How to use a flash in street photography

One of the things that I really like about photography is experiment new ideas and new techniques. I often think about new projects to work on and many times I get stuck in a rut because I don’t have any idea. It’s in these moments that I refer to the masters of street photography to get the inspiration for new project ideas. One year ago I bought a fantastic book called Magnum Contact Sheet (which I highly recommend to everyone) and among many I saw some inspiring works from Bruce Gilden which really blown me away. The San Gennaro Festival shots are absolutely brilliant according to me. I got interested in the way he used the flash in his works and did a bit of research online. When I saw a video on YouTube showing him shooting on the street I thought:” Wow this guy has a gigantic pair of balls” the second thought was: “How does he manage not to get kicked in the ass by anyone?” 

Although I found his works inspiring and very powerful, at the beginning I was sceptic about using a flash, first of all because I thought it wasn’t fair towards other people – what would I do if someone shoot me with a flash when I’m on the street? – and also because I was scared of being cursed or punched by someone. Despite my fears, Gilden images were always in my mind and the desire to create interesting images was stronger than the fear so I decided to give it a try. This is what I learned after one year of shooting with a flash. (Please note this post is mainly for digital flash photography, if you use a film camera it won’t work exactly in the same way).

You need a flash 

Pretty obvious I’d say! Nowadays you have different options, you can either use a built in flash on your DSLR/compact/rangefinder/point and shoot/ mirrorless camera or if you don’t have a built in one can use an external flash. Personally i have an external flash which i use most of the time with my Ricoh GR, although the built in flash works very well on its own. If you don’t own a camera with a built in flash no worries, you don’t need to break the bank to buy one. All you need is a cheap manual flash (TTL flashes are too expensive and not necessary for our scope), you can get for example a Yongnuo Upgraded YN-560 III Wireless for £40 ish. If you want try an external flash make sure you have a cord or a remote flash trigger compatible with your camera hot shoe.

How to set the camera 

I personally believe that manual mode is the way to go in street photography the more so if you use a flash. This is because I don’t want the camera’s auto exposure meter to over expose my shot ruining the final result. During the daylight for example I like to expose a little on the background just to give a sense of reference of the time of day. During the night I don’t worry too much about the background exposure as the flash will do the job for me. Generally these are the settings I use: 

  • Aperture: f7.1 or f8 to get a good depth of field. 
  • ISO: depending if I’m shooting in the day or in the night. I normally use ISO 100-200 during the day and 800, 1600 or 3200 in the night. 
  • Shutter speed: depending on the result i want. I sometimes use long time to get a floating image or short time to freeze the moment. Generally I use 1/200, 1/150, 1/100 or 1/30, 1/25. 1/20. I also use 1 sec or something close to it.

How to set the flash 

I believe it’s very important to get an understanding of what the final result will be by using different setting type. Luckily digital photography has made this very easy, in fact you can take test shot and review your photo to see if the result appeals to you or not. Besides settings of the camera you need to understand how to set the flash. Make sure the flash is in manual mode and not in TTL mode then check the power settings. The power setting vary from 1/1 which is full power to roughly 1/64 or 1/128 which is least power. It’s completely up to you how to set the power of a flash depending on what time of the day you are shooting and the result you’re looking for. In reality there is a fairly complicated method (only at the beginning) to set the flash based on the "Inverse square law" but i'll be back on this in another post.

You can also decide to set the flash on the 1st or 2nd curtain. Enabling the 1st curtain flash means that it will fire when the first shutter curtain is open aka at the beginning of the shot. On the other  side you can enable your flash on the second curtain meaning that it will fire at the end of the the shot. What does this mean? If you enable the first curtain flash your subject will be impressed in his initial position compared to your lens. So if you're using long exposure time the first thing impressed will be your subject than his movement, the result will be a trail preceding him. The opposite will happen if you set a second curtain flash. Beware that in street photography subjects move fairly quickly so if you use a 2nd curtain flash be ready to calculate the exact distance of the subject before shooting.

Overcome your fears 

Now that you have (hopefully) a clearer idea about how to use a flash, all you need to do is go out and take some pictures. Easy to say right? It’s scary at first using a flash especially if off the camera because you’ll need to photograph with both your arms in the air (like Gilden). I was absolutely scared at the beginning, people don’t expect to be photographed, especially with a flash but I can tell you that as soon as I started their reactions really surprised me. From my experience I find that the majority of people don’t seem to care so much. Of course I use some tricks like pretending to photograph something that is behind them (keep looking further don’t make eye contact!) but to be honest I thought it could be worst. So far no one kicked me in the ass, sometimes people stop me and ask me why I’m taking a picture and this is a good opportunity for me to explain who I am and what am doing. If you make them feel involved in what you’re doing, most of the time you won’t have any issue. I would recommend anyway to start using a flash when the streets are busy rather than starting approaching people on desolate streets in the night! Maybe a big event like a parade or a festival could be an opportunity for you to start as people are more willing to be photographed. Once you have done this first step, than try with another and another one, at the end you’ll be amazed by the results. 

Conclusion 

Street photography is not for everyone, the use of a flash adds another level of difficulty. Definitely not easy to practice, many people may have some ethics issue with this. I read many times about criticisms accusing photographers like Gilden or Kirk to use people like toys. I also read about other photographers get their camera smashed on the floor. Street photography is completely unpredictable but I guess this is what makes it fun, a least for me! According to me flash adds something to a photograph, like an extra dimension or a unique appeal. So if you find yourself stuck in street photography and you’re looking for something new and exciting to experiment, I’d recommend to give it a try. Finally remember to be yourself, find your own style, and have fun.