that the light was going right past the surfer, either in front of him or behind him, because the waves were breaking all over the place. I had thought this might be an issue, but it wasn’t until we were out there and tried it out that we saw exactly what was going on. To rectify that issue, I had my assistants move the flash heads to follow the surfer – and that is when we got the shot shown here.

Also, they had a fairly bad surfing season this past year on the north shore, not unlike the poor snow season in the west. I thought for sure in a two-week span we would get some decent waves on the North Shore in February but it just didn’t happen.

There’s been a lot of buzz around TTL capabilities of products like the PocketWizard Flex. How useful is TTL in this type of customized lighting situation? In your type of work, what are practical uses of TTL?

This shot wasn’t created using TTL. I have used the TTL capabilities of the PocketWizard ControlTL system with my Nikon Speedlights and it works vey well but for this shoot we were powering the Elinchrom Ranger battery-powered strobes in full manual mode. If there was a system powerful enough to get this kind of shot using TTL and Hypersync techniques simultaneously then that would really be something to talk about. I couldn’t run out there and take a meter reading where the waves were breaking – and they were breaking all over the place – so I had to guess and experiment, which is why this shot was so hard to get.

Photo by Michael Clark

Photo by Michael Clark

Also, there are other manufacturers that offer High Speed Sync (HSS) capabilities with their strobes, which is wonderful but HSS would not of worked with this specific scenario because the subject was so far away. Hypersync, which is different from HSS, works at much farther distances than I have gotten HSS to work at. I realize we are getting totally geeky here but the technology is taking lighting to places it has never gone before and it is really exciting to push the envelope on that front.

Are there specific advances in lighting technology that you’re hoping to see to stretch your creativity?

In general, when shooting with strobes I want very specific and accurate light output for most situations, which is why TTL may not be a very good choice for critical strobe work. But in scenarios like this where the subject is in motion continuously, TTL could be a very useful tool. Maybe the next evolution of strobes is for them to offer HSS, Hypersync and TTL capabilities all in the same strobe unit. If that unit could have 2,400 Watt/sec of light output, be battery-powered, offer 500 flashes per charge, and weigh less than 20-pounds we would really have something to talk about. Whether or not any of us could afford it is a whole other issue.

Michael Clark is an internationally published outdoor photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. He produces intense, raw images of athletes pushing their sports to the limit and has risked life and limb on a variety of assignments to bring back stunning images from remote locations around the world. He uses unique angles, bold colors, strong graphics and dramatic lighting to capture fleeting moments of passion, gusto, flair and bravado in the outdoors. A sampling of his clients include: Apple, Nike, Nikon, Adobe, Nokia, Red Bull, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Outside, Men’s Journal and Outdoor Photographer. See more of Michael’s work at


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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

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