Flash street photography tips: The definitive guide

Are you looking to do street photography with a flash? This is a popular style where you go in the streets with a flash (or use your built-in one) and light up your scene. It makes for a great effect but it is also a bit complicated to do because it is technical. Plus many photographers will ring your ears with the confusing math and numbers.

In this definitive guide with street photography tips I’ll keep things simple and show you how to light up your street photography. Inside you will find out:

  • The best flash settings
  • Recommended flashes
  • What color can completely ruin your shot
  • 2 ways to creatively use your flash
  • 8 Tips to make the most out of your flash
  • & much more

Cool? The images on this article have been shot in these locations: New York and Miami with my favorite camera ever the Ricoh GRD IV and these street photography presets. Let’s dig in right away by first asking…

What is flash street photography?

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As it’s name implies it is street photography made with the help of a camera flash, also known as strobe or speed-light. It is a bit more intrusive than traditional street photography that tends to be more stealthy. The flash can be used either at night or during the day.

Why do street photography with a flash?

There’s two main reasons to use a flash in streetshooting. The first reason is because of need. Say you want to shoot at night for example, and your camera can’t handle low light well or simply there IS not enough light, you will probably want to pull out your speed-light. When there is not enough light…create it!

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The second reason is for the aesthetics. There’s something about flash that make things look raw and “in your face”. It’s such a loved look that many street photographers end up using flash and flash alone!

The last reason is eye travel. When you shoot flash so that the background is darkened, the subject you photograph immediately pops out because the flash illuminates them while the rest of the photo is darker. So it’s a really good way to have contrast.

Why not use flash all the time then?

It’s not all rosy however because flash is quite confrontational. Imagine shooting someone walking down the streets. You walk and shoot them as they walk by. No harm done, you are borderline invisible, they probably didn’t even realize you shot anything.

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This is a much different ballgame with flash. Imagine walking down the streets minding your own bee’s knees when someone makes a straight line for you and POP! Blinds you for a second or two. Quite the different experience, right?

This is made worse by street photographers who do not practice respect-based shooting and shove their camera REALLY close and blind their subject for a while because the flash is so strong and so close.

I don’t know about you but in my book subjects are people. Respect their personal space and don’t be a jerk. That’s why I shoot at a normal distance, and don’t shove my camera down people’s throats.

How close you get, it’s really your call on this one. Anyway, let’s move on to…

What gear do I need?

If you want to shoot street photography with a flash, you will of course need a camera (see my recommendations of the best street photography cameras ). You will also need a flash. This brings us to…

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On camera flash vs off-camera flash

If your camera has one already, do you really need to get and external flash? The answer is, it depends. If you just want to experiment shooting, I would simply use my built-in flash and see how you like it. Or else you will be stuck with gear you don’t need.

If you know you are serious about this, I would get an external flash. The flash on your camera simply isn’t strong enough for most uses and it burns your batteries. You have to be close for it to really do anything and if you are not, the light barely registers because of light falloff (more on this later).

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How about flash cables?

A flash cable (or you could get a wireless trigger but that’s overkill in my opinion) is a cable that attaches to your hotshoe and at the other end you put your speedlight, giving you complete freedom moving it with your hand.

It gives you the possiblity to control the light and by moving around, you can get some unique shots with unique light.

Unless you want to be a 100% flash street photographer,I wouldn’t recommend this. You’ll get some great shots having your flash sitting on your camera, even if it doesn’t move.

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Best camera flashes for street photography

The easiest way to get started with camera flashes is to buy your manufacturer’s own brand. This will probably give you automatic exposure. But automatic is at the other end of creativity so I’m all for using manual controls.

Here are some of my favorites that are highly recommended. Small speedlights are best because not only do they keep it stealthy if you have a smaller camera, it’s also weighs less. Having a full sized speedlight attached is really not ideal when you are spending hours in the streets.

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Even if you have a full sized one on a smaller camera, the balance distribution can really hurt your hands.So the best combo is small camera (serious compact/mirrorless) and small flash. Plus it needs to have manual controls, because if you use a flash from another brand on your camera, it usually becomes “dumb” and while it will fire, you can’t change the settings. Plus, automatic is the opposite of creative, so the manual controls offer creative controls.

I love this little flash more than I should. It’s small enough to fit in your pocket or small bag when you are done so it’s perfect for streetshooting. It has a really satisfying ring on top to control the flash power (more on this later).

Fujifilm EXF20

The flash itself is powerful enough to light adequately at a normal distance from your subject.So it’s a step above the built-in flash but below a full sized flash. It also takes two AAA Batteries. These won’t last long at all so bring many spares. The other downside is, this is a fixed flash, it doesn’t bounce nor swivels.

This flash is perfect for those who want a flash for street photography and don’t want to commit to just doing that. Plus because it’s small and light, it keeps a stealthy profile and can be left on the camera without adding too much heft.

Fuji EF-20– Small with tilt

It’s not that I prefer Fuji flashes, it’s just that many of these were made with their smaller camera in mind so their flashes then to be small.

Fujifilm EF20

This is more powerful than the previous one but doesn’t have the same quality to it. The first one feels premium, this one more plastic. Doesn’t matter,it’s a great little flash that can tilt up and down. It also can flip the hotshoe socket in and be put in your pocket after shooting.

While you could put the EF-X20 in your pocket too, it will make a large bulge that makes walking uncomfortable. You can change the flash power with the help of a button and the light will tell you what setting you are in.

Nissin i40– Like a full sized flash but small

This is pretty much a mini full size flash. It does everything a larger speedlight will do (tilt and swivel), has a powerful flash and it’s recommended because it still keeps things relatively small.

nissin i40

It also has a dial for manual controls and that makes changing settings on the fly a breeze. Nissin makes many variations of this flash so you can have TTL (trough the lens) automatic flash for your particular brand.

Brand specific flashes

If you have a Canon camera, check out the Canon 270 EX II Flash. If you have a Nikon camera, check out the Nikon SB-300. These are cool little flashes, but if you don’t have the same camera brand the flashes don’t talk to the cameras and you won’t be able to change the flash output.

How to use your flash

So, you have your gear…now what? Well, you could go ahead and put your flash on automatic if it supports it, but just like any automatic mode, you will be left with cookie-cutter result. It’s not your cameras fault, it’s how a guy in a white lab coat programmed it: To give you average results.

If you want to do more and have creative control you’ll have to use your flash and understand the settings. Be ye warned: You can’t get away from the technical when it comes to flash.

Basics of using a flash

So let’s get some terms out of the way and then bring it all together afterwards:

Harsh shadows

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Soft shadow vs hard shadows in portraits

Here’s a fact about light: The smaller the light source relative to the subject, the harsher the light.That means if you shoot with a small flash, when you look at the subject, you will see harsh shadows.This normally highly undesirable in beauty genres of photography like weddings and fashion. That’s why there’s huge soft boxes to give you a beautiful soft light that flatters the subject.

In street photography? Heck you WANT the harsh shadows, it’s what makes it all gritty and raw. So the good news is, all you need is a flash, other gear isn’t needed.

The exposure trinity

When there’s no flash your aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings control your exposure. When you shoot flash however, things change. Your aperture mostly controls the flash while your shutter speed controls the ambient light (aka where the flash doesn’t hit, your background).

It’s almost as if you can now control 2 images in one, the part the flash illuminates with aperture and the other part with your shutter speed. The greater the difference between your flash and your ambient light, the greater the contrast will be. Yes, in that way you can potentially shoot a subject and have the background completely down. But you also have to account for…

Sync speed

There’s a limit between your camera and your flash and that’s sync speed. You just won’t be able to go to a faster shutter speed than your sync speed. So depending on your situation and your sync speed (each camera is different) you might not be able to darken your background completely.

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Inverse square law

Inverse square law
Boy does that look complicated, heh?

This is probably the most confusing part of flash photography. Here it is, ready for it?

The inverse square law is the intensity from a point source is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source.

– Some scientist

Gawsh, this definition brings back bad memories of math class. But don’t worry it’s simple in it’s execution. Plus you are not here to nerd out on it because it’s really studio shooters that need to worry about this so I’ll keep it simple.

As a street photographer, all you need to know is this: if you double the distance between your flash and your subject, the light is now cut to 4 times less. Here’s a handy table to visualize this:

Subject-Flash Distance How much flash they get
1 step from youAll of it (1/1)
2 steps away from you (twice as before)Quarter of it (1/4)
4 Steps away from you (twice as before)1/16th of it
8 Steps away from you (twice as before) 1/64th of it

Keep it simple: Double the distance, 4x times less light

If you don’t understand this, no worries. It’s really one of those things where you can spend endless time trying to figure it out online or simply go out and experience it yourself to understand faster.

No need to know how water works when you have a “feel” for it when surfing.

The biggest takeaway here for you is this: When you shoot street photography with a flash, you have to be extremely aware of the distance between you and your subject. If you are off in and your subject is half as close as your previous shot, it might be overexposed.

Bringing it all together

Here’s a random image that brings everything we said together:

flash street photography light falloff

1- I shot the flash to the right so the left wasn’t hit by the flash. That whole area can be considered the ambient exposure, it’s like a normal (non-flash) picture controlled by the shutter speed.

2- The flash hit the guy so he is brighter and more contrasty than the left area. Where my flash hit is the flash exposure controlled with aperture.

3- The guy is one step from me and he’s getting the full power of the flash (1/1). That woman behind is one step from the guy (so two steps from me), look at how dark she is. It is because the flash is not twice as less but 1/4 as less. The light falls off very quickly because of the Inverse Square Law

4- The girl in the back who is about 4 steps as removed from me receives 1/16th of the flash power. The guy on the complete back barely registers any flash at 1/64th. Here’s a handy graphic:

flash street photography inverse square law

If I could boil down everything into simple steps, here’s what your really need to know:

  • Ambient exposure is controlled with shutter speed
  • Flash exposure is controlled with aperture
  • Light falls off QUICKLY (It’s cut by 4x when you double the distance)

Again, a lot of fuss is made for the inverse square law, as a street photographer what this really means for you is to keep the same distance between you and your subject. If you are off you risk to blow your exposure.

Now for the fun part, actually shooting. Well you can’t just barge in the streets, you need to hone down your settings first and then shoot. Once you are in a location you want to shoot, here’s how to…

Get Your Flash settings

  • First, put your ISO to the lowest. You have a flash and you really won’t need to worry about it
  • Play around with your aperture and shutter speed until you have an average looking exposure
  • Put your flash on an put it at maximum power (1/1)
  • Wait for someone to walk by and the distance you want to shoot with and shoot a test frame
  • They are most likely overexposed. Go down in flash power until you have a good flash exposure
  • If you want your background darker, go for higher shutter speed (remember you can’t go beyond your sync speed!)
  • Once you have these down, you can start to shoot, knowing that your settings are locked in. If your subject is farther away or closer away than anticipated, push your flash power up or down or use your aperture. If you have your aperture locked in (because you want a blurry background or because you want large depth of field, then you can only use flash power)

Flash street photography tips

Here’s a collection of tips for using your flash in the streets:

Mind your distance

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Both lovebirds are at the same distance so they get about the same amount of light

If you’ve ever used a manual lens and tried to make a portrait you know how frustrating it can be when the person moves slightly and makes your image out of focus. While it’s not as razor thin, your distance between you and your subject is crucial. If they are correct in one distance, a little bit too close to you or too far from you and you have an overexposed image or underexposed image.

So you will have to get good ad judging the distances between you and your subject. Instead of fiddling around with settings, I usually have an idea of the kinds of shots I want to make and simply try to keep the same distance between me and my subjects.

Shoot RAW and underexpose

Shoot RAW, it’s just better in case you blow your exposure. I can’t tell you how many ruined shots that I ended up recovering in Lightroom. Also when in doubt, less flash/underexposing is better. You can always do things in Lightroom to bring them back into a correct exposure, but if you completely blew your highlights with too much flash, you can’t save it.

Beware of this color

I remember when my grandmother died when I was a kid. She was buried in a very tight cemetery in Jacmel, Haiti (I’m Haitian-French-Vietnamese) and I remember that I just couldn’t open my eyes as a kid. My mom told me that it was because every tomb was painted with white and it reflected the light. Black on the other hand absorbed it and that’s why it can make you hot.

What does that mean for you? Beware of white. White’s pretty tricky because if you shoot it directly and you are off in your exposure, it’s just going to overexpose. Just look at this picture:

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Look at the side of her shirt and the menu, the white gave up the ghost and no amount of recovering highlights in Lightroom could have saved this baby. I cut it real close in this photograph here:

flash street photography recovery 1

When I shot it, I believed it was ruined but it wasn’t, there was still some detail in the shirt. Here’s the histogram to show how much I could recover because this was a RAW image:

flash street photography recovery 2

You can find out more about processing street photography here.

Make your images instantly pop

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Contrast is the easiest way to make your subjects pop. Like I said in this course there are about 6 ways to make your images contrastier. When it comes to flash all you need to do is making sure that your subject is well lit with the flash and making the ambient exposure darker by pushing up your shutter speed.

Remember that there is nothing that will warn you if you go above your sync speed so you will have to make a mental note of how fast you can go without ruining your images.

Muted flash

Most of the time, the use of the flash is pretty darn obvious. But there are many times that you don’t need to make it that obvious and you can simply use it to fill some of your shadows. Check out this image shot in Miami:

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It is a flash image but you wouldn’t really know because it’s not that completely obvious. Where I was standing was in the shadows and the guy standing where was too. Since it is the sunshine state, the sun was strong and if I shot without flash he would have been in the shadows.

Check out this other one from New York City:

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If the flash didn’t fire the traffic lights would be dark blobs. But because there’s about the same intensity of light on the right it doesn’t seem like this image was lit but it was with the camera’s built-in flash.

Freeze your subjects

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As a professional photographer, this is my favorite trick when it comes to livening a typical wedding ballroom. It’s the opposite of darkening the background, you want more shutter speed (from 1/15th up) so that your subject start blurring. But because the flash is fired you have a blend of static image and blurry image.

You can get some cool slow shutter speed effects like this especially for night street photography. Check out the blurry background here:

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Blend colors or make them fight

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One of the tips in my color street photography article is to make the colors fight. There’s something you can do likewise here with flash because flash exposure has a different color temperature than the ambient color temperature.

Pay attention to the ambient colors (like the sky), colors from light sources (like store signs) and add flash to it. This gives a really interesting color effect. Here’s an example of all 3 in one image:

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Have fun

If you have a small pocket camera, you just never know what shot may come you way, so remember to have fun with your flash! Here’s me in Hanoi during physiotherapy for my wife who has fibro:

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There you have it, what you need to know to make great flash street photography. Without going in too technical, just remember to watch your distance because light falls off extremely quickly and you will do great.

If you are reading this, you are interested in street photography, right? Then check out this street photography course, you will get the flash cheat sheet but also a complete blueprint to make your best images. See you in the streets. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.