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Street photography by itself is already a school of photography with a line of ethics that is difficult to define. Add a flash into the equation, and street photography becomes even more controversial. It is no wonder that flash street photography is often associated with an aggressive style of photography with names such as Charlie Kirk and Bruce Gilden attached to it. Using a flash in the face of strangers might not be the most polite or clever thing to do, but it surely gives excellent results. As they say it in finance, no risk, no reward, right?
Given that I wanted some variation and creativity in the subjects that I shoot, I have been experimenting with flash street photography while over at New York a few weeks ago and can confidently say that the results are promising. But no, this post is not here to talk about ethics of street photography or thoughts on street photography in general. I won’t even be talking about flash photography as a whole. These articles will come later. What I have been experimenting is a very specific type of street photography, motion flash photography.
Background and explanations
No, I am no expert in motion flash street photography. I am not even an expert in street photography in general. But I do strive to create, experiment and improve with various techniques and motion flash street photography is an ongoing experiment of mine that I felt worthy to share.
One of the books that changed my vision on photography when I was still a beginner was Within the Frame by David duChemin, world and humanitarian photographer. He stated, among many other things, that conveying a sense of motion in a photograph (by using a slow shutter speed) is an excellent way of capturing someone’s attention. Although the book made a lasting impression on me, I never really had the opportunity to experiment with motion blurring given my bad skills, gear and technique at that time, in 2010.
However, things started to change. I got my first DSLR (a Nikon D5100) and three lenses 2 years ago and my photography suddenly improved by a lot. (Look at the difference between my old and new Flickr pictures), having shot with a crappy bridge camera for more than 3 years before. Although I was at the time still amazed by nature photography, having never been able to get so much bokeh with a 50mm f/1.8, things slowly changed and I got interested into street photography.
One thing that I’ve realized about most of the street photographs out there is that they look (mostly) the same. Black and white shots captured with a wide to normal lens without much bokeh. Although I definitely don’t hate that mainstream style of street photography, I’ve also wanted to capture using different styles. Color street photography. Cinematic (bokeh) street photography. But these weren’t enough. The lessons on conveying motion using slow shutter speeds came back to me very recently and I wanted to try using motion blur for street shots. First without flash, then with flash. And this is how motion flash street photography was born for me.
Gear and equipment
An off-camera flash is usually recommended for street photography because of its greater controls. However, I made the decision of travelling light and thus chose to not bring whatsoever external flash at all while in New York. Although I might have gotten better results with my Fujifilm X-Pro 1 and 18mm f/2, its lack of integrated flash was obviously a no-no for this flash street photography. There was only one other option left, which was the Nikon D5100 that I have used as my first DSLR. I therefore used my kit lens (which is really not that bad) locked at 18mm with my D5100’s integrated flash for shooting. Not the most elegant solution out there, but at least it works. However, my gear that I used is clearly sub-optimal and if you are serious about motion flash street photography, I would recommend you two options:
1) A high-end compact camera with integrated flash
Keeping a low profile is a key element in street photography, especially if you live in North American cities where people are often wary of getting shot without permission. A good compact such as a Ricoh GR or Fuji X100S would be ideal, combining excellent image quality, portability and low profile into a single compact body.
2) An interchangeable-lens camera (preferably mirrorless) with external flash
Of course, if you have a good mirrorless (DSLR’s are a lot less discreet but it could work too) camera that looks compact or retro enough (aka Fujifilm or Nikon Df), use it and take advantage of the fact that you can switch lenses for whatever reason. An external flash will complement nicely with your setup and allow you even greater control.
Although film cameras are overall excellent for street photography, I don’t recommend using one if you plan on shooting motion flash street photography. Unless your goal is to waste 24 exposures in no time, digital is probably the smarter way to go since this style involves a lot of experimenting.
Motion flash street photography is basically a combination of motion panning and use of rear flash sync. This is similar to the technique of using a flash to freeze car trails. By setting a slow shutter speed and adding a flash to freeze your subject at the end of your exposure, you can get phenomenal images.
The first step here is to set your camera to full manual mode (aperture priority is likely to fool your exposure meter) and set your flash sync to rear curtain sync since you want that trail behind the subject, not in front. (Here’s a good explanation of what rear curtain sync is). The exact procedures will vary depending on your camera manufacturer. Although I am still experimenting with the technique, I have found that shutter speeds between 1/4 and 1/10th of a second work best. The ISO and aperture will greatly vary depending on your light conditions; cities like New York or Tokyo are often so bright at night that ISO 200 or lower will be enough.
After you have experimented with the correct exposure for your picture, now is the time to shoot your actual subjects. One good approach is to use motion panning (picture above) : instead of trying to stabilize your camera as much as possible as in regular photography, you try to track your subject instead, leaving a trail of motion in the background. If you wish to learn more about motion panning, a detailed guide on the subject is available here.
Of course, no motion tracking is perfect, and if you want even more motion in your pictures, you can forgo motion tracking entirely and simply turn your camera around in any direction you want while engaging the shutter (first picture of article). The flash usually will be strong enough to freeze your subject no matter what direction.
Pitfalls and disadvantages
Although motion flash street photography is generally a cool technique to experiment, there are a few limitations. First of all, due to the inverse square law (e.g. an object twice as far will only receive a quarter of the light), it will be very hard to shoot multiple subjects at once if they aren’t at a same distance from your camera. This is why I recommend you to shoot individual subjects or people walking together as opposed to large groups and crowds.
Also, due to the flash range, getting close enough to your subject is required for a proper illumination. If you are used to shoot with a 50mm or even 85mm for street photography, forget about it. 35mm (24mm for APS-C) is generally the longest focal length that you will want to use.
You may think that shooting street photography with a flash might get you noticed more, and I have thought that too before shooting, but my personal experiences with the matter tells the opposite. The ethics of shooting with flash is a different story, but as Eric Kim points out in this excellent article, there are many reasons why people usually don’t react to someone shooting with flash. One of them is that people will often assume that you are a simple tourist with a flash that went off by accident. I mean, If you were the subject, do you really think that this random stranger who was right in front of you just took a photo of me using his camera flash? … Probably not. 😀
If you wish to see more image examples of motion street photography using a flash, view my photo essay on this.
As a reminder again, motion flash street photography isn’t exactly a common style of photography on the Internet (or anywhere else for that matter), so all of what you just read above is solely based on my ongoing experimentations with this unique technique. If you have any comments or suggestions on this article or this street photography style, feel free to drop a comment or message me privately using the contact form. Thanks and keep tuned to Photograph IO for regular content, 5 times a week!