Superfast, flour and a quiet bang!

So, we did a shoot using party poppers. It had a serious purpose, to demonstrate the action-freezing potential of our SuperFast flash heads, but it was a fun shoot, with all sorts of unexpected challenges to overcome. Here’s the final shot, which is a composite, and the video that we made of it is above.


The first little surprise was that party poppers aren’t quite as dramatic in a photo as they are in real life, they only throw up a couple of pretty naff bits of coloured paper, so we needed to comp the photo to add a bit more content.

And they’re pretty inconsistent too, sometimes the paper streamers only travel a couple of feet, cropped_popper_11sometimes it’s 10 feet, which made the lighting a bit more difficult and it also meant that we needed to shoot with a pretty wide angle of view, to get it all in when the popper decided to throw the streamers a generous distance as in the shot below…


And we added just a pinch of genuine Tesco own brand self raising flour too, to create ‘smoke’. This made a huge improvement. The poppers do in fact create a tiny bit of genuine smoke, which smells just like the old ‘caps’ fired in toy guns years ago, but there isn’t enough volume of genuine smoke to do the job, and the flour cured that.

The lighting arrangement and setup was pretty simple.

We set up a table, added a couple of glasses and a bottle of wine to give context to the shot, and put them at the back of the table. The original idea was to get just the smoke and paper streamers in focus, with the lens aperture set to f/5.6, and to have the bottle and glasses well out of focus, but that didn’t work because of the inconsistency of the streamers, so we had to stop down to get the streamers in focus and  and leave the bottle etc in sharper focus than we originally planned, although they are still a bit out of focus.  Of course, we could have put the bottle and glasses out of focus in Photoshop, but we didn’t bother.

Then, it was just a matter of deciding on camera height, so that we showed enough of the table top but not too much of it, and had the actual streamers against a black background.

And in front of the table, a couple of big cardboard boxes supported a piece of metal that happened to have the right size hole drilled into it. The party popper dropped into the hole, making it much easier to get a consistent position when the popper string was pulled by the poor colleague who had to lie on the floor out of shot:)

This is James, who sort of volunteered for that job.cropped_james_03 To his left, you can see one of our 30 x 140cm strip softboxes, complete with honeycomb grid. This was pointing towards the streamers from the popper, lighting them from the left but also from behind a bit, so that there was some backlighting. On the right hand facing side there was a large, 150cm Octa softbox, this was lighting the right hand side of the popper, the table, bottle and glasses.

And behind the popper, facing almost towards the camera and off to the right a bit, was another flash with a standard reflector fitted. This provided the all-important backlighting. As that flash head was pointing in the general direction of the camera lens, it was fitted with a 30 degree honeycomb grid, to avoid flare. I often use a tighter honeycomb, something like a 10 degree one, but we needed to light a fairly large area here.

All flash heads were of course the SuperFast, because nothing else could freeze the action.

But it wasn’t just a matter of freezing the action, we needed to ‘machine gun’ the camera too, taking shots continuously to make sure that we captured the right moment. We used my Nikon D700 for these shots, it can manage 7 frames per sec, which is enough, but a faster camera would have increased the chances of success and as the SuperFast flashes recycle in 1/20th second, they can keep up with literally any camera in continuous mode. In theory, the SuperFast can be fired in continuous mode for 3 seconds but the limitation is always with the camera, which can never manage such a long burst without clogging up its buffer.

There are some other makes of flash heads that can freeze action, although not as well. But they don’t recycle anywhere near as quickly, and this type of shot would only have been possible with single rather than continuous shots, and would have involved using one of those clever but expensive triggers that fire the camera and flash in response to movement or sound. We used the SuperFast 300 flash heads for this shoot, the 600 model would have worked just as well as their performance is identical to the 300 model, once the power has been reduced by 1 stop.

We got some interesting shots, and sometimes there were several usable shots in the same sequence. The shot below shows the popper immediately after it’s fired, the cardboard ‘wad’ has flown up and is out of shot, and the streamers are only just starting to come out. At this point, immediately following the small explosion that makes it happen, the movement is so fast that not even the SuperFast can completely freeze it, but it isn’t a bad effort considering the speed. As you can see, the paper streamers are still tightly coiled at the point at which they come out of the popper.


And the next shot, below, shows the popper just 1/12th of a second later, still moving very fast. The streamers are still pretty tightly coiled, it was interesting to see that it must be the air resistance that makes them uncoil, once they’ve travelled a bit further.


And here, below, is  the next shot in the series. The paper ‘wad’ can be seen clearly and the streamers have now pretty much left the popper, although they’re still coiled up and  haven’t had time to unravel properly yet. And the flour, placed on top of the popper, has now started to disperse, giving the appearance of smoke. The little round disc that appears in some shots is the cardboard wad that keeps the streamers in place.


Job done.