Flash vs No Flash

Some fun experiments of shooting flash and no flash:

Why I love the RICOH GR II

The news that RICOH GR III is here is good, but the problem:

GR 3 doesn’t have an integrated flash (I think the integrated flash is what makes the GR 2 so great).

I was curious — so I did a bunch of experiments (shooting the same scene with flash and without flash) shot on RICOH GR II.

And this is my lessons:

  1. Flash photos (even during the day) look superior than non-flash photos. Flash photos have superior contrast, detail, and tones compared to non-flash photos. This even accounts for post-processing.
  2. Using a flash greatly improves the sharpness and color saturation of photos.
  3. If you want to make more aesthetically interesting photos, shoot it with a flash.

Experiment 1

With flash

For example this flash photo on RICOH GR II (before and after processing).

No flash

The flash photo looks so much better — with the purple tones, the contrast, and the pop!

Settings: Shot on positive film present jpeg setting with +9 contrast and +9 saturation. ISO 800, Program mode:

With flash (processing in iPad Pro with Lightroom CC):

No flash (processing in iPad Pro with Lightroom CC):

The joy of randomness

The fun thing about flash:

You have no idea what the photo will look like before you shoot it.

Sometimes you prefer the flash shot, sometimes without flash looks better to you. The practical tip is this:

When you’re shooting a scene, shoot BOTH a flash (and non-flash) photo.

There is more information inside flash photos

This is what I learned:

Photos have more information when you shoot them with a flash.

For example for my flash photos — when I process them, they have so much processing fidelity and information! Or in simple phrasing:

Even with post-processing, the photos I’ve shot with flash yield a superior image.

Detail, texture, and color with flash

I’m amazed that when shooting this aluminum texture in the shade (with a flash) responded so well to post-processing:

Food photography (flash vs no flash):

One of the really interesting things about food photography:

Food photos look far more interesting and dynamic when shot with a flash.

For some reason, phone flash photos with food don’t look interesting, yet shooting my food with macro + RICOH GR II + flash look really fascinating:

Photos of food without a flash seem dull and uninteresting:

But when we introduce the flash, things get more fun!

People might think that these photos (of food with a flash) look more ‘gross’– but I think this is the point. Similar to Martin Parr’s flash macro photos on food (‘Common Sense’ photo book) — the point is to make food look a bit more ‘disgusting’.

Shoot flash onto reflective surfaces

Interesting texture with flash

When you see interesting reflective materials (mirrors, windows, aluminum, metals), etc — experiment shooting with a flash!

Without flash

The flash is fun because it transforms the scene and your own world.

When you’re shooting without a flash, ‘what you see is what you get’.

However when shooting with a flash:

You don’t know what the photos will look like with a flash until after you shoot.

Thus for myself, my personal curiosity is always:

“I wonder what this scene will look like if I shot it with a flash?”

Shooting with a flash from indoors, looking outwards

For example, here is a basic experiment between shooting from indoors (glass window separating outside) without and with a flash.

The effect:

  1. Darkened skies (better contrast and details)
  2. Overall photo is slightly darkened… but aesthetically looks nicer.
  3. Small little flash icon (reflection off the glass).
Without flash
With flash


Thus this is the tip:

When you’re in a random photo scenario — experiment shooting with a flash (even when it seems to make no sense, for example indoors or during the day).

The joy of post-processing photos shot with a flash

Before processing

I’ve been really enjoying post-processing my photos (shot with a flash):

Lately my workflow has been:

  1. Shoot with flash on RICOH GR II, program (p) mode, ISO 800, JPEG positive film preset, contrast +9 saturation +9, and import photos into iPad Pro (using lightning cable to SD adapter).
  2. Import photos into Lightroom CC (iPad app)
  3. Start from the bottom and work upwards (start by sliding the ‘blacks’ slider, then the ‘whites’, then the ‘shadows’, then ‘highlights’, then ‘contrast’, then ‘exposure’
  4. When photos look good to me, then export photos to iPad Photo Roll, then upload to this blog.
After processing

Note that the prior photo (while already quite nicely saturated and contrasty) IMPROVES even MORE with a little more contrast and by lowering the ‘blacks’ slider.

Final processed photo

Side-by-side comparison. The difference may be subtle, but it makes a huge deal of difference to me (I gain far more joy of looking at my own nicely saturated photos after processing them a bit more):

Can you post-process a non-flash photo to look like a flash photo?

The question I was curious about:

Is it possible to post-process a non-flash photo, and make it look like a flash photo?

The answer is no. Especially you see the massive difference when you are photographing things in the shade. No matter how good your camera sensor is, or how good your post-processing skills are, you cannot make a non-flash photo look like a flash photo.

Selfies in the mirror with flash

Another example:

When shooting selfies, I encourage you to use a flash.

With selfies, they seem to be far more interesting in mirrors with a flash. Why? Surrealism (you become abstracted), interesting halo effects in the mirror, and improved colors.

Skin tones

For a long time I shot color film, because I could never get the skin tones to look the way I wanted them to look.

Now the most exciting discovery I had was this:

Shooting with the RICOH GR II in positive film JPEG, with a flash looks phenomenal!

I can get the color tones of human skin/flesh to look the way I want it to — so at this point, I’m not really interested in shooting color film anymore. I’m very happy with my RICOH GR II. The only thing I haven’t been able to really emulate is the lovely grittiness in black and white film photos (TRI-X film pushed to 1600).

So another tip — if you want better skin tones, I encourage you to shoot with a flash.

Natural light (without flash) vs natural light (with flash)

I don’t think many people have done this experiment of shooting a subject by natural light (window) and shooting without a flash and with a flash.

A simple experiment with Cindy shows the benefit of shooting with a flash (even when there is lovely natural light).

Generally speaking, there is a bias that natural light photos (window lighting) looks ‘better’ than photos shot with a flash. I would disagree.

I actually think that [natural window light + flash] looks SUPERIOR to [natural window light // without flash].

Product photos during the day

Another fun experiment I did:

Photographing cars (reflective material) during the day (in the shade) without a flash and with a flash.

For example this classic 1969 Porsche 911 (shout-out to Bryan) actually looks BETTER with a flash (even when shot during the day):

The differences are very subtle. In the first non-flash photo, it looks good. In the second flash photo, you get deeper contrast in the pavement/yellow line, and you get deeper detail in the chrome accents of the car.

Long-distance street photography flash photos during the day

Another fun experiment:

When you are really far from your subject (5+ meters away), and you shoot it with a flash– what does it look like?

For example compare the photos below. The photo WITH a flash looks superior to the non-flash photo.

With the flash photo, the red JUMP bicycle (far left) of the frame pops more. There is also a little more detail in the man on the far right. Also the ‘DENVER’ public restroom sign pops more with a flash.

Shooting with a flash in the shade

Another experiment — shooting without and with a flash when you’re in the shade.

For example, this metal manhole cover in the shade:

Without the flash, the photo looks fine. With the flash, there is more sharpness, detail, and texture in the manhole cover — also a little more purple color. I think the flash photo of objects in the shade look superior when shot with a flash.

When does non-flash photos look better than flash photos?

Flash isn’t always better than non-flash. It just depends on what your aesthetic goals for the photo are.

For example in the above comparison, you can see the flash photo has superior white-contrast. However the non-flash photo has more detail and texture.

The practical tip is to always shoot scenes both WITH and WITHOUT a flash, and decide later which version you prefer. Or maybe even if you like both — and can do a diptych of both?

How to achieve the maximum color-contrast and saturation

If your goal is to achieve the maximum color-saturation, shoot with a flash. Even after post-processing, the flash photo will have more intense colors.

For example let us compare the both photos. I was still able to get nice black/red tones in the non-flash photo. But the photo with flash has deeper blacks and a more vibrant red.

Street portraits with flash

If you like to shoot street portraits, realize this fact:

If you want the ultimate dynamic, interesting, and epic street portraits– generally speaking a flash photo will look far more interesting.

For example this flash portrait (RICOH GR II and integrated flash) brings out more colors, textures, and light in the eyes of my subject. This type of photograph is not possible if shot with natural light.

Street portrait with flash (Denver, 2019)
Street portrait with flash (Denver, 2019)

Reflective surfaces (in the shade, during the day)

Probably one of my favorite discoveries with shooting flash:

When you shoot highly-reflective surfaces (like caution signs) with a flash during the day– it totally transforms your photo!

For example above the photo on the left is shot with a flash during the day (in the shade), whereas the photo (on the right) is far more dull — without flash.

And this is the thing:

Both photos were post-processed. I tried to increase the contrast/saturations to the maximum — but still — the flash photo looks far more interesting!

So as a tip:

When you’re shooting on the streets and you see a reflective thing (like a traffic cone, reflective clothing from construction workers, etc) shoot with a flash! It will totally transform your photos!

Visual test (with or without a flash?)

Let us do a fun little test:

Can you tell which photos below are shot without a flash, and which is shot with a flash?

Indoor street photography with a flash

An advanced street photography tip:

Shoot street photography with a flash when you’re indoors (coffee shops, restaurants, bars, etc).

The benefits of shooting with a flash indoors:

  1. Your subjects have better contrast, saturation, and ‘pop’ (figure to ground).
  2. Your subjects look sharper
  3. Interesting random effects which occur with the flash

For example some are below photos shot with RICOH GR II with flash in Denver (my new favorite American city):

Flash street photography

Some other examples from my older street photos (from my SUITS book):


Some takeaways:

  1. When you have the opportunity, always shoot the scene both WITH and WITHOUT a flash. Sometimes you will prefer the flash photo, sometimes you prefer the non-flash photo.
  2. Experiment more with a flash: Shoot with flash in different lighting scenarios with a flash. Shoot inside a toaster with a flash, and just see what happens!
  3. Experiment with your flash on your phone: If you like shooting with your phone, experiment shooting with a flash and the way you post-process your photo. For example, will a phone photo shot with flash processed with VSCO a6 preset look better than a non-flash photo? Experiment!
  4. If your camera doesn’t have a flash, buy a small on-camera TTL (through the lens, automatic) flash. If your camera has an integrated flash (RICOH GR II, Fujifilm X100F) just use the integrated flash.
  5. Experiment using high-contrast/high-saturation JPEG presets with a flash.
  6. If you want more ambient light when shooting with flash, experiment with ‘1st curtain shutter’ and ‘2nd curtain shutter’. Experiment with different shutter-speeds (with film Leica and flash, I like 1/15th of a second).