London Street Photograph . Woman and cell phone and poster
London, 2014

To make more dynamic, edgy, and powerful street photographs, use a flash.


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In this guide, I will walk you through how to use a flash in your street photography.

Why flash?

Flash. Ricoh GR II, popup flash, P mode. Tokyo, 2017
Flash. Ricoh GR II, popup flash, P mode. Tokyo, 2017

Benefits of flash in street photography:

  1. Separation of subject from background. You can cause your subject to “pop out” from the background (figure to ground composition principle).
  2. Increased contrast and saturation in your subject (makes for more aesthetically pleasing pictures).
  3. More drama, dynamism in your street pictures.
  4. No blur or out of focus: Shooting with a flash in street photography (with the right settings) will eliminate blur and out-of-focus pictures.

Misconceptions of flash in street photography

There is this wrong conception that you shoot street photography with a flash to scare people, and to get ‘shocked’ reactions in a street picture. This is incorrect.

This is what happens when you shoot street photography with a flash:

  1. You identify person you want to take a street photo of.
  2. You take a picture of them with a flash.
  3. They notice that you’ve taken a picture of them (because they saw the flash).

This is NOT what happens when you shoot street photography with a flash:

  1. You identify person you want to take a street photo of.
  2. They have a scared expression from the flash.
  3. You take a picture with a flash.

In other words,

When you see a street photograph of someone looking ‘scared’ in a picture, it is because the subject saw the street photographer about to take the picture. The subject is responding to the forward movement of the street photographer, not the action of the flash or picture-taking itself.

I know my explanation is bad, let me try to explain better.

Can a person react before the flash fires?

Leica MP + Leica Summicron 35mm f2 ASPH + Kodak Portra 400 + flash

If you shoot 2 pictures with a flash, then the second picture can show them being shocked from the flash.

  1. Subject is oblivious to you.
  2. You shoot first street photo with a flash.
  3. Subject notices you taking you taking a picture of them with a flash, and gets startled or scared.
  4. You shoot another picture with a flash, and therefore the second picture you shot has your subject looking afraid or scared.

Case study: Jazz Hands, Hollywood, 2011

Jazz Hands. Hollywood, 2011 by ERIC KIM
Jazz Hands. Hollywood, 2011 by ERIC KIM

This is a flash street photograph I shot, and let me explain it to you.

  1. I saw interesting lady with a hat.
  2. I crouched down, about to take a picture of her.
  3. Lady sees me crouching down and about to take a picture, and therefore poses for me (jazz hands gesture).
  4. I take a picture with flash.
  5. We both walk away.
Eric Kim shooting Jazz hands. Action photo.
Eric Kim shooting Jazz hands. Behind the scenes photo.

People misinterpret this picture: they think the lady is shocked that I’m taking her picture. In reality, she’s posing for me with the jazz hands gesture — she saw I was going to take a picture of her (and because she knows that she is so glamorous), she gives me a gift by posing for me. And because she posed for me, the picture is much more dynamic and interesting.

Flash setup: I used a Canon 5D, Canon 24mm f2.8 lens, off-camera flash cable, and YuongNuo YN flash, with the flash positioned at a low angle, pointing up. The benefit of using a flash in this situation was that the lady was walking toward me (the sun was behind her), therefore if I did not use a flash, her face would be all black, dark, and silhouetted. By using a flash, I lit up her face, and hands. And you can see the little sunburst of light behind her head, from the sun.


Case study: Long distance flash

Shot in a restaurant with flash in Michigan, Lansing.
Shot in a restaurant with flash in Michigan, Lansing.

Shot with a film LEICA MP, 35mm, Leica SF 20, Kodak Portra 400.

  • Aperture: f8
  • Flash power: full power
  • Focus distance: 3 meters

I shot this picture in a dark restaurant in Lansing, Michigan. I saw this bored couple, and thought it would be great for my ‘SUITS’ project. I turned the flash on full power, and just took one picture.

After taking the picture, I scared them and freaked them out because the flash was so bright. They stared at me, and I said, “Cool restaurant, huh?” (Pretending like I was just shooting the background). They both then smiled and said, “Yeah!”

Lesson: If you do shock people from shooting a street photograph with flash, just pretend like you shot something else.

Leica MP and 35mm f/2 Summicron + SF 20 flash
Leica MP and 35mm f/2 Summicron + SF 20 flash

Shooting with a flash through clear umbrellas

Tokyo Eric Kim rain umbrella
Tokyo. 2015. Shot with RICOH GR II in P MODE, with flash, through a translucent umbrella.

I was first inspired to shoot flash street pictures by my friend Charlie Kirk. Many of his great pictures in Tokyo were of people holding clear umbrellas, or he shot through a clear umbrella.

RICOH GR with popup flash.
Easy to access flash on the side. Why I love RICOH GR for flash.

Here are some pictures I’ve shot with a RICOH GR II, in ‘P’ (program) mode, through a clear umbrella, with the integrated popup flash.

Umbrella and flash in color. Kyoto, 2017
Umbrella and flash in color. Kyoto, 2017. Ricoh GR II and flash, shot through clear umbrella.
Blue sky in the rain. Shot with a RICOH GR II in P mode, with flash, through translucent clear umbrella. Kyoto, 2017
Blue sky in the rain. Shot with a RICOH GR II in P mode, with flash, through translucent clear umbrella. Kyoto, 2017

Case study: One flash picture without eye contact, and one with eye contact

Woman on phone, with billboard in background. Shot with a flash. I love the tension here. London Street Photograph by ERIC KIM, 2014.
London, Street Photograph with flash. Leica MP and flash.

I saw this woman on her phone, looking very intense. I saw a billboard of a woman banging against the wall. I thought this would make a good ‘juxtaposition’ picture. I then shot with a flash, with my film Leica MP, aperture f8, flash at 1/8th power, focus distance 1.2 meters.

The second picture, after she saw I took a picture of her with a flash. I prefer the prior picture of her not noticing me. But I shot this second picture “just in case”.
The second picture, after she saw I took a picture of her with a flash. I prefer the prior picture of her not noticing me. But I shot this second picture “just in case”.

What is the best flash for street photography?

Leica SF24D

As a side note, the best compact flash I recommend is the Leica SF 20 (original Leica flash for film cameras) or the Leica SF 24D (intended for digital Leica, thus the ‘D’ to denote ‘digital’, have TTL automatic flash settings). Both are powerful, have fast flash recycle times, and the batteries last a long time. Buy them used.

Also if you have a choice, always use automatic flash settings if your camera setup allows for it. This will make shooting with a flash in street photography much more simple. And if possible, use the integrated flash (if your camera has it). Otherwise, buy the smallest, most compact, flash for your camera.


Shooting with a flash, long distance, at night

Yellow sign pops out from the scene. London, 2015
Yellow sign pops out from the scene. Shot with a flash. London, 2015

Here, you can see the effect of shooting with a flash, at a longer distance with a flash.

The flash saturates the colors in the scene, and causes the reflective objects to shine — which is an eye-popping effect.

Multiple subject steet picture with a flash, at night

Bookend technique with a flash, note how the figure on the far left and the far right frame the subject in the center of the frame. Tokyo, 2017
Bookend technique with a flash, note how the figure on the far left and the far right frame the subject in the center of the frame. Tokyo, 2017

You can also try to experiment to shoot layers in steet photography at night with a flash — a technique I haven’t seen utilized much in street photography.

eric kim photography cindy and mom korea seoul flash
Seoul, 2016. Flash with layers of Cindy and my mom.

Heightened saturation of colors with flash

Street portrait with flash. Green shirt, makeup, and blue sky pops out at night.

Some pictures shot with a flash in street photography — note the enhanced colors and saturation.

eric kim street photography - street portraits-2-bart-glasses
Ricoh GRII x Flash, 28mm, in macro mode. Bright green tones.
Red hair on red background. Kodak Portra 400 with flash. London, 2014.
Red hair on red background. Kodak Portra 400 with flash. London, 2014. Bright red tones.
Philly. Portra 400 and flash. Red hair against green background.

Question Yourself: What would look interesting on a flash?

Reflection of flash through glass. Experiment shooting with a flash through glass, and observe the effect. I’ve found that shooting with a flash through glass darkens the background and the ambient scene.
Reflection of flash through glass. Experiment shooting with a flash through glass, and observe the effect. I’ve found that shooting with a flash through glass darkens the background and the ambient scene.

Another tip with flash street photography: look for interesting textures or materials that would reflect, or respond in an interesting manner to a flash. Look for rough textures, reflective textures, mirrors, and experiment in different lighting situations.

Suit Istanbul, 2013
Suit Istanbul, 2013. Shooting with a flash through the glass.
Selfie through broken glass with flash.
Selfie through broken glass with flash.
Woman with vent on head. Kyoto, 2017
Woman with vent on head. Kyoto, 2017. Reflection of flash against metal.
Construction site man, with flash. Shibuya, Tokyo 2017
Construction site man, with flash. Shibuya, Tokyo 2017. Note how the flash responds to the reflective material on his vest.

You can also experiment by shooting selfies of yourself and your partner, in elevators with mirrors and reflections:

eric kim Cindy project reflection flash

Flash allows yourself to have more flexibility in shooting locations

Man shot with flash in mall, with two people behind him, making triangle. Shibuya, Tokyo, 2017
Man shot with flash in mall, with two people behind him, making triangle. Shibuya, Tokyo, 2017

Shooting with a flash will give you the freedom to shoot street photography in more places and situations. For example, shooting inside the mall, while people are moving around.

Woman going down escalator and flash. Tokyo, 2017
Off center composition of woman on far right of the frame. Shot on an escalator at the mall.

Or maybe even take a picture of a stranger in an elevator:

Leica MP + Leica Summicron 35mm f2 ASPH + Kodak Portra 400 + flash. Nice lady I met in an elevator in Chicago.
Leica MP + Leica Summicron 35mm f2 ASPH + Kodak Portra 400 + flash. Nice lady I met in an elevator in Chicago.
Downtown LA, 2016. Street portrait with flash in elevator, with purple colors.
Downtown LA, 2016. Street portrait with flash in elevator, with purple colors.

Or crowded subway cars:

Contact sheet Istanbul
Contact sheet. Istanbul, 2015.

Flash and billboard juxtaposition

Man with face mask and billboard, shot with flash on RICOH GR II. Kyoto, 2017.
Man with face mask and billboard, shot with flash on RICOH GR II. Kyoto, 2017.

Also, by using a flash to create a juxtaposition between the subject and background, you make a more surreal picture, because the brightness/exposure of the subject and background is the same — equalized by the flash.

Contact sheet. Kyoto man mask.
Contact sheet of shooting with a flash, and keep shooting until he noticed me.

Flash during the day, in open shade

Kyoto, 2017
Woman standing in front of Zara. Kyoto, 2017

I would actually say shooting with a flash is most beneficial during the day, in the shade.

Why? People don’t really see the flash “go off” during the day (it is already bright). Your flash will create a nice ‘pop’ in your picture, and separate your subject from the background.

Street photograph of woman walking in Kyoto, 2017
Street photograph of woman walking in Kyoto, 2017, in open shade. RICOH GR II

Slow shutter speed and flash (1/15th of a second)

‘Hearts’ Downtown LA, 2011 (shot with the Leica M9 and a 35mm lens and flash)

If you ask to shoot a street portrait, and get permission, try to experiment ‘dragging your shutter’— which means, to use a slower shutter speed (like 1/15th of a second). By using a longer/slower shutter speed, you will show more ambient light in the background.

For example, look at the ‘heart’ or ‘butterfly’ light trails in the picture of the man with tattoos above. This was shot with around 1/15th shutter speed. If I used 1/125th of a shutter speed for flash, the background would be totally black.

Experiment also when people are walking and moving:

Seoul, 2012. Shoot at 1/15th shutter speed.
Seoul, 2012. Shoot at 1/15th shutter speed.

Flash and hands

Tokyo, 2011. Woman with hand.
Tokyo, 2011. Woman with hand.

Hands are interesting with a flash. Use a flash to uncover the hidden textures.

Fingernails. Downtown LA, 2012. Leica M9 and flash.
Downtown LA, 2012. Leica M9 and flash.
Hands. Paris, 2015
Hands. Paris, 2015. Shot with a flash.
Hands of a 92 year old woman. Hanoi, 2017
Hands of a 92 year old woman. Hanoi, 2017. Shot with flash.

Practice shooting flash in your everyday life

Cindy with hands over her face. Saigon, 2017
A photograph and a picture of Cindy. Flash in Saigon, 2017

I am lucky enough to have Cindy to shoot portraits of, many of the best pictures with a flash. If you have a friend, partner, or child — practice your flash with them.

Also, ask your partner to take pictures of you (with a flash) to understand what it feels like to be on the other side of the lens.

Eric Kim eye. Photo by Cindy.

Or photograph your own hands:

eric kim photography hands almonds
My hand full of almonds, at the gym, after deadlifts. Flash.

Experiment

Shooting street photography in Downtown LA with the Leica M9, 35mm lens, and off-camera flash. Photo by Rinzi Ruiz
Shooting street photography in Downtown LA with the Leica M9, 35mm lens, and off-camera flash. Photo by Rinzi Ruiz

There is no ultimate one ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to use a flash in street photography. Just experiment, and try it out for yourself.

Some flash street photography assignments for you to try out:

  1. Ask a stranger for permission to shoot a street portrait of them with permission. Take two pictures: one with flash, and one without. See which you prefer.
  2. Shoot a self-portrait of yourself: one with flash, one without flash. Analyze the picture, and see how effects the picture.
  3. For an entire day, only shoot with a flash.

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