Using an Off-Camera Flash in Street Photography

Using an Off-Camera Flash in Street Photography

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Off Cam Flash in Street Photography

Introduction

Stuck in a rut with your street photography? Looking for a way to add drama and pop to your images? Want to make some up close and personal “in your face” shots like the Magnum maestro Bruce Gilden? Are you yearning to practice some fast street photography at night but can’t afford to shell out for a new low-light monster camera or a fast lens? Then read this guide for how to make some great street photography shots very cheaply using an off-camera flash!!

What you will need:

1. A Camera with manual settings

You need to be able to set your camera’s exposure, and hold it.

2.  A ‘Manual’ Flash

You may already be familiar with camera flashes – be it a built in or pop up flash on a compact/mirrorless or DSLR, or the larger external flash ‘guns’ that are a ubiquitous sight atop the DSLRs of paparazzi, event and wedding photographers. It’s one of these external flash ‘guns’ that we’re going to be needing to make some great street photography images, but the good news is that they needn’t break the bank. The flashes you see mounted on top of the big bulky DSLRs are often expensive TTL flashes – these are essentially automatic flashes which will take a reading from the camera’s exposure meter (TTL stands for Through The Lens) and will produce a flash burst of just the right amount to achieve a perfect (if a little staid) exposure from the top of the camera. But for our street photography work we don’t need this kind of equipment – we’re going to be working with manual settings only, so we only need a cheap manual flash! These can be had for a little as €40/£30. I use the Yongnuo YN-560 II, which works well with my Canon DSLR – be sure to check the flash you are buying will be compatible for your make of camera – some manufacturers use different flash hot shoes!

Hot Tip: If you’re buying a used flash be careful to check it isn’t a higher voltage flash designed for a film camera – using one of these on a modern digital is not advised.

3.   Remote Flash Triggers or a Cord

I love to use wireless flash triggers for off camera flash work, as these allow me to be super flexible with the flash on the streets. These triggers work a little like walkie talkies, using a radio signal to communicate with each other. One trigger goes on the camera hot shoe, the other on the bottom of your flash. I use the Yongnuo RF603 flash triggers on my Canon, and they work brilliantly over distances up to 10 metres! Again, make sure you check to make sure that the triggers you buy are compatible with your camera hot shoe. There are two types of triggers available – the basic ones that just tell the flash to fire, and the more complex (and expensive) ones that transmit a TTL signal for a TTL flash. As we’re going to be shooting in manual, we only need a basic type trigger. Alternatively, you can use a wire cord to connect your flash to your camera, just like Bruce Gilden is doing in this video. These can sometimes be a slightly cheaper option than wireless triggers, but make sure you do your research.

4. Rechargeable Batteries

Rechargeable batteries will save you lots of money if you’re a prolific off-camera flash street photographer! Streethunters.net co-founder Spyros Papaspyropoulos got through so many packs of AAA batteries during our carnival street hunts that I began suggesting he buy some shares in Duracell! Both the flash and the wireless triggers will require batteries, and I would suggest having a set of rechargeable batteries plus spares for the flash at least. I use Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable batteries, as they are designed to hold their charge for longer than normal rechargeable batteries, which is very useful when you need to be sure your spare set of batteries are ready to go when you need them on the streets!

Hot Tip: Be sure to pack some spare batteries for your wireless flash triggers too, although the batteries in the triggers tend to last quite a long time (I’m yet to replace mine).

And one extra (non essential, but cool item)

5. Flash Gels

You can see from some of my shots that the light from the flash has an interesting and surreal colour cast to it. This is achieved using pieces of equipment referred to as ‘gels’. Their primary purpose is to alter the colour of the light from the flash so you can match it to the white balance of the background light of the place you are shooting so your flash light ‘blends in’. But gels can also be used to achieve some interesting effects and add a mood or theme to your photos. In this shot for instance, I used a purple gel to add a spooky blue feel to the shot below. Gels sound very fancy, but they are actually just coloured pieces of acetate that attach over the flash head by some kind of holder. I bought mine on ebay for just over €1/£1 including shipping!

Hot Tip: Fancier, more expensive gels will have a better ‘holder’ for attaching to the flash head, cheaper ones will use some kind of pouch. If you have cheaper gels make sure you keep hair ties or rubber bands in your camera bag to keep the gel case attached to your flash head!

Off Cam Flash in Street Photography 06

Street Photography Tips for Off-Camera Flash

There are 3 important factors to consider when using off-camera flash on the streets. These are: lens choice and focusing, camera/background exposure, and flash power/position.

Lens Choice and Focusing

My personal recommendation of lens for this type of photography is the street photographer’s go-to lens – the 35mm! Off camera flash demands that you get nice and close to your subject, and a 35mm is great for doing this, without distorting the subject’s face to the point where they look too grotesque. A 35mm lens is also perfect for capturing your subject in context – and with street photography it is often the background urban elements that ‘make’ the shot. It is also easier to achieve a broader depth of field with a ‘wider’ lens like a 35mm, and this is important as you are probably going to need to be focusing your lens manually.

To get the best results with off-camera flash it is important that your camera is able to focus fast on your subject. Firing a flash bulb in a candid shot is going to take your subject by surprise – you will only have one chance to capture this spontaneous ‘pop’ effect, and so you need to be able to raise your camera to eye and snap your subject quickly, without waiting around for your lens to focus. In good daylight (depending on your camera) you may not have a problem with slow autofocus, but if you’re practicing night street photography the lack of light will wreak havoc with your autofocus system, so I recommend you focus manually, using the zone focusing technique. You can read a fantastic guide to zone focusing in street photography by Spyros Papaspyropoulos.

Of course, because you are using a flash to light your subject, you don’t need to worry about opening your lens up to its widest aperture in order to achieve a well lit shot at night – your flash is doing all the work!! This means you can stop your lens down to a smaller aperture to have a much bigger zone of focus to avoid out of focus shots. And the beauty of lighting with an off-camera flash is that it is the light from your flash that is drawing attention to your subject, you don’t need a shallow depth of field to ‘isolate’ them from the background, with this shot for instance, my aperture was f/16 – you can even see the spots of rain on the lens!

Off Cam Flash in Street Photography 01

Camera/Background Exposure

As I stated earlier, you really need to set your camera to manual mode when using off-camera flash. Because the flash is providing the main light for the subject (known as the key light), the camera’s exposure using ‘natural’ light is very much playing a secondary role in the photo. Because of this, you want to be able to set your camera’s exposure once for the ambient light (providing it stays quite consistent) and then get on with firing the flash at your subjects! The last thing you want in your spontaneous flash photo is your camera’s auto exposure meter to over expose your shot and ruin all the good work done by the flash!

For daylight flash shots I like to expose a little for the background and sky in order to give a sense of the time of day and background, but I’ll underexpose this by at least 1 to 1.5 stops so that it doesn’t detract attention from my subject, who will be lit strongly by the flash. I stop my aperture down to something like f/10 or even lower (for a broad depth of field to make zone focusing easier, and to ensure no out of focus shots), and I like to keep my shutter speed around 1/100 of a second. While a flash works fantastically at freezing motion, I’ve found personally through trial and error that a shutter speed of at least 1/100 ensures I’m able to freeze my subject, and allows for a little leeway in preventing shake if I’ve inadvertently moved my camera or flash too much while juggling one in each hand in the hectic madness of the streets!

Off Cam Flash in Street Photography 02

For nighttime flash shots I don’t worry nearly as much about my background exposure – here my flash really is doing almost all of the heavy lifting! I like to keep a little background exposure leeway to ensure that things like streetlights and other strong artificial city lights or backgrounds are just picked up in a shot – I feel they really add to the flavour of an urban scene, and can make for some great night street photography! I can get away with this because I can afford to raise my iso to 3200 or 6400 with virtually no loss in quality, as my Canon 6D really is a low light monster! As a street photographer you’ll have an idea of what your maximum acceptable iso threshold is on your camera, so you can adjust to match. If you’re not able to raise your iso that high, it really doesn’t matter all that much – if you need it to the flash can provide all the light. For the reasons stated above, I’ll keep my other settings the same at night – my lens stopped down, and my shutter speed around 1/100.

Flash Power/Positioning

The wonderful thing about digital photography is that it has made setting up a flash manually so easy. You can take test shot after test shot, and review your photo and histogram instantly to make sure you’ve got the exposure you’re after – not possible in the days of film! For this reason there’s very little reason not to play around and experiment with off camera flash, particularly as the cost of entry to the flash street photography club is so low!

Firstly make sure your flash is on plain manual mode (the setting for on camera use), not slave mode, and not TTL mode (if it’s a TTL flash). Then set your zoom level if your flash has a powered zoom setting – I tend to prefer around 50mm or 35mm, but you can experiment. If your flash doesn’t have a powered zoom setting don’t worry, it’s not too important. What is most important is your flash power, which is expressed as a fraction. The bigger the number, the less light (‘pop’) comes from the flash bulb. These power settings will range from 1/1 (full power) to probably around 1/64 or 1/128 (least power). The increments will double each time, and most flashes will let you precisely alter the power in a third of a stop increments between each setting, so the opportunities for fine tuning are endless (e.g you can have 1/16, 1/16 + 0.3, 1/16 + 0.7, 1/8 etc.).

Flashes vary in power (this is measured by what’s known as a guide number) so there isn’t a default ‘perfect’ setting for the flash power at any one point. In daylight you may require more flash power to illuminate your subject for a street shot as you are having to overcome light from the sun (particularly if you are exposing a little for your background). At night you may require a lower flash power setting, but it all depends on the effect you’re after, your ambient light, etc. The flash power you require will also vary depending on the distance you are holding the flash from your subject. If you’re holding the flash further away you’ll need to raise the power – the light has to travel a greater distance and so loses energy. The key to your flash power settings is experimenting with what suits you and your equipment best, and as I’ve said digital photography makes this so easy!

Hot tip: The greater your flash power, the more time it will take for the flash to recharge (be ready for its next flash), and the more battery power it will consume. So if you find your flash is taking too long to recharge and you’re missing shots (and your batteries are fresh!) you could try lowering your flash power and raising your camera’s exposure a little to compensate. Alternatively you could try moving the flash even closer to your subject – but try not to hit them with it!

The positioning your flash is the really good fun part of off-camera flash street photography, and it’s where you can be most creative, particularly if you can go fully wireless with your flash and remote triggers. In daytime you can make your flash emulate a strong sun by holding it above your subject and to one side and using an orange coloured gel, like I did in this shot

Off Cam Flash in Street Photography 03

Or you can try holding your flash below and uplighting your subject – this can produce some really fun shadows. If you shoot from a low angle as well you can make your subject look really menacing and imposing.

To really push the boundaries in street photography you can try letting go of your flash. Place it on the ground by an interesting spot and shoot wider for a full body portrait, lighting the person with the flash when they appear in the frame. Most flashes will be sold with a little shoe foot that you can attach to the hot shoe of the wireless trigger to allow the flash to be freestanding. The rather ominously named ‘ball bungees’ are also useful – these are heavy duty elastic bands with toggles which are designed for tying tents and tarpaulin. I used these to attach my flash to railings or posts. You can find them on eBay very cheaply, or at a camping store. The shot you can see here I made in a bar while I was recharging during a Rethymno Carnival street hunt. I positioned my flash on a chair to free me up to shoot from a higher viewpoint than I would normally, and I shot wide to show the full effects of the flash lighting on the scene. You can see the position of the flash in its reflection in the window.

Off Cam Flash in Street Photography 04

If you’re lucky enough to be out shooting with a friend you can make things really crazy by asking your friend to take your flash and position it for you. With a bit of timing, planning, and good communication you can make some wacky and surreal photos. The last photo on this page shows this (thanks to Spyros for running after my subject with the flash! The photo is lower, with the guy with the red cape).

Finally, Be Brave!

It’s a little scary at first using a flash in street photography, and off camera even more so – you have to approach your subject with both arms raised, one holding the camera and the other the flash! For this reason I’d recommend exercising caution and a little common sense, don’t start lunging at your subjects if they’re walking alone on pitch black streets! I was lucky enough to have my first taste of off-camera flash street photography during the madness of Carnival season in Rethymno, so the mood was very crazy anyway, and people were very amenable to having their street photos shot. So if you can, I’d suggest trying out your flash work at some big event, or when the streets are particularly busy. I’d also recommend going on your first off-camera street hunt with a friend if possible, having an extra person can really help diffuse any tension, and they can offer moral support too. That said, the most important thing with off-camera flash work is to be brave – you’re never going to get the shots you want if you’re hanging back. You need to throw yourself into the moment and grab your shot, like the famous street photographers do. If you’ve ever watched Bruce Gilden work you’ll see he doesn’t hesitate at all – he just goes for it! That’s why the guy shoots for Magnum! I’ve found a big friendly smile and a ‘thank you’ after taking the shot will work wonders for this kind of photography. I wouldn’t call myself the bravest street photographer either, but I discovered that by using an off-camera flash I actually started to find it easier to make daring shots than I did with just a camera on its own. Something about having a flash in one hand makes you feel very professional, and the flash popping itself is kind of a distraction from you taking a shot with your camera. So I urge you to give it a go, you may surprise yourself!

Off Cam Flash in Street Photography 05

Conclusion

I hope you’ve found this guide to off-camera street photography useful. I must confess I didn’t originally class myself as a big fan of in-your-face bare flash street photos, I’ve always preferred the more classic Henri Cartier-Bresson type shot. That said, after having pushed myself so far out of my comfort zone with an off camera flash I couldn’t believe how liberating and fun I found the experience, particularly the fast and spontaneous way the flash allowed me to work thanks to zone focusing. As photographers I think it’s really important that we try something new and challenging ourselves now and again – it’s a great way of pushing your work to the next level, which is what the best street photographers do. Over the course of two days, I made some of the street photos I’m most proud of thanks to off-camera flash, because I knew the personal hurdles (bravery) I had to overcome to get the shots. I also made some of my most experimental photos ever too! Most importantly of all, trying a new style can help re-ignite your creativity if you’re struggling for inspiration, and make you fall in love with street photography all over again. And for that reason I wholeheartedly recommend experimenting with off-camera flash at least once!

10 COMMENTS

  1. Superb information, Digby. I have suggested Emma looks at this for guidance with her photography.

  2. hi Digby, this was very useful.

    6D is a lowlight monster, as there’s no noise at 6400 ISO, but it starts to show at 8000

    I use 6D + 270 EXII Flash + 40mm pancake

    what settings should i use ?

    i like to use f/8 at night with high ISO in P-mode so as to ensure high shutter speeds, or i may also use aperture & manual modes, but as you suggested i will try f/16 or even f/22 for zone focusing to avoid out-focus issues at night.

    Sometimes all attempts fail, and no amount of tweaking & changing settings help. Then i feel the need to buy a faster lens like the 35mm f/1.4 Sigma art, plus, using a flash along with such a fast lens.

    I have just started to use my on-camera flash only for a month. I don’t have much experience using a flash before.

    Should i use ETTL or Manual ?

    Can i use the 270-EXII as an off-camera flash instead of on-camera ? … if yes, how to do it, what to buy ? do i need a remote trigger for firing the off-camera… ? which one do you suggest ?

    I don’t like big speedlites like the Yongnuo 560 etc., and i also won’t like the idea of having the 270 as a slave, alongwith another flash as a master. I won’t like to carry 2 flashes.

    Thanks & Regards,
    Chirag

  3. hi Digby, was curiously & eagerly waiting for your reply

    i don’t want to use a wire like Bruce Gilden. So keeping the 270EXII in left hand & 6D in right hand, how could i use this set-up with a remote ? is this possible ?

    • Hi Chirag, apologies for the delay. Yes, I don’t see any reason why you can’t use a wireless trigger with your 270EXII. In the article I recommend the Yongnuo RF603 flash triggers which I use myself and are wireless. One fits on the camera hot shoe, and the other on the flash. They run on AAA batteries and have quite a big range. They are ‘dumb’ triggers, so will only tell the flash to fire, and will not carry an ETTL signal, so you will need to use the flash in manual mode, but this isn’t really a problem. If you want wireless ETTL flash triggers you will need to find a more expensive model of flash trigger. You can search for ‘wireless flash trigger’ or ‘wireless flash transmitter’. From what I understand PocketWizard are the most famous and widely used brand amongst professional photographers (they are widely used by portrait photographers), but I have not had any problems with the Yonguo’s, and they are much cheaper!

      I’ll respond to your comment about settings later if you don’t mind, we are very busy at the moment!

  4. thanks for the elaborate reply, and yes, of course, i will wait for your further explanation in continuation…

    also, yongnuo is a big flash, and i dislike big sized equipment… so just wanted to use 1 flash + 1 remote-trigger… to travel light …

    plus, bruce gilden uses Vivitar Flash with wire, on his Leica. Right now, i can only dream of it, but in near future, i will be looking at the Leica ‘Q’ … or … M-P Typ 240 + 28mm f/1.4 Summilux (instead of the much acclaimed & famed 35mm f/1.4 FLE Summilux) + 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux + 90mm f/2 APO Summicron

    but that is a distant dream.

    till then, good bye, C U soon again…

    • Chirag, my apologies for my tardy reply.

      The good news about the Yongnuo triggers is that they are very small – probably only about 8cm long by 4cm wide (I don’t have them to hand). One goes on top of the camera, and the other underneath the flash (you buy them in pairs).

      You wouldn’t need to use a big Yongnuo flash with them – i’ve found they work with my Canon 430EX perfectly, though of course the flash needs to be set to manual – these triggers cannot carry a TTL signal. So you could conceivably have a small off-camera flash setup with a 270EX and Yongnuo triggers.

      Yes Gilden does use a flash cord (as does Street Hunter Spyros Papaspyropoulos). I find cords can get in the way a little, though they do have the advantage of making the flash easier to catch before it hits the ground if you drop it!

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