Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Why I prefer existing light to flash photography

I've seen many images in friends' wedding albums where "professional" photographers used flash incorrectly - by that I mean their images contained harsh, unflattering shadows. These images led me to work on my existing-light photography skills and avoid flash whenever possible.

After my experience shooting the runway at Eternal Spring 2008 I decided to rethink my stance on off-camera flash photography. One of my favorite runway images was taken at the same time a fellow photographer's flash went off - we intentionally timed the shot. For my next fashion shoot - Fashion Victim 2 - I came prepared with my off-camera flash as well as diffuser. Before the runway I had the opportunity to shoot portraits of some of the models in the alley outside 111 Minna against the brick building and a mural as backdrops. I was very glad I had an off-camera flash. I also learned the importance of a slave flash and light stand. One of my favorite shots would have benefited from a diffused light bouncing off the background - Sid's right shoulder would have popped from the background and more of the black jacket would have been visible. (I aimed my 580EX II at the wall to soften the reflected flash across Sid's face. I had a Harbor Digital Design Half Dome Bounce Diffuser on the end of my flash.) While shooting the runway I quickly learned that I'd underestimated the number of batteries my flash would consume and found myself shooting two carefully timed images of each model and hoping that I'd get one good shot while my flash recycled (next time this shouldn't be as much of a concern as I invested in a battery pack for my flash). I appreciate the need for both existing light and flash photography skills and have expanded my lighting options (a couple of lighting stands, reflector and diffusers along with stands, and a wireless flash controller). I'm looking forward to shooting test still life and portraits to get an idea of how to best use my new tools.

I still prefer existing light photography as it best complements my photojournalism influenced shooting style. For complementary posed shots though, I'm beginning to lean towards off-camera flash photography. A quick summary of what I consider to be the disadvantages and advantages of flash photography based on my photography style.

The disadvantages of flash photography for me:
  1. On-camera flash guarantees additional Photoshop retouching (from red-eye correction to shadow softening).

  2. Some venues do not permit photographers to use flash. (If you always use flash, your skills in low-light, flash-prohibited situations can get rusty.)

  3. You only get one chance to capture a candid - once the flash goes off, your subject knows you're there.

  4. Hot-shoe flashes never recycle fast enough (at the same rate as the multiple-frame burst on my camera) to capture rapidly moving subjects from multiple perspectives or angles.

  5. Hot-shoe flashes increase the weight and bulkiness of the camera. (When you're trying to maneuver in tight spaces with two camera bodies this makes threading your way through crowds without bumping into anyone or knocking your gear noticeably more complex.)

  6. You can never have too many "extra" AA batteries for your hot shoe flash. (This also stretches your pockets and/or increases the bulkiness of your fanny pack and it increases the weight of your camera bag.)

  7. Related to #6, hot-shoe flashes require you to think about getting the battery pack accessory. (If you're shooting in low-light environments with fast moving subjects for any length of time, you'll drain your batteries very quickly - flash recycle slows way down as the batteries drain - and run out of replacement batteries almost as fast.)

The advantages of flash photography for me:
  1. When everyone else is shooting with flash, shooting with flash as well reduces the likelihood that your existing light image gets washed out by someone else's flash going off.

  2. The ability to shoot without a tripod or monopod in challenging low-light environments. (Some venues do not permit photographers to use tripods.)

  3. The ability to capture more facial detail in the shadows of Rembrandt-style portraits without having to increase the ISO (and noise).