Using Flash in Street Photography

Last Friday and Saturday, I went to New York City for a photography assignment in my advanced photo class. Basically, we had an assignment all about using flash and what kind of things you can do with it such as using it as fill light, key light with a hard or soft light, dragging the shutter, and so forth.

Now, because most of my friends go home for the weekend, I couldn’t use them as subjects to take the easy way out. To be honest, even though I had been doing street photography for almost two years now, the fear of approaching people still lingers from time to time. Because of that, my style of street photography is to blend into the crowd as much as possible in order to get my shots so that way I can get the most natural reaction and expression out of my subjects.

Chinatown, New York City, 2011 – Eva Alvarez

Preparing

So my biggest question to this problem was, “How do I use a strobe on the streets and not get punched in the face?” At first I looked upon Philip Lorca di Corcia and thought about camping out at a corner for four or five hours with my only strobe attached at some construction site. Having been a fan of his work for a while and after what happened with the legality of his series, “Heads” I thought I was able to pull it off nicely. I even bought some Velcro and was thinking of picking up a random box on the street to sit on as the crowd walks by, letting them aware of my presence.

Philip Lorca di Corcia

So for inspiration, I went on Strobist.com for some help with lighting and what kinds of tips and tricks I can do with it. Fortunately, I was able to get a wireless receiver just in time in the mail so I didn’t have to tire my hand holding my camera for five hours straight. I learned how to diffuse light and how to angle your strobe off camera to get more contrast and shadows within my subjects from some of their articles. However, the one that really stood out for me was a video they posted about di Corcia:

After watching it two or three times, his method, although controversial, gave me the confidence boost to go into the streets but I was still mildly terrified of being punched in the face. I had always had issues with approaching random people on the street without confrontation so as much as I love di Corcia’s works, the thought of me not being able to photograph without getting noticed was terrifying to me.

So I did more searching and one way or another, I ended up finding Eric Kim’s blog dedicated towards street photography. After reading his post, ‘How to Shoot Street Photography With a Flash‘ which explains how it is okay to photograph people on the street with a flash, generally people are lost in thought. Aside from Eric’s insight and inspiration, what really got me more confident in using a strobe was Bruce Gilden‘s in-your-face approach to people.

My initial reaction to the video was, “Oh god, why?” much to my shock and horror but what really surprised me was that he only received odd looks and no one hurt him or got into his face at all. I honestly didn’t know what to think about this type of photographing style because again, I’m not that confrontational and  I like slowly making my way to my subjects and be friendly with them. Further reading Eric’s post about how approach people without being seen like a creep really did help go into that direction. I do not completely approve of Gilden’s style but it did give me the confidence boost to go out into the city. I also agree with the notion of treating your subjects like you were for a friend so it further gave me initiative in a way to help me grow as a person.

So I decided to do the Gilden approach, because after thinking about it for a night, I realize if I did di Corcia’s style, I would be bored in the first 20 minutes of camping in a corner. Plus, I like walking and because of how cold New York gets, it was smarter to do so in order to not freeze to death.

Shooting

Friday

I go into the city Friday for a class to visit galleries in Chelsea to write a 1000 word review about the 20 galleries we visited which is due this week. Because of how quickly we jumped from gallery to gallery, let alone enjoy what we were viewing within two hours, I couldn’t shoot a lot but the shots I did take, although little, was a test run for Saturday’s trip. Friday was more to boost confidence and test the waters. I did get a lot of weird looks from both strangers and classmates alike, but awesomely enough, no one chased after me to delete their photo, no one tried to assault me, so at the end of the day, I felt really good.

Eva Alvarez

Saturday

The next day was quite an adventure, it was both a curse and a blessing all at once. When I got on the train, I realized that I left my CF cards back in my dorm room when I was uploading my pictures from the night before. So here I am on the train to New York, frantically trying to find a Radioshack for a CF card on sale, my phone only showing me the nearest Radioshack was on Fulton Street. Because I am a very visual person and I am very, ‘navigationally challenged,’ trying to find the place was very difficult because the actual store was tiny. I still spent an absurd amount of money on a 4 GB card, spent more than I should have on 4 AA batteries after my other set died from overuse, but in the end, it worked out. It worked out because I ended up in Wall Street and the fact that I had not been there before, not even during the Occupy movement, was really awesome.

The shoot overall turned out really well, as the day progressed, I felt more assertive and more confident with a strobe in my hand and with that confidence, it became so much easier to approach people. Whether it was because I felt more professional with it or not, the fact that I got people to talk to me and make friendly small talk is really amazing for me.

And no, I did not get punched in the face, like Eric Kim said. The worst thing that happened to me were two people who yelled at me for taking their photo but were too busy to even bother to chase after me, let alone scream at me some more and I had one person who I had a staring contest with for a couple of seconds until I said hello and smiled and they waved back. No problems caused and I came back with some awesome results.

Eva Alvarez

Conclusion

At the end of the day, would I continue to photograph the streets with a strobe? Definitely. There are still a lot of things I need to learn with it but I like it so far. Yes, there is definitely controversy around the issue with photographing the streets with flash because to my knowledge, you rarely see a photographer work with one. They either try to blend in or be subtle in their approach with their subjects. I feel that the flash, especially if its off-camera, strangers would seem to take you more seriously and are sometimes willing to work and talk to you to find out what kind of person you are.

If you guys stuck around, thanks a lot for reading. It really means a lot!

But what do you guys think about shooting with a flash? Do you think it is ethical to shoot with one? I’m sorry that I didn’t go in depth with techniques, but you’re interested, you can leave a comment below!

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3 thoughts on “Using Flash in Street Photography

  1. I’ve never been a fan of using flash for street photography. To be perfectly honest, I don’t see the point. The right camera settings and reasonably fast prime will generate a better photo in my opinion. Using flash tends to bring about a lot of unhappy looking expressions from people or, a “deer in the headlights” type of look. Yes, there are those who do it well, but the majority of flash street shots I’ve seen aren’t memorable. Just my two cents. It’s a great topic, thanks for writing about it. By the way, your shot of the umbrella woman is my favorite.

    • Thanks for the comment! The woman with the umbrella is my favorite too! When I wrote this, I was still relatively new to the subject and it was fun for a while and I got some really great shots with it! I guess it really depends on everyone’s tastes. I believe it with Henri Cartier-Bresson that said that shooting with flash was the equivalent of pointing a gun at someone whereas Gilden was the type who really didn’t give a crap.

      Nowadays I don’t even shoot with flash as much anymore but once and a while I get the urge to go out and shoot off camera. It’s easier for me to get away with it at festivals where people don’t really care because there are 10 more people out there with a similar setup. I still enjoy looking at people’s work who uses that style though!

      • Upon reading my comment again, I seem a bit harsh! Apologies for that. I think that is the beauty of street photography – well, photography in general. We all have different styles and approaches. It certainly makes viewing everyone’s work more enjoyable. Perhaps I should give the flash a go, and maybe I’ll be convinced! Cheers.

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