Sony has made a huge leap forward in technology and nobody talks about it

Sony has produced what could be described as a revolutionary camera with its current flagship, the Sony a1. Although this camera offers a plethora of new features that most reviews are raving about. One of its most notable features has gone a little under the radar. This function is to increase the flash sync speed to 1/400 second of the shutter speed.

The Sony a1 is one of the best full frame mirrorless cameras on the market. Not only is it capable of shooting 50 megapixel high resolution files, but it can also capture that resolution at 30 frames per second. It was only until recently that we thought that speed and high resolution were an impossible combination, based on current technology. You might have a high-resolution camera that captures a great deal of detail, or you might have a low-resolution camera that shoots extremely fast for those high-speed situations. Sony has managed to do both in one camera.

Additionally, Sony has also managed to cram in 8K 30p and 4K 120p in 4: 2: 2, 10-bit recording. In essence, the Sony a1 is an incredible camera system. However, these features are obvious and inevitable updates in the grand scheme of things. Almost everyone expected Sony to produce an 8K capable camera system, however, I doubt anyone thought Sony would improve the shutter mechanism and sync speed in the Sony a1.

What is a focal plane shutter?

A focal plane shutter is essentially the shutter mechanism found in almost all DSLR and mirrorless cameras. A focal plane shutter exists in the camera and is located in front of the camera sensor. There are two sections for a focal plane shutter and they are called first curtain and second curtain.

The first curtain will open to reveal the complete sensor, after which the second curtain will open to close the shutters again. The time it takes to open and close the shutter depends on the shutter speed.

The main advantage of focal plane shutters is that they can handle faster shutter speeds than leaf shutter mechanisms (discussed below). Most high-end DSLR and mirrorless cameras can handle shutter speeds of up to 1 / 8000s, which is considerably faster than leaf shutter cameras.

The other advantage of focal plane shutters is that they work inside the camera. This means that virtually any type of lens can be attached, and the shutter mechanism can still shoot. You can even use the pinhole body caps on the camera and the shutter will still fire allowing you to expose an image.

The downside is that a focal plane shutter can only remain fully open up to a certain speed. For most cameras, this shutter speed is 1 / 200s. Above this speed, the shutter blades will no longer open fully as they move the sensor down to expose the image. The shutter opening decreases as the shutter speed is increased. This isn’t a big deal unless you’re shooting with the flash. If the aperture in the shutter blades is smaller than the sensor, the entire sensor will not be exposed when the flash fires.

As you can see in the comparison above, much of the flash ends up hitting the shutter blades instead of the sensor when shooting at a speed higher than the sync speed. To fix this, you can use a feature called high-speed sync. In this mode, the flash will fire several times quickly, to follow the shutter blades as they move along the sensor. Unfortunately, this feature greatly reduces the flash output making it less than ideal in many situations.

What is a leaf shutter?

A leaf shutter is relatively rare when it comes to camera systems. The biggest and most obvious difference between a leaf shutter and a focal plane shutter is that the leaf shutter works inside the lens rather than the camera. This severely limits third party compatibility. Another obvious difference is the structure of the hinged door.

The focal plane shutters move through the sensor in one direction, usually from top to bottom. Hinged shutters open and close in a circular motion that is somewhat similar to how the slats of the opening open and close. It is this design difference that makes the biggest difference. Unlike focal plane shutters, leaf shutter mechanisms do not have a flash sync speed limit. Leaf shutter lenses can synchronize with the flash at any managed shutter speed.

For example, current Hasselblad lenses can sync flash even with a shutter speed of 1/2000 without the need for any kind of high-speed sync mode. The disadvantage of leaf shutters is that the maximum speed currently available is 1 / 2000s, and this is considerably less than what focal plane shutters can achieve, which is 1 / 8000s.

How has Sony handled this?

A camera shutter mechanism generally works with a spring system. In a focal plane shutter camera, the two curtains are loaded and then fired when the shutter button is pressed. The spring system has worked very well in cameras for decades. However, even this system hasn’t been updated in a long time.

Here comes the Sony a1 with its dual-drive focal plane shutter. The shutter mechanism in this camera works with a spring system and also a magnetic system. The spring system will be active for most fast and slow shutter speeds. The magnetic system is only active between shutter speeds of 1 / 320s and 1 / 400s.

These are the two fastest points that the Sony a1 can synchronize with the flash in full frame mode. The magnetic system allows the shutter curtains to move faster through the frame. The first curtain can open fast enough that when the second curtain is ready to close, the full sensor is open for exposure.

This is the key difference. The magnetic system can move the shutter curtains faster than the standard mechanism. That extra speed helps ensure that the entire sensor is open for exposure rather than parts being blocked by the shutter blades.

Because this is a great update

The Sony a1 is the only full frame camera on the market that can synchronize with the flash at a shutter speed of 1 / 400th of a second. This is twice the speed of most full-frame cameras, including flagship systems from Canon and Nikon. This sync speed can further increase up to 1/500 s shutter if you shoot in APS-C mode. This type of speed is on a par with some leaf shutter lenses.

Interestingly, even with this higher sync speed in the Sony a1, the camera’s shutter is tough enough to handle more than 500,000 cycles. Although it is important to remember that Sony did not disclose duration ratings for the shutter mechanism when flash sync priority is enabled.

However, for many working photographers, this increase in sync speed offers more real-world benefits than improving dynamic range or increasing resolution.

Having a lot of resolution can be great, however, after a certain point, a few more pixels makes very little difference to how you shoot and the results you produce. Even with dynamic range, most cameras now offer enough flexibility that an extra half stop doesn’t make much or no difference to your workflow. Features like megapixels and dynamic range might make great titles, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s just marketing. Even smartphones can now shoot up to 100 megapixels and beyond.

Increasing the sync speed makes a real change to your workflow. You can shoot with a faster shutter speed regardless of the type of flash you are using. You can even delay the need to shoot with high-speed sync by one point. This is especially useful when shooting in a controlled environment or in the studio.

For a long time, if you were shooting in a studio, the maximum shutter speed you could probably choose was 1 / 200s. Being able to shoot at a faster shutter speed in a controlled environment will most likely reduce potential problems. For example, if you’re photographing people, introducing motion into your shots is less likely to cause blur.

This is arguably one of the best and most difficult breakthroughs in technology we’ve seen in a long time, and Sony should be celebrated for making it.

Final thoughts

This is a huge leap forward for working professionals and the best part is that it won’t be long before this feature starts appearing in less expensive cameras. As the cost of features becomes less expensive, we may start to see this become the standard sync speed for flash.

What is unclear at the moment is whether Sony can take this dual-guide mechanism further. It’s probably fair to assume that the magnetic system could probably handle even faster shutter speeds. However, it was probably durability issues that limited the sync speed to 1 / 400s.

Hopefully, we are only in the early stages of what is possible with magnetic shutter drives. Who knows, Sony’s next flagship camera might sync flash at 1 / 1000s as well.

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