A Guide to Flash Street Photography (On Camera)
Introduction to Flash Street Photography
You will probably have guessed by now that we here at Streethunters.net are big fans of flash street photography. We’ve recorded no less than three Street Hunts dedicated to off-camera flash street photography in Rethymno, Crete, Greece, as well as producing a guide to flash street photography during the day as part of our street talk video series. Spyros Papaspyropoulos regularly runs hands-on flash street photography workshops for intermediate and entry level photographers in Athens, with places still available for the December workshop! Flash street photography was the theme for our March 2017 monthly theme contest too (won by Christoph Wuzella), plus we’ve made an awesome list of top flash street photographers for you to follow on social media. In amongst all this we’ve put together two guides on using off-camera flash in street photography and an explainer for how to rock an off-camera flash setup with the Fujifilm X-Pro1. But we realised that despite all our flash street photography love we’ve never actually put together a basic primer on shooting with a flash the way the majority of you will like to shoot – i.e. on the camera itself. So, we’re now going to rectify that with a simple little guide to flash street photography (on camera).
What is Flash Street Photography (on Camera)?
First things first, what exactly do we mean when we refer to ‘on camera’ flash street photography? Unsurprisingly, the clue is in the title, as we’re describing a way of making street photos where the light provided by the flash is coming from a position on the camera body. This can either be from a small flash built into the camera itself (on the front of the camera body, or as a pop-up unit), or from an external flash mounted on the flash hot shoe on the top of camera. On camera flash street photography is a little easier to get started with than off-camera flash street photography, as you only need a flash and a camera as opposed to the flash cord or wireless triggers required by off-camera flash street photography. Flash street photography on camera is also an easier way to get access simple auto and semi auto settings as well as creative features which are impossible or very expensive to achieve using an off-camera flash setup. Whichever type of on-camera flash you use will give you a variety of options for creative lighting effects which we’ll go into in further details below. Depending on your camera model and flash model, it may be the case that you won’t be able to achieve all these effects with your setup, but the good news is that even with very basic gear you can still achieve some really great looking flash street photos!
The Importance of Sync Speed
Just as with off-camera flash street photography, for any flash street photography you always need to bear your flash sync speed in mind. Your flash sync speed is essentially the fastest shutter speed your camera can handle in conjunction with a flash. If you raise your shutter speed above this ‘sync speed’ you’ll probably end up with a photo which is half black – caused by the shutter actually blocking your sensor or film. Flash sync speeds vary from camera to camera, and you’ll be able to find them in your camera manual. Modern Fujifilm cameras have a little cross next to the fastest shutter sync speed on the shutter dial. Common sync speeds for DSLR and mirrorless cameras are often around the 1/180th point. Sync speeds for cameras with leaf shutters (Ricoh GR, Fuji X100 series) are often massively higher (in the 1/1000s), which is really useful when shooting with fill flash during the day time, either when using a large aperture or to freeze fast motion with a high shutter speed when the flash isn’t quite powerful enough to ‘stop’ the subject.
Built-in or Pop-up Flash Street Photography
The simplest route into on camera flash street photography is using the flash built into your camera (if it has one of course!). Loads of compact cameras like the Fuji X100F and X70 and Ricoh GR which are great for street photography will have a small built-in flash somewhere on the front of the camera body. Several mirrorless cameras and entry and mid range DSLRs like the Fuji X-T10, Canon EOS 100D & 800D, and Nikon D3400 & D7500 (to name just a few) have small pop-up flashes built-in too. Using the built-in flash on your camera is the easiest way to nail flash street photos as the camera does a lot of the work for you. You activate the flash by entering the flash mode (either by camera settings or the menu), or in the case of a model with a pop-up flash, by flicking a lever or pressing a button to pop up the flash. Once you’ve done this, the camera will fire the flash for every single shot which is also known as forced flash. If you’re a full auto settings street photography shooter you may well find that using your camera’s built-in flash in this way is going to produce some fairly ‘flat’ lighting results which lack a bit of punch, but this will vary depending on your ambient light and your distance from your subject. One thing to always remember is that your camera’s built-in flash is not going to be very powerful, so don’t expect it to be able to light subjects who are a fair distance from you – flash photography in this style is not suited to photographers who like to shoot street photography in an ultra wide style. If you like to use manual mode for your street photography, you’ll soon find that using your camera’s pop-up or built-in flash is an easy way to get some nice punchy effects when used in conjunction with juggling your exposure – either to light a subject in high contrast at night or as a fill flash in the daytime. A huge advantage of built-in flash is its compact nature and the fact you’ve always got it with you (it is attached to your camera after all). To your subject, a built-in flash doesn’t look as threatening, imposing, or ‘professional’ like an external flash, making it ideal for the street photographer who likes to use a wide angle lens and shoot right up close to their subjects.
Pros: Compact, easy to use, great for ‘close quarters’ shooting
Cons: Limited power and range, prone to boring lighting if shooting in auto
Auto TTL Street Photography with External Flash
The next simplest method for the flash street photographer to use is the Auto TTL setting on their external flash. To do this, you’ll often need a more advanced (read expensive) external flash that can communicate with your camera to adjust its flash power automatically to provide an even lighting whatever the type of shot and ambient exposure. For this reason auto TTL is often used by paparazzi and event photographers as it’s the fastest way to get good lighting in a fast moving environment. For the street photographer, an auto TTL flash can be really useful at a busy event like a carnival, either for daylight fill flash or for illumination at night. It’s best teamed with full auto and semi-auto modes like P (Program), A (Aperture priority) and S (Shutter priority). Auto TTL flashes will sometimes allow a ‘high shutter speed sync’ (HSS) feature where they use a ‘cheat’ flash effect hack to let you shoot at fast shutter speed far beyond your normal sync speed which can be useful. Auto TTL flashes do tend to be more expensive though, as they have to sync with the camera’s exposure computer which requires access to their technology (i.e. a Canon flash for a Canon camera so a high markup), or reverse engineering by a third party (which requires a lot of R&D time). They often come with other useful features too though, like the ability to automatically ‘zoom’ and adjust power in conjunction with zoom lenses, and autofocus illumination lights, making them ideal for the fast-paced street photographer who prefers auto modes. The downside though is that for street photography a TTL flash will tend to produce a rather flat look as it will light the scene and subject very evenly, generating very little sense of depth unless used in combination with flash compensation (more on that below).
Pros: Fast, Easy to use (full auto, features like HSS, AF illumination
Cons: Create ‘flat’ photos, TTL flashes often expensive
Street Photography with Manual External Flash on Camera
Using a fully manual external flash in conjunction with manual mode for exposure settings is my preferred method for practicing flash street photography on camera. This gives you full control of every single element of lighting in the frame and allows you to experiment with the balance between the light provided by the flash and the ambient light. Full manual control flashes are very reasonably priced too, as they don’t require any of the complicated circuitry of a TTL flash and are triggered by a ‘dumb’ signal from the camera’s hot shoe. I personally use a small Neewer NW-610II Speedlite with a guide number of 27 which I bought from Amazon for only £20! This flash is reasonably powerful, producing just about enough light on camera to serve as a fill flash during the daytime provided I balance my exposure carefully. A huge advantage of manual flash on camera is that once I’ve nailed my exposure and flash settings I know I can keep on shooting and getting similar consistent results again and again provided the ambient light and my distance from my subject remains the same. For the cover shot at the top of this blog post for instance, I set an accurate exposure for the orange wall lights in my background and then altered my flash power. I kept shooting various different subjects as they passed in front of the wall until I had the flash power I wanted and the composition I liked. By contrast, auto TTL flash removes this element of reliable repeatable control which can sometimes lead to erratic results. Of course, the downside of manual external flash on camera is that you always need to be aware of your settings, and will need to adjust them on the fly if elements of your scene alter. Therefore it’s not always ideally suited to fast moving scenarios or situations where you must absolutely capture the decisive moment at all costs.
Pros: Full control of flash behaviour and amount of light. Predictable results. Ability to balance flash with ambient light, or with desired aperture/shutter speed for creative effects.
Cons: Not suited for ‘run and gun’ street photography, slower than full auto.
Flash Street Photography with Slow Shutter Speeds
Whatever your flash weapon of choice in on camera street photography (be it a built-in flash or external one), you can create some really distinctive dynamic shots by using a slow shutter speed in conjunction with your flash. As you will already know from your basic exposure knowledge of your camera, setting your shutter speed low creates a blurred effect from any motion in the frame and also as a result of your own camera shake from holding the camera. Normally this effect isn’t a particularly desirable one in street photography, as the resulting photo tends to look like a rather blurry mess (there are exceptions of course). This is why in ‘normal’ natural light street photography conditions I tend to aim to use a shutter speed of at least 1/500 in order to guarantee I can always get a ‘sharp’ shot and freeze any motion. Flash street photography allows you to disregard this. You can use slower shutter speeds and still freeze the motion of your subject because of the extra light provided by your flash. And you can take things a step further too, by using ultra low shutter speeds to create blurred effects in the background whilst actually freezing your human subject ‘still’ in the frame. With a little practice, you can learn to create cool effects by moving your camera or zooming your lens to see the contrasting effect of light trails on a still static subject. You can play around with the flash power relative to the slow shutter speed too, and in turn add a slight bit of motion blur that captures your subject’s movement whilst still keeping them relatively well defined in the frame. Slow shutter speeds are ideally suited to on camera flash street photography, so make sure you mess around and experiment with the different looks you can achieve with this technique!
Pros: Very creative, adds dynamism and surrealism to street photos
Cons: Requires a little trial and error so better suited to digital street photography, effects can be unpredictable.
Flash Compensation in Street Photography
Flash compensation is really useful when using either your camera’s built-in flash or an external flash in auto TTL mode. Just as with exposure compensation in auto or semi-auto modes, flash compensation allows you to override the power automatically set by your flash to be more creative with your shots. In practice out on the streets what you might like to do is raise your flash compensation to increase your flash power in order to blow out the highlights on your subject to create a weird ghostly effect. You may also want to increase your flash compensation if you’re shooting a greater distance from your subject or in daylight and want a bit more of a punchy effect from your flash. You can also lower the compensation to suit too. Flash compensation isn’t perfect, and doesn’t allow full fine tuning control of flash power (more on that later), but it is helpful when you need it.
Pros: More creative flash effects – e.g. blown out highlights
Cons: Only limited scope of tweaks (often two stops up or down), no full control as with manual
Rear or Second Curtain Sync Flash Street Photography
This technique is a creative one to use in conjunction with slow shutter speeds to lend a sense of motion and dynamism to your street photos. As with TTL flash and high speed synchronisation, second or rear curtain sync is often only available as a feature if you’re using a built-in flash or manufacturer-approved TTL flash as it requires your flash to interact with your camera’s inner workings. A standard ‘dumb’ flash setting fires the flash at the start of the camera’s exposure process which means that any motion (i.e. a moving subject) captured by the flash is frozen at the start of the movement rather than at the end, leaving a weird blur effect moving ‘forwards’. By contrast, second curtain sync will force the flash to fire at the end of the camera exposure process, creating a more natural motion blur trail where the subject is stopped at the end of the their movement. The name derives from the fact that a great many cameras (i.e. those without a leaf shutter, aka DSLRs and mirrorless) use a focal plane shutter which creates an exposure by moving one curtain across the sensor or film followed by a second one almost immediately after.
Pros: ‘Natural’ motion blur effect of subject movement
Cons: Limited utility, requires built-in or manufacturer approved external flash with feature
Have Fun Experimenting with On Camera Flash Street Photography!
As you will now realise, there’s a wide variety of ways you can use your flash on your camera to add some extra drama to your street photography. There really is no need to shy away from using your flash creatively, or to think that the built-in flash on your camera is only good for creating boring amateurish looking flat shots with a horrid white balance. There’s an exciting world of flash street photography awaiting you with a flash mounted on your camera, and it’s a very simple and cost-effective way of experimenting with relatively simple gear. So what are you waiting for? Head out there and give it a go!
I stumbled across this excellent article whilst doing some research for a post I’ve written about motion blur street photography. I’m so impressed I’ve linked to this article on my post as the go to for using flash in street photography . Great job!
We thank you very much for the link and the kind comments Ray!
Stay sharp & keep shooting!