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.
But 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.