I recently had an email conversation with photojournalist Ted Grant regarding my blog entitled, “I Have Never Used a Flash”.
In it I wrote that I like adding light using a flash under all conditions from dimly lit rooms to sunny days. My column began with a statement from a photographer just starting to photograph weddings of her friends who says, “I have never used a flash,” and to that I had responded, “I always use a flash indoors and outdoors when photographing people”, but she was surprised and said “even in bright sunlight?”
I use the flash to reduce the shadows caused by bright sunlight. TTL (through the lens) flash technology is easy to use, almost fool proof, and the days of calculating distance and flash power are long gone. I also wrote, “When I learned to use a flash many years ago it changed the quality of my photography. I no longer had to rely on ambient light and I began to notice my subjects had more “pop” than those without the flash. Just like the control I gained by using different focal length lenses, using the flash allowed me to add light when I needed it, improving the quality of my photographs and separating my photography from who do not to use flash.”
I believe it was that last line that piqued the interest of Mr. Grant who wrote to me, “If I were to suggest… “If you can see it? You can shoot it!” That means without any flash…. period.”
However, as photographers, we have different goals and my response to him was, “Many just getting into photography have not had the opportunity to spend years honing their skills, and, in my opinion, modern flash technology makes opening and preserving shadow details, and balancing ambient light conditions so easy that I am disappointed when I see over-exposed features or detail-less shadows. A great number of photographers are currently embracing flash as a tool similar to using different focal length lenses for perspective control and tripods for camera stability, etc. I’m sure that photographer’s camera would record anything she “can see”, but with the limited exposure range of digital I believe her images would be less that what you and I would categorize as acceptable.”
On a sunny day the dynamic range between the darkest and the brightest areas might mean a person wearing a dark shirt could have an exposure of f4 and 1/250th second whereas the surrounding landscape might be as bright as f22 @ 1/250th or brighter.
A photojournalist selects what is most important and only exposes for that, but for those of us photographing a family or a couple in their back yard, or a youngster posing beside the family pool, that isn’t an option. Our clients are probably proud of the work they put into their back yard and an over-exposed, washed out background would wreck the picture in my opinion.
For me that picture would be easy. I’d quickly meter and make an exposure of the back yard, check my LCD to make sure it was a good then put a flash on my camera, have someone stand in, make a couple of test exposures, and reduce or increase the flash output if needed, and I am ready with subjects and background all evenly exposed.
However, Mr. Grant is absolutely right. “If you can see it? You can shoot it!” I believe his quote came from his work on a book about women in medicine shot using a Leica 35mm and exposed on black and white film. He also likely didn’t have the luxury of fast auto focusing image stabilizing lenses, or being able to check the image and exposure history as he shot, and he likely was restrained from using TTL flash technology in his many endeavours. There are, of course, differences between photographers and how they want their subjects to look. I suppose it is really about what in the final picture is important to them.
The photojournalist’s job is to capture the action as it happens, using a flash might not be possible, or even allowed in some circumstances. Whereas the type of photography I do is all about the subject who in all instances must be photographed in the most flattering way possible and in most cases that means including using a flash.