Photo Tips From The Field – How To Use Flash to Stop Action and Create Interest

Posted Jan. 26th, 2012 by Daniel J. Cox

I recently left Kenya having finished our latest photography tour, workshop, adventure, or whatever you might want to call it. It’s one of our ongoing Invitational Photography Tours in a land I dearly love.

This blog entry is a miniature snippet of what our small group of African travelers experienced while in this wonderful land of wildlife, landscapes and interesting culture.

As many of you know, much of my work revolves around wildlife. However, I’m very fond of documenting people and their cultures as well. My early college years introduced me to the world of journalism as I worked my way through school shooting for a small newspaper and a very successful commercial studio in Duluth, MN. My two dear friends, Tim Slattery and Dan Grandmaison, taught me a lot about the world of capturing pictures. Those formative years gave me my first introduction to the world of small strobes and the power they have for making creative images.

On our last evening in the Masai Mara Game Reserve our group was treated to our annual bush dinner on the last evening before we all headed back to Nairobi. The lodge we stay at goes all out with grilled meats, vegetarian pastas, and sumptuous deserts.

Maasai Dancers. Photo taken with Nikon D700 with flash to stop action

An added highlight to this night’s festivities was the ever present group of young Maasai dancers that are on perpetual call for birthdays, anniversaries, or other special events at the lodge. Tonight they followed us to the outskirts of camp to add an ambience of traditional song and dance much to the delight of everyone present and an opportunity for interesting images.

More Photos of Maasai Dancers

To capture the joyous mood, colorful costumes, and fireside atmosphere, I started by bringing my favorite camera for low light photography. The undisputed king of the dark is still the Nikon D3s or D700. I have the latter and though it’s not quite as good as the D3s, it is unbelievable in its own right. The lens I chose was the superbly sharp and relatively fast 24-70mm f/2.8.  The combination of a fast lens and stunningly low noise of the D700 at high ISO settings gave me the photographs I’ll be sharing with you shortly.

We’ve been traveling to Kenya and staying at the same lodge for many years. That being the case, I knew how dark the bush dinners could be. There would be a fire and some gas lanterns surrounding the eating area and possibly candles on the table. That’s it.  When I first arrived I set my camera to  1200 ISO. I soon realized that wasn’t enough. I changed the ISO to 2500 and shot the rest of the night on that setting.

Soon the Maasai Dancers arrived. There were maybe a dozen in all, each of them dressed in traditional Maasai tribal clothing which is very colorful, full of life, and flowing. The dance is always accompanied by a rhythmic hum combined with chant. Above the chorus is a high pitched voice, the Maasai director of sorts shouting what seems like directions. Sometimes the dance is in line formation,  moving through the dinner area and around the fire. Other times it’s a contest of vertical leaping. Whichever form of creativity they choose, it’s always filled with consistent rhythmic motion that offers lots of opportunity for photos with strobe stopped action.

Let me start explaining this technique by either reminding those who know, or informing those who don’t, that using a strobe/flash, in a dark or nearly dark setting, can stop action cold!  The principal is quite simple, when a flash goes off in a dark room or in the dark of the night in this case, the light produced by the flash is for an extremely short duration. Often times as short as 1/10,000 of a second.  Think of it as a bolt of lightning and you get the concept of FAST. The duration of the flash or bolt of lightning can vary depending on the make of the flash, but in virtually all flashes that I’m aware of, the flash duration is extremely brief. A good analogy is the fastest shutter speeds of your camera. We know that to stop action in broad daylight we need a fast shutter speed such as 1/1000th of a second. If action can be stopped with 1/1000th of a second, just imagine what 1/10,000th of a second can do. Think of it as greased lightning. Ok, you get the picture, no pun intended.

Now the next step is to capture the ambient light—the light that is given off by the campfire, lanterns, and candles. To do this we set our camera to a very slow shutter speed. This will keep the shutter open for enough time to record the dim, ambient light. At the same time, the strobe/flash fires and stops the action of the dancing Maasai. Combine the two and you get beautiful images!

The final setting you need to consider is Rear Curtain Sync. Rear Curtain Sync is a flash setting you want to set to make sure when motion is registered on the chip, the motion is trailing your subject. You’ll find this in the strobe setting on  the camera, not on the strobe. To see how this works for yourself, recruit a subject that is willing to ride a bike past you in the dark. The bike will need to have a light for safely maneuvering. Have that person ride by parallel to the camera. As they pass, shoot one sequence on Normal Sync and one on Rear Curtain Sync.  You’ll need them to ride by at least twice. Doing this test will show you how Rear Curtain Sync allows the headlight of the bike to TRAIL the subject. In Normal Sync, the headlight extends out in FRONT of the subject. As you will see, the Rear Sync is much more natural looking.

Finally, in these images I shot of the Maasai, I used one additional technique that consisted of zooming the lens at the same time I fired the camera. Zooming at the time of a relatively long exposure, 1-2 seconds to capture the ambient light, allows  for an interesting effect to be created from the lens moving in and out which is recording the ambient light such as the lanterns. This gives even more of a feeling of motion and adds excitement and movement to your still photographs.

I’m hopeful the above technique will add motion and interest to your still pictures. Be creative and think of your own ideas such as a birthday party, an office gathering, a high school football game, or soccer game at night. The opportunities are endless. Mine just happen to be with some of my most active friends, the Maasai people of the Masai Mara Game Reserve, in the magnificent land of Kenya. Gather your friends and take their picture.

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There are 4 comments on this post…
  1. Jacqueline DeelyOn Jan. 30th, 2012

    I love the detailed information on each shot. VERY helpful much appreciated. Beautiful work!

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Feb. 8th, 2012

      Jacqueline, thanks for the kind words. Please stop by often and see what we have going and please do us a favor by spreading the word regarding our blog and Facebook Page if you feel it’s worthwhile. I just finished our photo tour to Costa Rica and will be adding additional posts in the near future. Be well and thanks again.

  2. Becky WallaceOn Jan. 26th, 2012

    Love your pictures and thank you for such detailed instructions. I have the camera and I have the lens, so I’m going to try this technique. By the way, I love, love, love your cheetah picture. We saw many cheetah on our Kenya trip, but we weren’t fortunate enough to catch one on the run. Hope you and Tanya are well and Steve and I hope to see you both on a future trip.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Jan. 26th, 2012


      Glad you like the Cheetah image. That was shot on my first trip to Kenya back in 1991. I spent thirty days working exclusively on cheetahs. Even so I got that one opportunity and fortunately it all worked out. Hope all is well. See you some time on the trail.

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