If you’ve ever been mesmerized by a photograph of a splash of brightly colored water suspended in mid-air; a water balloon captured in mid-pop; or a bullet speeding through a lightbulb as it shattered; then you were seduced by high-speed photography!

Perhaps we find these photos so fascinating because they capture moments in time that we’re unable to see with our naked eyes. With advances in technology, high-speed photography has become fairly easy to accomplish, even for novice photographers.

This article will explain how to capture your own high-speed photographs, what gear you’ll need, and some tips and tricks to get you started.

What is high-speed photography?

High-speed photography refers to capturing moments that happen in a fraction of time. Like we mentioned above, these are things you don’t see with your naked eye. There’s no standard rule that says how short a time period needs to be captured in order for it to qualify as high-speed photography.

But, think of it as something that you would need at least a shutter speed of 1/1000 or faster to capture without motion blur. In some cases, like capturing a speeding bullet, you’d need shutter speeds much, much faster. Some images require shutter speeds of 1/10,000 or even 1/20,000!

We’ll show you how to capture your own high-speed photos — even when your camera doesn’t have a super-fast shutter speed. We’ll go into detail on that later.

high speed photography
Photo by Lanju Fotografie on Unsplash

The best camera and lens for high-speed photography

In order to capture high-speed photography, you’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera that gives you manual control over your exposure settings. You need to be able to adjust your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. 

A camera that gives you the ability to change lenses is desirable, so you can keep yourself and your gear a safe distance away from splashing water, breaking glass, dropping objects, or whatever other high-speed objects you might choose to shoot.

For example, a 100mm macro lens will give you enough distance from your subject but the focal length will still allow you to fill the frame with your subject.

Other equipment needed for high-speed photography

The extra equipment you need will depend largely on what and where you’re shooting. For example, if you’re shooting outside and relying on shutter speed to freeze action, you won’t need much other than your camera.

However, shooting high-speed photos in the studio requires much more setup. That said, the results can be well worth the extra effort:

  • Flashes;
  • Tripod;
  • Shutter release cable or remote;
  • Optional: sound, motion, or light activated trigger.

Freezing fast action with shutter speed

freeze action with a fast shutter speed
Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

The most obvious, and simplest (though not exactly easy) method of freezing fast action is to shoot with a very fast shutter speed. For example, the hummingbird photo above was shot with a shutter speed of 1/8000. 

Most cameras have a shutter speed that tops out at 1/4000 or 1/8000. This can freeze most action with birds in flight, athletes, or splashing water.

However, such a fast shutter speed will result in a very low amount of light entering the camera, so you’ll need to compensate by shooting with a wider aperture and shoot on a bright, sunny day. Sometimes, however, this may not be enough to allow for a properly exposed image.

The alternative is to use flash.

Freezing fast action with flash

This might come as a surprise, but when you’re shooting in the studio using flash, shutter speed is no longer important! That’s because you’re shooting in a dark room and the image is only exposed when the flash is firing.

So, for shooting high-speed photography in a studio with flash, the camera settings are:

  • Bulb mode;
  • Aperture: f/11 – f/16;
  • ISO: 100;
  • Manual focus.

To take a photo, set up your camera on a tripod with a remote or shutter release cable. Set up your scene, and manually focus where you want the image to be in sharp focus. Then, do the action (drop the water, pop the balloon), fire your flashes, and snap your shot at the perfect moment. It may help to have a helper.

It may also help to have a trigger. Triggers are systems that will automatically snap your photo for you. There are a variety of different kinds on the market that can be triggered by sound, flashes of light, or by motion. One popular, and cost-effective trigger that’s popular for water droplet photos is the Pluto trigger.

Tips and tricks for high speed photography

Here are some tips to remember if you’re going to try your hand at high-speed photography in the studio:

  1. Shoot in a dark room. Remember you’re shooting in bulb mode, so any light in the room will affect the exposure.
  2. Use a small aperture. This will give you a deep depth of field so your entire image will be in focus.
  3. Manually focus. This way, your camera won’t be searching for focus in the dark.
  4. Shoot in burst mode. Keep shooting until the action is over. This will greatly increase your chances of getting the shot.
  5. Try a trigger. If you’re struggling to get a good shot, try a trigger.
  6. Practice makes perfect. Have patience and don’t give up. You’ll eventually get it!
High-speed Photography

Final thoughts

High-speed photography is fun, tricky, technical, messy, and hard. But, it’s so rewarding when you finally nail that shot and freeze a moment in time that you would have never seen without all that hard work.