How to Shoot with a Flash for Street Photography by Charlie Kirk (twocutedogs)

1x1.trans How to Shoot with a Flash for Street Photography by Charlie Kirk (twocutedogs)

(Shibuya by Charlie Kirk)

Note: Charlie Kirk (aka twocutedogs) was generous enough to provide this article to discuss how he shoots street photography with a flash with his film Leica MP. Also if you haven’t yet, check out his documentary on Uchujin’s blog!

I thought I should write a short piece about using a flash for street photography. I don’t profess to be an expert on the technical side, so this is simply a few paragraphs about how I shoot and what I have learnt. I am writing from the perspective of a Leica MP user, although a large part of this will apply to anyone that wants to shoot flash manually.

Shutter Speed

1x1.trans How to Shoot with a Flash for Street Photography by Charlie Kirk (twocutedogs)

Shibuya – Charlie Kirk

The Leica MP has a flash sync speed of 1/50th of a second. What this means is that the shutter speed must be set to 1/50 or slower – otherwise, for complicated and boring reasons, black bands appear on (I think) the left hand side of the photo. Practically this is a limitation. The background will likely blur unless the photographer has a steady hand. I tend to try to shoot at 1/50th as much as possible to avoid this. Shooting at less will increase the blur. While some people might want this, I find it distracting – especially in a city like Tokyo where what happens is that you will get a lot of light trails. But I’d encourage everyone to experiment.

ISO

1x1.trans How to Shoot with a Flash for Street Photography by Charlie Kirk (twocutedogs)

Charlie Kirk

As with non flash photography, I select the ISO according to the time of day and weather. The thing to remember with ISO (and aperture) is that these settings affect the distance that the flash can fire. The lower the ISO the weaker the flash will be. Therefore to shoot in the day a very strong flash (ie one with a high guide number) is required. I use the Nikon SB900. The other problem with shooting in the day is that the photographer is constrained by the slow sync speed. Therefore, it’s usually necessary to close down the lens to f/22 to accommodate for the slow shutter speed.

Aperture

1x1.trans How to Shoot with a Flash for Street Photography by Charlie Kirk (twocutedogs)

Sapporo – Charlie Kirk

I tend to want to have as much depth as field as possible to account for focusing errors. The fastest I will shoot at is f/8, and I’ll only do this to let in more ambient light. The more closed down the lens the weaker the flash power.

Approach

1x1.trans How to Shoot with a Flash for Street Photography by Charlie Kirk (twocutedogs)

Shinjuku – Charlie Kirk

The general point to remember is to take a meter reading first, setting the shutter speed to 1/50th. For example, on a sunny day:

Shutter speed – 1/50th (constrained by x-sync).
ISO 50
Aperture – f/11 – f/22

After this, I’ll underexpose the ambient by a stop or two for a more dramatic look. So, if the meter reads f/11, I would set to f/16.

Then I’ll enter the ISO and the aperture into the flash and see what distance it gives me. For my flash this will be about 1-2 meters. This means that my subjects need to be at the distance from the camera that is showing on the back of the flash. If I want to take a picture of a subject that is further away, I can zoom the flash, which sometimes might get me an extra meter or two.

I take the same approach at night, although I care less about the ambient light as often the background is just black sky. The other difference at night is that the ISO will be 1600.

This means that the flash reading will probably be around 5 or 6 meters. So I reduce the flash power to give me a 1 meter or so reading.

A couple of final points

1x1.trans How to Shoot with a Flash for Street Photography by Charlie Kirk (twocutedogs)

Shibuya – Charlie Kirk

I’m no technical expert, but one thing I have noticed is that the flash tends to freeze subjects when they are closer to the camera. This is important as a 1/50th shutter speed will not freeze them. But when subjects are close it is very important to get the flash power correct, otherwise subjects will be under or overexposed. Underexposure is very common due to the inverse square law (light falls off more quickly the closer the flash is to the subject).

The other point to note about the inverse square law is that it is very hard to light multiple subjects at different distances from the camera with one flash, especially where the nearest subject is close to the camera. The only way around this is to bounce the flash off the ceiling, use more than one flash, spread the flash beam (if you have that setting) or shoot when the nearest subject is a bit further away.

So that’s about it. Please let Eric know if you have any questions.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=12416569 Vladi Dusil

    This article comes at a good time. Just got the AS-15 and SC-15 Nikon bits to connect my SB900. Time to channel my inner Gilden.

  • Anonymous

    Great article. Since you are a Leica man Charlie, opinion on Leica M3 DS? Thinking about that in combo with a Summicron 50/2 DR. I love my in-close photos, that lens seems like it will fulfill two roles and film keeps calling to me over digital lately.

    • http://twitter.com/twocutedogs twocutedogs

      No idea about that camera, sorry! But I have not yielded great results with a flash and a 50. I might try this out with the M9 at some point and see what I can get.

  • http://johngoldsmithphotography.com John Goldsmith / Waxy

    Thanks for sharing your approach, Charlie. You generally work much closer than I but the numbers hold true. Fortunately the 5DMkII + speedlite gives me a bit more distance which I need for the approach I take. The Leica MP sounds more like my Canonet with a shutter speed that flats out at 1/30s with a flash.

    Also:

    “… it is very hard to light multiple subjects at different distances from the camera with one flash, especially where the nearest subject is close to the camera.”

    True dat! It’s been something I’ve been contemplating for a few months. I’m not sure I’m up the challenge but, if so, I think I found a fun way to shine a light on this, so to speak. Sorry to be so cryptic but I gots my ideas! :)

    • http://twitter.com/twocutedogs twocutedogs

      Come on John – spill the beans.

  • Christian

    Hi Charlie, Eric, thank you for a great post.

    Charlie what do you use between the SB-900 and the MP? It looks like a very small wireless trigger?

    Thank you

    Christian

    • http://twitter.com/twocutedogs twocutedogs

      it’s a comet wireless trigger. got it in japan.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. You have a great eye.

    – Nam
    gullian.tumblr.com

  • Hugo

    Charlie, have liked your flash work for a while. I shoot an M9 with an SB-900 and/or a SF-24 via nikon pocketwizards. I also use the nikon sync cord occasionally. I used to shoot at f5.6 but have recently stopped down to f11 to reduce the need to adjust focus. Never gone as far as f22 but might try it.

    As you say the hardest thing to manage is the inverse law. Maintaining a consistent distance from the subjects is the key to managing the light. I admire your use of film (especially at max sync of 1/50th. The M9 goes up to 1/180th which now seems luxurious.

    One question. A big problem i had early on was missing shots because the flash wouldn’t fire on the first click (when it was sleeping). Then spontenaity would be lost. I now manage this by habitually half pressing the shutter which wakes the camera, pocketwizards and flash on the M9. Do you get this (and find black images when you get the film back) due to the flash not firing? How do you manage it?

    I’ll post some images when i get the chance.

    • http://twitter.com/twocutedogs twocutedogs

      Thanks Hugo. The MP doesn’t sleep so I don’t have that issue. Although I did have that problem with the M9 (and dealt with it in the same way as you do). My triggers occasionally fail (maybe once in 100 shots) – which annoys me, but there’s nothing I can do about that except to buy new triggers! Cheers.

      • Hugo

        Yep i’m on to my 3rd set of triggers (pocket wizards are good but probably overkill in the price department). Kept throwing more money at it but it seems that the sync cord a la Bruce Gilden is the most trustworthy method.

        Can i ask why you moved away from the M9 to the MP? I shoot MF film but can’t deny the convenience of digital for 35mm. The grain and texture is fantastic in your above images though – is this part of the appeal?

        • Hugo

          Here are some from a friends wedding. A clean and vibrant aesthetic which worked well with the colourful dresses. Mostly shoot the B+W M9 jpegs though.

          • http://twitter.com/twocutedogs twocutedogs

            Nice shots. Lots of reasons why i prefer film – the look is definitely one of them.

  • Disraeli Demon

    Yeah, I was going to ask about the sleep problem. Older flash guns (I have a Nikon SB-24 from the 1990’s and a Vivitar 283 that’s even older) work very reliably, but my Nikon SB-900 regularly goes into power-save sleep after each shot if I use it with a non-nikon camera and/or a wireless trigger (in my case a Cactus V4). The same is true of a Canon 430EX I’ve tried.

    This is nothing to do with the camera being switched on or off or going into power-save – with the camera on all the time, I can rarely get two shots in a row using the 900 without switching the flash off and on between firings. It’s not an issue right now because I still have the older flashes, but I’d like to solve it since they won’t last forever. If anyone can suggest a fix/workaround, I’d be grateful…

    • Charlie Kirk

      You can turn the power save mode off. I’ve never had my sb900 sleep on me.

  • Nicolas.

    thanx for your technics!
    it should be so great if you do a video explaining how to shot with your flash and your MP..

  • Inspiration4passion

    Hi Charlie,

    What lens do you use on the MP? I have m8.2.

    Thnx
    Roel

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  • http://www.facebook.com/isdavidisgood David Aitchison

    Hi charlie!

    totally love you pictures, they are very interesting and inspiring for someone new to street photography like me. im wanting to experiment with flash in the street but know little to nothing about flash.

    ive read your blog which was very informative, Thankyou, but ive noticed that the types of flashes we use are very different, camera also.

    i use a olympus ep2 with a TTL Metz flash

    do you know anything at all about using a TTL flash and how that would differ my settings from yours? should i just shoot auto (the though of this displeases me). i know our cameras are very different so im not expecting much. i just cant seem to find anyone talking about using my sort of gear in a ‘street’ scenario or any other for that matter.

    thanks if you can help

    David

    • Charlie Kirk

      David. Sorry for the late reply. Best thing is to shoot manual. Measure ambient light and use the distance setting on flash to get enough power to light subjects. Record your settings and review.

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  • Kai

    Hi charlie,

    i got a m6 with 35mm summilux and SB900 but shooting with New Portra 400 for night shoot, wondering if i use the same setting as yours will i get the right exposure (afraid of over/under expose)?

    • http://erickimphotography.com/blog Eric Kim

      Im shooting with Portra 400 right now. Settings that work well: ISO 400, f/8, 30ths/sec, and flash at 1/8th or 1/4th power. Good luck mate!

      • kai

        thanks eric, i will try out a few setting on a cheap film to see which work best. thanks for the pointer.

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  • Rafael Morales

    I think the pictures are set to “private”.

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