Stroboscopic and long exposure photography by Martin Zurmühle

A stroboscope is a flash unit that emits flashes of light at regular intervals, making movements appear choppy as a sequence of still images in a dark environment.

A stroboscope is a flash unit that emits flashes of light at regular intervals, making movements appear choppy as a sequence of still images in a dark environment.

In photography, we are interested in the single image rather than the cinematic effect created by a rapid succession of frames. In stroboscopic photography, we can fixate a sequence of movements with a single shot. This requires an electronic flash unit that “freezes” individual sections of movement in a dark room with a short flash-off time and thus captures them in a single shot. The room must be very dark because the moving subject is only flashed once at each stage of the movement, but the background is illuminated with all the stroboscopic flashes. The darker the background, the more clearly the movements stand out from it. 

The first photographer to work intensively on the depiction of motion sequences was the British photographer and pioneer of photographic technology Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904). In 1878, he was commissioned by Leland Stanford (Governor of California) to capture the individual phases of the movement of a galloping horse in a picture for the first time. While Eadweard Muybridge composed his sequences of movements from individual images, Harold Edgerton succeeded in capturing them in a single image using stroboscopic flashes. This expanded the possibilities of depicting movement, but also required a much more elaborate recording technique. 

In contrast to single shots, stroboscopic shots are much more demanding from a technical and creative point of view. The following problems have to be overcome:

  • Space requirements: A sufficiently large and dark room (without continuous light) is required.
  • Flash triggering: The flashes must be triggered at the selected interval and with a sufficiently high power (automatically or manually).
  • Camera and flash settings: The exposure time of the camera must correspond to the duration of the planned flash series.
  • Light control: The light control must ensure good illumination of the subject without illuminating the background too much.

Since the background receives the light from all the flashes, the room must be as dark as possible and sufficiently large. A completely black room with a sufficiently large distance between the moving subject and the background is ideal. During the entire flash series, the continuous light in the room must remain switched off. With these spatial requirements, high-quality stroboscopic photographs become possible.

Three shooting parameters must define stroboscopic photography:

  • Number of flashes desired (or length of shooting sequence).
  • Frequency of flash release (in Hz = number of flashes per second)
  • Power of the individual flashes (effective or as a fraction of the maximum power).

These parameters then determine the exposure time required for the strobe sequence. The camera is controlled in manual mode (as usual for studio photography). Note that these three setting values influence each other. For example, a high power prevents a high number. You therefore sometimes have to reduce the line to get a desired number of flashes.

With automatic stroboscopic photography, the flash unit ensures that the flashes are triggered evenly. The intervals between the individual flashes are then always the same. Accordingly, the subject must move precisely to the rhythm of the flashes.

Manual stroboscopic flashing works in the same way. The difference is that you trigger the individual flashes yourself as required. To do this, you also need a remote trigger with which you manually release the individual flashes. The great advantage of this method is that you can precisely align the individual shots. However, this has to be done in the dark, which can make the work quite difficult. 

The light control for stroboscopic shots is demanding. On the one hand, the moving subject must be well illuminated. On the other hand, the background should not receive too much light from the flash units. The standard low key lighting situations are usually well suited for this. 

As in classic studio photography, you can experiment with a wide variety of lighting situations when shooting stroboscopes. Together with the other shooting factors (number of shots and flash frequency), there are a great many design possibilities. Let yourself be surprised by the effects created.

Another creative option is to combine a long exposure with a flash on the second curtain. This creates blurring through the movement of the model during the long exposure. At the end of the movement, the model is frozen in a final pose. The following factors must be taken into account for these shots:

  • The lighting setup can be the same as for the strobe shots.
  • An additional continuous light is needed on both sides (next to the strobes).
  • The flash units need an orange foil and the modelling light must be switched off.
  • The white balance of the camera is set to artificial light.
  • The model’s movements must not be too fast.
  • The continuous light must be set stronger and the flash weaker.

It takes many attempts until these different factors work in the right relationship to each other and the desired image effect is created. The reward, however, is very special and artistic-looking photographs.

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