I enjoy shooting with natural light, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s feelings about using artificial light have always hit home with me.
And no photographs taken with the aid of flash-light either, if only out of respect of the actual light – even when there isn’t any of it. Unless a photographer observes conditions as these, he may become an intolerably aggressive character.
With that being said, I don’t think using a flash is a terrible idea, in fact I’ve seen some pretty impressive Street Photography done with flash. I do believe that any flash is going to pale in comparison to the natural beauty of available light.
When using natural light you need to break free of the constraints that traditional photography puts out there… not every inch of your photograph needs to be perfectly exposed. Take everything you have read about HDR photography and forget it, burn all of your HDR books (and your friends too, they will thank you later… you may as well eat that dessert they had marked as their own in the fridge too you rebel, we’ll wait…) Alright, now lets talk about natural light and why it’s better than flash in Street Photography.
1.) Contrary to popular flash user propaganda, natural light is far more difficult to master than a flash. Anyone with 10 minutes and access to the internet can learn to use a flash and have decent results. Natural light can take years to master.
Things like direction, intensity, light temperature (in relation to the angle of the sun’s light, street lamps, etc.) all play a huge role in whether or not your naturally lit photograph will be successful.
2.) Natural light photography is more challenging/rewarding. Instead of directing a flash to bounce this way or that you are forced to previsualize your image and move your body/camera accordingly.
Sometimes this means you’ve got to see an image before the subject even arrives. If you see the way light is falling you can position yourself to wait for the perfect subject and wait until they are in the perfect position within the available light. Natural light photography forces you to be more observant.
3.) Natural light means less gear. In order to use a flash properly you’ll want an off camera flash which means you’ve got to use one hand for your flash and another to hold your camera (connected by a wire typically). Not only does this set up look intimidating to would be subjects but you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. So much for the candid shot. Ever try squeezing onto a subway car with a handful of gear and a camera bag full of backup batteries during rush hour? Not likely.
4.) Natural light is more dynamic. A flash, whether bounced of your mothers brothers friends forehead or not is still going to fall fairly evenly on a subject (from one side or another). Natural light can be patchy, have varying intensity within the same scene, and there can be several different temperatures of light noticeable within the same frame. All of these variables can be used to create dynamic and original images.
5.) The original mood is preserved in natural light. If your goal in Street Photography is to record the human condition and you want the image to be as close to how the scene originally looked then adding flash is not an option. Adding a flash changes the mood from something natural to something contrived.
I mentioned that I’ve come across Street Photography done with a flash that was impressive at the beginning of the article and I’ll end with the strengths of flash. Two of the primary reasons to use flash is to enable cameras with shoddy low light capabilities to be used in low light and to create something unique. There are very few Street Photographers* of note that use flash so your images will look more unique (unique doesn’t always mean better).
* One of the most notable Street Photographers who regularly incorporate a flash into their Street Photography is Magnum Photographer Bruce Gilden.
What type of Street Photographer are you? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below. If your argument is for flash in Street Photography please leave a link to your images as well.