Photography has come a long way over the last 10 years. With our transition into digital photography, new techniques have been discovered, and work that once seemed impossible is being created on a day to day basis. Sure, we’ve seen the advances digital sensors have done for photography – but I want to talk to you about the forgotten technology leaf shutters.
My absolute favorite camera I’ve used in my career as a photographer comes in the Phase One IQ250 camera system. It’s medium format, costs a fortune, and has incredible dynamic range. That said, what impresses me more about the camera more so than anything else isn’t the camera body at all it’s the lenses it uses.
Phase One works with Schneider optics, who make a special blend of lenses for their medium format cameras, called leaf shutter lenses. Certainly the technology isn’t new or particularly innovative, as it dates back to as early as 1917, but in a modern camera, leaf shutter lenses are an oddity.
To put simply, leaf shutters are a standard camera shutter that work more like an aperture than a traditional shutter. Instead of closing from left to right or top to bottom, leaf shutters close within themselves, which is much more expensive to produce, but come with some pretty incredible perks.
For one, you get much faster sync speeds with strobes. If you’ve used strobe lighting before and shot faster than 1/200th a second (or 1/250th for many crop body sensors), you’ll notice that part of the frame is black. This isn’t a limitation of your strobe or anything like that, what you’re seeing is your physical shutter.
With leaf shutters, they are able to close in on themselves, using anywhere from 6 to 12 blades, which results in much faster opening and closing to expose the sensor to light. This means, when using a strobe in a bright environment, you’re able to shoot at much faster sync speeds without any problems, often as fast as 1/1600th of second. By taking advantage of that, you’re able to overpower the sun much more easily, while keeping your aperture open enough to have an distinct depth of field. You’re also able to freeze your subject better when working with higher shutter speeds. While strobes are designed to freeze the action in front of the camera, it has it’s own set of limitations when fighting with the sun. Faster shutter speeds will allow the sun to become less of an issue, thus stopping movement even better.
Sadly, leaf shutters are still a rarity within the photography community, as the shutter needs to be built into the lens itself, as oppose to the camera body. Which means that Nikon, Canon and other popular brands will take years to develop this system, as they would likely need to make a new camera mount entirely (or at least a new line of lenses to support the feature). That said, some brands have gone ahead to embrace the leaf shutter systems, such as the beloved Fujifilm X100 and X100s camera line a feature the felt was so important that they used a non detachable fixed lens to drive the feature home.
Perhaps this article is a little tongue in cheek, as I don’t expect the major brands to read this and think Okay, lets get to the drawing board. Nor do I expect anyone else to read this and invest into a $40k+ medium format system. However, what I do hope as that the leaf shutter continues to get support and interest from the photography community, and hopefully help bring them to a mainstream line of camera systems. Until then, I’ll have to use alternative to fighting the sun when using strobes, such as Neutral Density filters.