Comparing High Speed Sync vs Neutral Density Filters for Portraits

In the past, the only way you could take images with a shallow depth of field while shooting on-location with flash was by using a neutral density (ND) filter. Otherwise, the shutter speed would exceed the camera’s flash sync-speed and you couldn’t take pictures. However, with the introduction of high-speed sync (HSS) flashes, life’s a lot simpler. This technology allows us to use shutter speeds that are much faster than the camera’s flash sync speed while still being able to take photos. But, is there any difference in the output of these two techniques? Photographer Gavin Hoey from Adorama explores:

To compare if the ND filter and HSS flashes produce comparable results, Hoey takes two different sets of images. He starts with a set of pictures using the 3-stop and the 5-stop ND filter to expose the background properly while the lens is wide open at f/1.2 and the camera is set to its flash sync speed of 1/250 seconds. Then, to expose the subject correctly, he adds flash. This allows him to get a perfect set of pictures with a well-exposed subject and background, along with a shallow depth of field.

Next, he takes another set of images using the HSS mode. For this, all he has to do is set the lens wide open, adjust the shutter speed to expose for the background (even faster than the flash sync speed), enable HSS mode in the flash, and adjust power to expose the subject correctly. It’s actually very easy.

The only difference noticeable between the set of images is that the ones taken with an ND filter lack some contrast. But, you can bump it up easily in post. And when it comes to practicality, the HSS method is a lot easier. Otherwise, there’s not much you can tell that’s different.

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