Chase Jarvis TECH: High Speed Photography

Step 1 (The Premise): If you like photography, cameras, flashes, strobe lighting, computers, knives, Photoshop, or fast action, read on.

Step 2 (The Concept): I know you’ve seen still photographs of arrows piercing apples, exploding water balloons, and bullets tearing through roses. If you’ve ever wanted to know how we photographers freeze this crazy-fast action, you’ll want to watch this 3-minute video on high speed photography.

Step 3 (The Background): A short while ago, our superstar friends at Superfad concepted, developed, and shot an amazing broadcast campaign for the Kung Fu HD network. Very cool stuff. In concert, they graciously invited us on board to shoot still images that attempted to mimic their live action work. Although the task was a steep one, we managed quite well and tricked some people into giving us a 2008 International Photography Award for the effects. You may have see the results in an earlier video we put out called Chase Jarvis RAW: Kung Fu (Featuring Superfad). Today’s video is in many ways a followup to that piece. We got so many technical questions about how we were able to freeze the action of so many fast-moving objects for our still pictures, that we thought it would be prudent to spin out a little Chase Jarvis TECH vid to show you how we pulled it together.

This is certainly beyond Strobist’s Lighting 101, but I’m hoping we’re able to answer most of your initial high speed photography questions with this video. Feel free to post your “aha!” moments or further questions in the comments section below. This is a cool technique that, if you can nail it, will give you lots of freedom to play around creatively.

For further details about equipment, a broader explanation than the video offers, a list of other TECH videos, and a list of credits, click the ‘continue reading’ link below …

Considering the video above, here’s a few key reminders and some details. Remember, the four keys:

1. Keep the ambient light low. This allows you to open the shutter for the duration of the event, plus some buffer before and after the event, without allowing ambient light to bleed onto your sensor or film.

2. It’s not the shutter that’s freezing the action, it’s the strobe. When your shutter is open, it’s all about letting the strobe stop the action with that pop of light. Strobes can fire really quickly – in many cases up to a 1/8000 or faster – which does a great job of stopping high speed events…much better than your shutter.

3. Use a special trigger or a manually tripped pocket wizard to capture the event. In the case of me with the water balloon, I was quick enough to open the shutter with a plunger, wait for Cody to slash the balloon, and then trip the handheld pocket wizard during the event, and then close the shutter with the plunger. If you want to capture faster action, you’ll need to use a special trigger to trip the strobes…something like a sound trigger or a laser trigger that is hopefully available at your local rental shop. You open the shutter with a plunger, let the event happen and let the trigger pop the strobes, then you close the shutter.

4. Higher speed flashes (shorter flash duration) will give you a better result. If you have a slower flash cranked up to high power, the flash duration time will be slower. On the contrary, if you have a faster flash cranked to a lower output (say 1/16 power), you’ll have a faster pop- exactly what you need to have those strobes pop for a really short interval. THAT gives you the best result. Of course you still have to manage a great exposure, which is why digital cameras are awesome. You can just fire the camera a bunch of times and dial in your exposure. In the case of my task in this video we used our favorites: two Profoto 7A packs, each with their own head and set on a low output, to create a very fast flash…in this case 1/8000 of a second. You can create similar results with all kinds of lights, but you’ll want to pay attention to the specs.

If we haven’t lost you, right on. Go give it a try yourself. And if you have questions, do ask. Signs say there are enough smart photographers in our community here that we’ll have some great answers chiming in from the audience (encouraged); and what doesn’t get answered by the community, I’ll certainly follow up as best I can.

For additional TECH-Y sort of vids, check out:
[Chase Jarvis TECH: Photo Shoot in 180 Seconds]
[Chase Jarvis TECH: Packing Photography Gear]
[Chase Jarvis TECH: POV Photography]
[Chase Jarvis TECH: Pimped Photography Laptop Case]

Credits on the original Kung Fu motion piece by Superfad from which these stills were derived: Will Hyde (Superfad Founder, CD); Dade Orgeron (Concept + Director); Rob Sanborn (Exec Prod); Stephen McGehee (DOP); David Viau and Luke Allen (Designers); Phiphat “P” Pinyosophon (Sim Artist); Ryan Haug (Editor); Nate Barr (Producer). And of course the Kung Fu Master: Paul Gutierrez. Thanks all!

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Anonymous says:


Which one would you choose for high speed photography , Broncolor or profoto ?

Sean Davis says:

Great post Chase, always an education.

I have hacked a delay with a Broncolor Mobil to shoot beverage pours at 1/8000 second.…ion-with-flash/

The link gives the explanation of how to do this on the cheap.

icy says:

Great vid and great Music ;}

Speed of 1/8000 woww!!! how can you reach this speed with a flash? The more I can get is 1/180 of x-sync with my camera.

Or maybe do you trigger the flash manually (or with other accesories) and shoot trying to catch the light?

Great tutorial anyway, thnx :)

Hi, great vid, watched it maybe a hundred times over the last few months.

One question if I may: why trip the shutter and flashes separately? What is the advantage of doing it this way over tripping the shutter and letting that trigger the lights?

Fantastic work.

Many thanks,

David K.

Stefan M says:

Excellent video, keep up the great work!!! This type of thing is what makes the www photography network so great, a free flow of ideas and information. I hope it will make us all a little smarter (better photogs) in the end!!!

Ben says:

Hey Chase,

Many thanks for yet another great vid. I did my own water shoot the other week:

And funnily enough followed your “rules” before having heard them – pretty logical stuff though if you think about it.

Anyways what I really got out of your vid was the “blend IF” sliders in ps – I had no idea these existed and man will they make some ideas I’ve had for other shots easier…I still need to learn a lot more about composites in PS.

Cheers mate

Hexitex says:

GReat video, skipped over the trigger a bit though, most people don’t understand how fast you have to be to catch the action – here is a home made trigger from LEGO components, there is a better one on the way

Sinan Muslu says:

wow, very nice and interesting video!
I like the way you show all sides of the thing… planning, producing, retouching.. very well done!

Francois says:

Very interesting, thanks for sharing!

Chase Jarvis says:

chris: read above comment by Scott R – we’re using “blend IF” sliders in photoshop

Chris Conroy says:

Hey Cool Captures, Really like the swirly water effect coming off the Kung Fu ‘punch’.
Stumbled on to the your blog vid while searching for the flash duration for my packs.
What I really want to know is how you pulled the water off the black in post. I’m shooting water splashes for a client right now and am simply selecting the color out of the background after masking the splash, but your guy said something like “blend disc sliders”? or it could have been “blend hard work with hard cider”. Either way if you’re willing to divulge a little post production magic would be appreciated.

Really nice. Thanks. Clear and easy tutorial.

Arthur Almassy says:

Another great video! Thanks. I subscribe to these videos on your iTunes video podcast but the file size of this one for the Apple TV version seems to be the same size as the iPod version. Usually they are a lot bigger. Normally the Apple TV ones seems VERY TV like on my computer but this one doesn’t seem to have the same resolution – a little pixely when I view it at full screen. Did the same version get uploaded to the two video podcast sites?

Thanks man,

Spence says:

Great post Chase, thanks. I’ve started reading your blog a couple of times a week. Content is great, doesn’t disappoint. Forwarding your tutorials to my wife who is in school for her BFA in Photography and Advertising. Please keep posting! Spence

Scott R. says:

@Vilette: The trick to isolating the water is made easier by the fact that you’re trying to capture white (the lit up water) off of a black background. This makes it a simple matter of removing the darker light values. The water layer was placed on the top level of the composite, then in the layer “blending options” dialogue I slid the “blend if” slider for “this layer” from left to right. This tool gradually reveals the area below the black that is removed by the slider. Give it a try, it’s a very useful trick for blending layers.

Vilette says:

Dear Chase and Scott

I have a question regarding the masking of the water. I did not understand the wording you used in the video to describe the approach. What method(s) did you use to build the mask? It looks hard because the shadow side of drops is the very dark of the background that one likes to remove, so calculations/channel based methods seem only a part of the solution? I would really appreciate it if you could explain this important step with a little more detail. Thanks alot!

BTW, your work is very inspirational, and with every project you seem to re-invent yourself.

All the best,

Gamaliel says:

Chase there’s a tv show that shows this concept of high speed, of course they use the high speed camera for filming, but the explain the low ambient light and other factors. Is on Discovery Channel the programis called TIME WARP.

Thanks for everything Chase…!!!

Darjan says:

I love the video it’s really well made and the shutter versus strobe things is great. I’ve tried to take photos of water a while ago but the problem was that i couldn’t focus it the right way so many pictures were blurry. Were you using a manual focus mode and left it there? That was the hardest part for me.

I really love how you can use water in post production to add it to various things. I have a tutorial on my blog on applying this thing to a product bottle and the result is that now the bottle makes you thirsty. A powerful way of displaying products in ads.

Aaron says:

Another application for this technique I’ve used in the past is for event photography. Say, a dance at a party or reception. Slow the shutter down if its dark enough and when the flash fires everyone is nice and sharp.

This is also how many lightning shots are made. You can leave your shutter open forever if its dark out, then when the lighting strikes (the strobe) everything is frozen. When I was a kid I thought lighting images were made by really lucky photographers with really fast fingers. :)

Will says:

OH MY GOSH I just figured that out! THATS how they get lightning shots! Whoah….I always thought that too..Thanks!

Brandon D. says:

@ Debbi -

I’m glad I’m not spoon feed everything; I feel that that limits my creativity. I don’t see why anyone in a creative activity would want to be taught everything. Then again, many of the tricks are already out there for people to find. And most importantly, there’s really no better feeling than finding a trick through good, ol’ fashion trail-and-error.

@ anonymous -

Without a great photographer and a great support team, the Photoshop Guru could never be the Star of the Show.

I think that the “Star of the Show” is always arbitrary and really irrelevant because in the big picture, the photo could not happen without everyone involved.

Consider any of your favorite movies. Who’s the star of the show? Is it the protagonist? Is it the director? Is it the screen-play writer? Is it the editor? Is it the producer? You can make a case for any of the above, but in reality there would not be a show at all without all of the above working together towards a common goal. I guess that’s why they spend about 5-10 minutes rolling credits at the end of every movie.

But who’s most important is pretty irrelevant to me. What matters most to me when I look at an image is how it grabs my attention and moves me.

PS – Arbitrarily, I’d say that the Star of the Show is really always Human Consciousness, Vision, and Effort.

Debbi_in__California says:

“tricks for grit and texture?”, you give us everything and not the tricks..gee wiz?
Loved the video anyway!

Will says:

“Don’t be disappointed by this. Cherish it.”

That’s the attitude! Sweet vid Chase, thanks for sharing, can’t wait to try short duration strobes…. with my 7 year old who just watched the vid with me. “Hey Daddy, let’s do that, OK?”

Anonymous says:

Wow. How would you capture a bullet?

Your videos are always so helpful. This is just fun to watch. I’m just now starting to explore lighting rigs/etc and this just opens my mind to possibilities.

Thanks again.

blastav says:

Chase, thank you for all what you doing!
Video is great as always!

Chase Jarvis says:

@ anon: there are two scenarios. 1. a small production – we all love those, where some great art is made. Celebrate the photographer. 2. a larger production – where in this case it really is a creative team that’s making things come together. Sure the photographer or the director has the vision, but it’s a team effort. From the photoshop guru, to the producer to the assistants, talent, and beyond. Don’t be disappointed by this. Cherish it.

Anonymous says:

Chase, excellent video as usual although it’s a little disappointing.

It made me call into question not the creativity of thinking about making these images ‘happen’ but simply that without extensive post production, these images just wouldn’t exist.

To me at least the creativity team now MUST have a Photoshop guru on board to make these projects really work. I guess this leaves me wondering who is the most important here – the photographer or is the star of the show the Shop guru?

I realise that since the inception of photography composites have been worked on/played with and presented to the world, I guess I’m now, more than ever, questioning who the real star of the show is these days.

Teddy says:

Great tips and video. Is capturing fire any different? It be being light seems a bit confusing but I would assume it would look like fire in space?

I appreciate the insight into high speed photography, but all that stuff about post production, that my freind was the gravy on this increadible pilgram sandwhich of photography knowledge.

COMPLETELY off topic, but i would totally dig your opionion on if its worth it to upgrade to photoshop/premeire cs4?


This (aside from you just being a kick-ass photographer any way) is the reason why I love reading your blog and check it for updates every day. Thanks for being awesome!


Roeland says:

Thanks Chase. Great video as always. I am trying to make my ways as a photographer and your work and blog are a real inspiration to me!

wherestigran says:

Thanks for the video! Everything was good and clear until you mentioned how to remove the background from the water splash.. I didn’t understand the words used to describe that technique.. I would try with color range selection to take out the black, but I think you did it with an easier method.

Nicholas says:


Brilliantly concise explanation. I’ve done some high-speed work with flash duration’s of 1/3200 and I’ve got to say I’m now tempted to get some 7A’s because my water looked nowhere near as crisp as yours.

Thanks for bringing it to us again. Your presence in the photographic community is powerful and much appreciated.



Anonymous says:

Very cool Chase. This has always blown my mind. Now I get it.

@ long: agreed there is more than one way to skin a cat, but opportunities for doing those exposures without strobe at 1/8000 are so few and far between, that it’s pretty much essential to understand how to do it with artificial lighting.

Great video Chase! I just love high speed photography even though I’ve yet to try it. :)

You can use almost any flash to do Chase’s technique since he’s doing “long exposures”.

Thank you Chase, If your ever in Ohio you and (most)of your crew will get drinks on me! Always good stuff, thanks for sharing the tidbits. I love how the photo industry is getting more and more open. There are jobs for everyone, everyone who stands out. And you my friend are the protruding nail! Good work to you and your staff!

Great video once again. I really appreciate the high quality, high content videos you put out. Thanks for your generosity.
-Colby McLemore

Anonymous says:


The amount of power being discharged determines the duration of the flash. The more power you ask a flash to discharge, the longer it takes.


Luis says:

How can one adjust the flash duration with a Bowens Gemini 500 or with a Nikon SB800?

Thank you
Luis Faustino

Luis says:

ps: Great video as usual!

Ryan says:

The ‘aha’ moment came when you said that the strobes freeze the action and not the shutter. That kinda summed it all up for me.

It’s like using the long exposure technique, but different. What I’m not so sure about is how low ambient should be in order for it not to bleed into the frame, and be able to maintain great exposure.

thanks for the tip chase

Long says:

Great video Chase. I’d just like to say though that with most modern DSLR cameras you can get 1/8000 shutter speed without having to use strobes at all.

I’ve got some examples at:

Those were done on a bright, sunny day, outdoors and triggered with my index finger. As always, great info, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

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