Elevate your action photography with Speedlite flashes

A simple flash of light from a Canon Speedlite can open up a whole world of innovative action photography techniques. Find out how to get the most out of this handy piece of kit.
Canon Camera

Flash photography may seem daunting, but in essence a flash is a very simple piece of kit. Its purpose is to lift parts of your image with a pop of light at precisely the right moment. Sometimes this might be necessary due to dark conditions, but at other times you can use flash in combination with ambient light to achieve a distinctive look. A single Speedlite flash opens up all kinds of creative options, especially with action and sports photography. You can choose to freeze the action, shoot for motion blur, or capture both in a single frame.

Whether you're new to flash or are looking for fresh ways to expand your creative lighting techniques, here are a few tips on how to use a Speedlite for jaw-dropping action sports photography.

1. Freeze action with high-speed sync

A man in standing at the top of a skate ramp photographing a skateboarder.

To shoot in High Speed Sync (HSS) mode, press the sync button on your Speedlite until it displays the H symbol, then increase your shutter speed to freeze fast-moving subjects.

A man in dark clothes and a hat in the midst of a skateboard stunt, leaning back at a sheer angle at the top of a ramp.

HSS allows you to set your exposure for a dramatic background and still get a good exposure on your subject in the foreground. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 24mm, 1/1600 sec, f/5 and ISO1000 with a Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT.

Many cameras are limited to a max shutter speed of 1/200 sec when using a flash, which can be too slow to freeze fast-moving subjects. However, if your camera and flash are compatible, like the Canon EOS RP and Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT used here, you can shoot in high-speed sync mode (HSS). This opens up much faster shutter speeds.

For shooting people walking around, a shutter speed of 1/250 sec is fast enough, whereas 1/1000 sec is better if your subject is moving a bit quicker, like a runner or a skateboarder, to capture the action blur-free. The trade off with HSS mode is that the flash has to fire a series of imperceptibly quick pulses to coincide with the two curtains of our camera's shutter, meaning the maximum power of the flash decreases as you increase the shutter speed. Nevertheless, when you want to light your subject while shooting action photos, HSS can be invaluable.

2. Add depth with off-camera flash

A skateboarder performing a trick in front of a graffitied wall.

The Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT (Ver.2) has a near-identical button layout to the 600EX II-RT and can be used for off-camera HSS flash. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 46mm, 1/200 sec, f/8 and ISO320 with a Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT.

3. Underexpose ambient light to make your subject stand out

A man photographing a woman performing a skateboard trick, her board upside down in the shot as she jumps.

Underexposing ambient light creates a dark and moody atmosphere, meaning your subject will appear bold when lit by a Speedlite.

When combining flash with daylight, you can experiment with the ratio between two light sources. For example, you could intentionally underexpose the daylit surroundings and use the flash to expose and isolate our subject. To achieve this, leave the flash off to begin with and work out a manual exposure that underexposes the ambient light so it's dark and moody. Then turn on the flash and set it to manual power.

Take a couple of test shots to work out the right output for your scene. To overpower bright daylight like this we need a high output, so start with your flash at 1/1 full power, then dial it down if it looks too strong. As well as changing the output we can also adjust the strength of the light by moving it closer or further from our subject. Used like this, our Speedlite allows us to create an atmospheric pocket of light around the subject.

4. Set your flash to rear curtain sync to add trails

When firing a flash during a long exposure, you can create a dynamic blend of blurriness and sharpness. The motion through the frame creates the blur, while the short burst of flash freezes the subject at a split-second moment within your exposure. You can choose whether the flash fires at the very beginning or end of the exposure. It's usually best to set the flash to rear curtain mode so that it fires at the end. This way the blur creates a trail behind your subject. To use rear curtain mode, press the sync button on your Canon Speedlite until it displays the three arrow icon.

5. Use a flash for your panning shots to make your subject sharp

An image of a woman skateboarding, where the graffitied brick wall in the background has been blurred while the skateboarder remains clear.

To create panning blur, track the movement of the subject from one side of the frame to the other, matching the camera to their speed. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 26mm, 1/30 sec, f/16 and ISO100, with a Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT.

Panning the camera with your subject can result in a wonderful combination of blur and sharpness. Time it right and the subject will be sharp while everything else streaks into blur. Panning can be done without a flash, but adding one in makes the subject sharper and more defined. Set the flash to rear curtain sync mode, then use shutter priority mode and set the shutter speed to around 1/30 sec (or quicker for fast-moving subjects like cars). When you're ready, pan the camera with the action. It may take a few attempts to get the subject sharp, but it's worth the effort for the sense of speed and motion you can create.

6. Pulse your flash to create a blended image

MULTI mode is a creative Speedlite setting that fires a rapid succession of pulses. When used in combination with a long exposure you can capture your subject in several positions around the frame. The challenge here is that – much like a double exposure – the lighter areas will overlap and blend with one another. So it's best to shoot your subject against a dark backdrop or at night, and capture them moving from one side to the other.

Once you've mastered these techniques, why not find more inspiration from professional adrenaline sports photographer and Canon Ambassador Lorenz Holder as he takes us through his top tips1 for using flash for action photography, or follow professional action photographer, Dave Mackison shooting with the Speedlite EL-12.

Written by James Paterson

  1. Available in English only.
  2. Available in selected languages only.

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