• Benjamin Collins

Lessons from an Exploration Into Flash Photography

Updated: Jan 31

Endless more options. But only if you do it right.

I've shared here what I learned in my first 2 nights shooting with an on camera flash and what I would do differently the next time. Hope you pull out a few lessons from my experience!

From a logical point of view a flash makes complete sense. Being able to strategically light up the subject and allow more (and better) light to capture the photos you want and need. Sounds great? However, the biggest problem with the flash is that it completely takes you out of the moment. And, it completely takes the subject and those in the environment out of the moment happening right in front of you.

Surfliner played a DIY gig at Winslow's, a small bar in Marshfield Massachusetts at the end of the year. They played two nights back to back, with Courtesy Wave, Not Today, and Harry Worley. I've shot in Winslow's before. Surfliner played a summer gig alongside Harry Worley and his band. From my experience shooting in Winslow's, there is no light at all. To light the band, Surfliner brings two small work lights, one with a blue get on it and one with a red gel. The lighting turns out terrible and it makes it difficult to capture any photos. In the past, I was lucky to pull 12-15 photos away from a show there. I recently got my hands on a flash for my Fuji cameras and I decided this could be the perfect place to try it out; with a subject I have a strong relationship with, a band that is encouraging of me taking risks and doing whatever I need to to get the shot.

I shot on my Fuji X-T2 with a 16-50mm lens. The flash was mounted on top of the camera and I used it to bounce light off of the walls and ceilings. Winslow's has white walls around the strange and that made it perfect for shooting. Black or dark walls would have absorbed the light and colored walls would've made the light have a tint to it. Winslow's is very nice that way.

I did have some concerns going into the shoot. Namely, what do I do about the audience. They're going to get pretty pissed off if I keep taking flash photos every 5 seconds.

I began shooting slowly, warming up to the crowd and warming up to the flash and how different it made operating the camera. It's one more thing to think about on top of the camera and you have to wait for it to recharge after every shot. This meant I wasn't able to rely on the burst mode in camera to catch moments. The whole shoot was a stronger lesson in more conscious shooting from a technical standpoint. By about midway through the first night, I felt I had a strong understanding of how the flash worked. I was able to begin getting more creative with my shots and focusing on the artistic and storytelling aspects of photography. The technical thoughts fell away once again as I became comfortable with the new equipment.

As the night went on, I noticed I had to be careful about using the flash too many times in a row. As soon as you fire off the flash, it instantly lets everyone know where you are and reminds everyone in the room that there is a camera there. I could feel people glancing at me, people tensing up. I even saw Sam, the lead singer, turn his head a time or two. That put me at a crossroad and a decision:

1. I could say screw it and continue doing what I was doing.

2. I could stop using the flash and make do with the light in the room.

3. I could dance around a bit.

I chose three, I started dancing. The night became a practice in shooting photos with the flash then gets quickly sulking back into the background. When I felt that people had forgotten about me and my camera, I poked back up and caught another moment.

I did this dance all night. I would appear out of the shadows, take the photos and then disappear. This allowed some time for the audience and the subject to settle in and forget about the camera and myself. Once they did, I popped back up for another moment and photo. I was able to catch more natural and relaxed reactions from the band and the audience based on this technique.

A quote from the legendary candid photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson says:

“In whatever picture-story we try to do, we are bound to arrive as intruders. It is essential, therefore, to approach the subject on tiptoe - even if the subject is still life. A velvet hand, a hawk’s eye - these we should all have. It’s no good jostling or elbowing.”

In his book The Mind's Eye, Henri Cartier-Bresson then goes on to discourage flash photography. His philosophy is if the scene isn’t natural, then it isn’t real. There’s a truth to that, and Cartier-Bresson was one of the greatest photographers and extremely intelligent.

After testing these couple nights, my philosophy falls slightly differently. I believe that if we can be careful and mindful of your subjects and your surroundings, flash photography can be pulled off. As much as the camera is a tool, the flash is a tool. Just a more intrusive tool. It’s most definitely important to be fully aware and conscious of the disruption of the scene that our camera, our flash, and especially we make. We can do all we can to get the shot with beautiful composition, beautiful lighting, but if our subject is uneasy, the the photo is worth nothing. If they're not able to sink into the moment and feel comfortable being truly themselves, then we're not doing our job successfully as a photographer.

I’m grateful to be able to test out a flash and have the opportunity to experiment in a non-stressful environment with subjects I knew. Will definitely be doing more testing and experiments!

Did you find this helpful at all? If so, please feel free to share it with someone who may find it interesting! It greatly helps me to continue to shoot and upload these blog posts.

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Oh ya, and I also played guitar on a number of songs with Harry Worley, Rob Crowley, and Graeme Howe. Photo by Liam Dillon playing with my camera

More about Ben M. Collins

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Burlington, VT

Duxbury, MA

ben@benmcollins.com  |  (781) 733-1094

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© 2020 by Ascentios, LLC. and Ben M. Collins. (synonymous with Ben Collins, Benjamin Collins, Benjamin McCann Collins.)