There are multiple schools of aesthetic in Street Photography, and one of the most popular is: Flash Street Photography. Here is an in-depth tutorial on how to do it.


Part 1- Flash Street Photography: Introduction


Why use flash?


I think the first thing that we must get out of the way is the WHY Flash Street Photography? question. Well, there are multiple answers:


1) Because of the Flash Aesthetic


Some people just like the Flash Aesthetic, the rough look, the hard shadows. This is, of course, a matter of preference and it's up to you to decide if you like it or not. As always, Flash Street Photography does not automatically translate to art. Yet, many use the Flash Aesthetic as an excuse! All of the principles of photography still apply, flash or not.


2) To create contrast


The eye is attracted to contrast, it moves from most contrasty to less contrasty. One simple way to create contrast is to separate the foreground from the background. Most people change their aperture to do so and blur out the background. Another way to create contrast is to make one part of the image light and the other dark, and that can be done with flash.




In the illustration above, I know for a fact that you saw the man on the right first. It is so because he has a higher degree of contrast compared to the man on the left. Flash helps you create contrast when there is none.


3) Because it's needed


It may just be that the situation you are in simply requires flash. Let's say it's night and you do not want to max out your ISO, or it's just way too dark, then use flash.


Downsides of Flash Street Photography




No-Flash Photography is sometimes better, as flash is not without it's downside. First things first, it's arresting. No more ‘ninja' Street Photography, having a flash pop is like a ninja farting: It brings attention to you. Also, seeing it from your subject's point of view, it's not cool having someone flash you up. There's always the possibility of the subject blinking.


Part 2- Setting Yourself Up


1) What gear do you need?


Most likely your camera has a flash that you can put on manual and you are pretty much set up. Alternatively, you can get an external flash or speedlight. The one thing to know is that you are limited by your sync speed. Meaning, you can only go so fast when it comes to your shutter speed.


Some cameras you can't go faster than 1/250th of a second, others you can. Just google [your camera name] + sync speed or check your camera manual to find out.  This limits your situations, say you want to use flash and it's sunny. You probably can't shoot if your sync speed is 1/250th. I'm writing this tutorial under the presupposition that you will be using manual flash.




2) How does it work?


You probably know how to make an exposure. When you are using flash, you are essentially controlling 2 exposures: Ambient exposure & Flash exposure. For the sake of simplicity, your Flash exposure is where your flash hits, while Ambient exposure is your background where the flash doesn't hit.



3) Controlling Ambient exposure


You control the Ambient exposure the same way you do a regular exposure. No surprises there.


4) Controlling flash:
You control 3 ways beyond ISO:

– Flash power
This is how powerful your flash output is. It can be full power (The POOOF! sound), half power, quarter power, an eight of power, etc. As the power goes down, there is less light outputted.
– Flash to subject distance
You need to know The Inverse Square Law. The definition is: “A subject twice the distance from the light source (our flash) will only receive 1/4th of the illumination”. It basically means that light drops VERY fast, and your subject's distance to the camera can be the difference between under and over exposure of the flash.
– Aperture
As you close your aperture (Higher fstop) the less flash will enter the lens


Here are some simulated images of the above, changing only the aperture on the top images and the shutter speed on the bottom images:




4)  How to figure out the settings
Here's what I do to figure out my setting. I first decide what I want to shoot, most likely I want my subject at about 1 meter away from me. I fire a couple of test shots, playing around with my flash power and aperture to expose correctly for my subject at one meter. If my subject is too bright, I either make the flash less powerful or I close my aperture down a bit.


When I like what I see, I then adjust my shutter speed to let more or less of the ambient light in. The more time I let my shutter open, the brighter my background would be. I really like to separate my subject from my background so I intentionally make my shutter speed fast so that it can be dark. I then go on shooting, only being careful that my subjects are about 1 meter away.


If my distance to my subject changes, the amount of flash they receive will change, because of the Inverse Suare Law. Once you have your settings locked in,  what you really have to watch out for is keeping the same distance, or playing around with your settings to change the flash output on the fly. That's it!


Flash Photography Techniques

Now comes the fun part, here are some Flash Photography techniques you can use now!


1) Use it while it's sunny




It doesn't have to be night to use your flash, you can also use your flash in broad daylight. You can create contrast by making your Ambient exposure darker and well-exposing your Flash exposure. When you show your subjects your shot, they might look at the sky wondering how come it's so dark!


2) Invisible backdrop
This is a pretty cool technique: when the shutter speed is so fast, it does not have time to record anything and the background becomes just black. Of course the flash mustn't hit anything in the background either because it will be illuminated. To use the technique, use faster shutter speeds and make sure your flash only hits the subject.


3) Drag the shutter


This technique is pretty easy. Simply use slower shutter speeds (“dragging the shutter”) when using flash. When the flash hits your subject it's going to freeze it, but will also allow for some movement, making for an interesting effect. Try at 1/40th of a second and slower.

Note: 1st curtain vs 2nd curtain
You've probably seen these settings in your camera, here's an explanation: Let's say for example's sake that the exposure we are using lasts 5 seconds. If your flash is set up at 1st curtain sync, it's going to pop at the very beginning of the 5 seconds while if it's 2nd curtain, it's going to pop at the end of the 5 seconds.
This is important to know if you intend to blur your background a bit by dragging the shutter. 1st curtain would freeze the lit area before the blur trail and second curtain would freeze the lit area after the blur trail.


4) Drag it even more



But don't be afraid to experiment! Go even slower in your shutter speeds for more generous light trails. The challenge there is to not let the light trail overpower your subject, sometimes they can be lost in the image. The image above is 1/8th of a second.


5) Use Off-camera Flash

Image by Satoki Nagata

Off-camera Flash can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be. You can get a flash cable to have some mobility with your flash, or you can setup the flash to be on a light stand and wait to “trap” your subject. Have a look at Satoki Nagata's flash work. You can more or less previsualize your result because you know where your light it coming from, but things might be a little weird if someone walking down the street sees a photographer waiting in a corner and a flash on a light stand opposite him.

6) Use a Gobo



A Gobo is short for “Goes between optics” and it's something that goes between your flash and your lens. Strobist folks use it to set the mood with shapes and such.




In Street Photography, you can just use something like a lens hood for interesting effects. It might give you interesting results.


That's it for Flash Street Photography, it's a whole world in itself! I hope your learned something about it, if you've always wanted to try it. It will take some practice to know in your gut the appropriate distance between you and the subject, your flash power, etc, but as always, practice makes perfect. So go out and try it! Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.


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