I rarely use flash.

I guess the main reason is that I don’t do studio photography — where flash and other auxiliary lighting are necessary ingredients.  But, aside from that, I cannot understand why so many photographers automatically reach for the flash unit when they shoot inside or outside in poor light.

My main reason for avoiding the use of a flash is the authenticity of the image.  Stay with me here.  I think that an image has more authenticity the more it comes close to what the eye sees and the brain perceives.  You will agree, I’m sure, that the eye normally takes in a scene without the help of a short burst of artificial light.  So…it seems to me…the image made without adding flash is more nearly real; more authentic.

Now, my camera has an on-board, pop-up flash which I use occasionally to bring some light into a person’s face when shooting against a bright background — like a sky.  But, you say, that isn’t authentic.  Yes, it is.  The eye and brain compensate for looking into the person’s face by selectively setting the brain’s “aperture” for each point in the image.  My feeling is that the image made with the pop-up fill flash is therefore more authentic than what the photograph would show without the flash.

DSC_6945But there are other reasons.

Probably the most apparent is that flash can do some rather unpleasant things to an image.  Take the street portrait here, for example.  If I had used a flash — even a little fill flash — the softness and intimacy of the image would have been reduced if not even destroyed.  The features of the little boy and the man would have been flattened a bit.  The flash would have created a shadow on the wall.  And the texture of the wall (enhanced by a subtle side lighting) would have been filled and less apparent.  The negative space is important here and I would not want to wash it out with a flash.

I can think of a few more reasons not to use flash.  For starters, the newer cameras — with their amazing sensitivity — almost eliminate the need for flash even in low light situations.  And you don’t have that wait between exposures while the flash unit resets.

Don’t forget also, friends, that there are places where flash is not allowed.

And then there is the stealth factor.  Imagine what the photo above would have been like if, a few seconds before, I had been making flash pictures.  As I swung the camera toward the pair the little boy would have stiffened, possibly clinched those marvelously casual hands, and maybe even smiled.  The man almost certainly would have been looking at me.  In my estimation the image would have lost its impact.

So…how can you avoid using flash?  The most obvious way is to leave the flash unit in your camera bag.  Then use techniques you might employ in any low light situation.  For example you could use wider aperture, shorter lenses, higher ISO, etc.   Beyond that, look for alternate light sources such as windows and doors.  You will, undoubtedly, come home with more natural, warm, and authentic images.



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Colin Donoghue - Hello John,
Flash or no flash – somewhat of a can of worms there. I agree with you regarding flash wiping out the ambient lighting and the textures it gives, but I am also a bit worried by not having catchlights in the subject’s eyes. The right amount of flash, just enough to light up the eyes can make a portrait sparkle. My camera club ran a project photographing immigrants to our city, most of whom were dark, even black-skinned. To me, what ruined most of the images was the dark faces with no catchlights in the eyes – they could have been corpses, looked like cadavers, certainly no life at all in their faces.
Canon cameras, which I know you use, if used in aperture priority mode, in bright light will fire just enough flash to light up the model’s eyes. Just choose Av, pop the flash, and shoot. Shoot some with flash, then close the flash and shoot some more with no flash. Then, you’ve covered the possibilities.

Regards, Colin.

PS If you ever come again to New Zealand, email me and we can meet, if you want.

skeeter - Colin, I think you are absolutely right — or maybe you say “spot on” — regarding the catch light in the eyes. It makes a world of difference. In the case of this image, however, I was reluctant to bring any attention to myself with a flash. Perhaps I should have added a bit of sparkle to the boys eyes in post. Thanks for your very insightful comment. I wish I could go to NZ again. It has, undoubtedly, the world’s best landscapes — and, perhaps, the world’s most gracious people!

Bruce Ward - I take lots of street photos, mostly without flash, for a number of reasons, but frankly, the ones I take with flash are almost always better.

skeeter - A lot of folks share that sentiment, Bruce. There is a street photographer, Thomas Leuthard, who has a few videos regarding how he does this. Try this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFCUntuLTts It’s not my variety of “street” but he gets some interesting results.

Stephanie - To flash or not to flash… A tough call with a lot of variables in between. I certainly agree with Colin on the catch lights adding some extra quality to people photography. I also agree that authentic moments, like the one Skeeter so well captured, can be lost with a flash.

I gauge each situation based on my intent for the shot. I shot horticultural students working on an outdoor community project this am. I was told to shoot candidly. I also knew that these images would be used for social media as well as for a brochure. Using a fill light gave me the catch light I knew I needed as well as allowing the students’ faces to be discernible as they dug holes for plants.

Great discussion!

skeeter - Yes, a very good discussion — and one that opened my eyes a bit. I think I’ll be a little more liberal with the flash from here on out.

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