Syl Arena is known around the world as much for his colorful persona as he is for his colorful hair. He freely admits that he has long been obsessed with light.
For the past year, Syl has been writing and shooting the Speedliter’s Handbook which will be published later this fall. His first book, LIDLIPS: Lessons I Didn’t Learn In Photo School is a collection of micro-essays on the philosophy of photography.
Each spring and fall, Syl travels the country teaching Speedliting seminars and workshops. He is also the founder and director of the Paso Robles Workshops. You should follow him on Twitter especially because he is giving away one lucky Tiffinbox subscriber a seat at one of his lighting workshops. Scroll down to read details about that awesome opportunity.
In case we’ve not met before, you should know that I’m a flasher… a long-time flasher. And I’m not shy about it. I am not one of those only-flash-when-it’s-dark flashers. I like to flash in broad daylight. In fact, I often flash when the sun is high overhead and everyone can see me. The fact that it’s really bright outside has never stopped me from flashing.
If you’re not a flasher, ask yourself “why?” Is it because you think that flashing is wrong, or because you’re shy, or because no one has ever showed you how to flash, or because you tried flashing once and didn’t like the experience?
“I don’t flash because…”
I’m always amused (and often concerned) when a photographer says, blogs, or Tweets, “I don’t use flash because…
“I’m a purist and only use available light.”
First, there is no such thing as pure photography. Every photograph is an abstraction. No photograph is a perfect record of the entire moment that passed in front of the photographer. The mere act of pointing the camera at one part of the scene and not another is artificial. The activation of the shutter at one instant over another is artificial. The conversion of light into long series of numbers or into layers of dye on a transparent substrate is artificial. The manipulation of digital files in a computer is artificial. The re-creation of the light on a computer screen or piece of paper is artificial. So, I see no reason to limit one’s actions because of a philosophy that is as artificial as the actions it rails against.
“I don’t need flash because I can always turn the ISO up.”
Let’s be honest about this one. Crappy light at ISO 12,600 is still crappy light. For a painter, having more colors does not automatically make one a better artist. It’s knowing how to work the paint with a myriad of strokes that adds depth to the painter’s ability to express herself. Photography is no different. A better digital sensor is no substitute for learning how to see and use light.
“I always shoot in bright light, so I don’t need flash.”
If you think the main use of flash is to provide light when there is none, then you’re missing out on half the world of flash. No camera today can record the full range of brights and darks that the human eye can see. Photographers often avoid shooting under full sun because details are often lost in the shadows. Even in full-auto mode, today’s digital cameras and flashes are brilliant at adding just the right amount of fill light to reduce the contrast of the shadows. The brighter the ambient light, the greater the need is to add fill light to the shadows somehow.
“Flash limits the shutter speeds that I can use. A sync speed of 1/250″ is too slow.”
High-speed sync (aka: Auto-FP sync if you’re a Nikonian) is a Speedlite-only mode that enables you to shoot at virtually any shutter speed. So, lighting your subject with a Speedlite means that you can use a fast shutter speed to freeze high-speed motion or to saturate the sky by underexposing the ambient. Contrary to the popular myths, you can’t do HSS with studio flash. Nor is a neutral density filter a good substitute. For more details on HSS, check out these articles: Simple Truths About HSS, Dimming The Sun – Part 1, and Part 2.
“Flash is unreliable. It changes from frame to frame”
Even among shooters who like to flash, there is the concern that the automatic flash modes (E-TTL for Canonistas and I-TTL for Nikonians) are unreliable because the flash power changes. Well that’s exactly what E-TTL / I-TTL is supposed to do: change the power. When your flash is close to your subject, then you need less light from it than you do when your flash is farther from your subject. While these auto-flash technologies are not perfect, they can be amazingly useful in situations, like weddings, where the subject-to-flash distance is always changing. The real root the problem is a lack of understanding by the photographer about how the camera meters for flash — which is especially tough at a wedding where in one frame the bride in her white gown is the dominant element and in the next frame the groom with his blackhole of a tux is the dominant element. Learn how your gear works and the consistency from frame to frame will improve dramatically.
“Flash always looks bad.”
This should be re-phrased as “On-camera flash often looks bad.” It’s not the flash, it’s the location of the flash that kills the shot. Anytime the dominant source of light goes right down the axis of the lens, then your subject will be lit equally on both sides. Without any shadows, there is no depth to the image — no shape to your subject. You don’t need flash to flatten a shot; stand with the sun straight behind you and the same flat light will happen. When it comes to crafting great light with flash, the position of the flash and how you modify the flash is key. So, a bare Speedlite locked in your camera’s hotshoe is a tough way to craft good light.
“Flash looks artificial.”
Once you move beyond the issues with on-camera flash, another huge complaint against the look of flash is that it does not blend with ambient light. The color temperature of flash is about the same as daylight at noon. If you light your subject with flash indoors under tungsten light, the ambient-lit background will appear very orange or your subject will appear very cool. Likewise, if you are using flash to fill shadows at sunset, the fill light will be very cool and unnatural. In both of the situations, the use of a CTO gel on the flash will change the color temperature of the flash so that it blends into the ambient more naturally.
So, while I’m proud to be a flasher, I believe that flash is just another tool in my toolbox. My photos go out into the world without me. What matters to the viewer is the light that was captured within the frame — not how it got there.
Other Articles I’ve Written About Flashing (Particularly Small Flash)
15 Insights For A New Speedliter
It’s Where You Put The One Speedlite You Have That Matters
Deciding How To Start With Off-Camera Speedliting
Consider ZOOM To Be A Speedlite Modifier
Deciding Between E-TTL and Manual
Shadowing and Other Revolutionary Ideas
Twitter Contest: Learn To Flash ByTweeting To Win A Seat
Win a seat at any of my upcoming two-day Speedliter’s Intensives (value $200)
• Seattle, Oct. 2/3
• Boston, Oct. 30/31
• Austin, Nov. 6/7
• San Francisco, Dec 4/5
1. Follow @Syl_Arena on Twitter.
2. Tweet this exactly: Hey @Syl_Arena I want to learn to flash at the Speedliter’s Intensive http://bit.ly/coPPUC. Contest on Tiffinbox.org > http://bit.ly/dsGLsP
3. Contest ends at 1:00pm PDT, Thursday, September 30, 2010.
4. One winner will be selected at random by Tweetaways.com and announced via my Twitter account Thursday afternoon.
5. Multiple Tweets will disqualify you from the contest.
6. The prize is the ticket to the Speedliter’s Intensive. Transportation, lodging, meals, that lens you’ve always wanted, etc. are on your own nickel.
7. You can give the registration code to a friend if you want to attend the Speedliter’s Intensive yourself.
Syl Arena says
About the photos –
1. Some clown standing in front of a camera. Let’s move on.
2. (Above) Five Speedlites fired in HSS turned the harsh mid-day sun into dramatic night light. (Below) The ambient sunlight as the camera wanted to capture it in Av.
3. Two Speedlites outside the window, gelled with a full-cut of CTO, created the effect of a setting sun. During the shoot it was actually raining.
4. (Left) Two Speedlites – one at 9:00 and the other at 3:00 – made this shot. Shot in HSS, with the camera set to underexpose the ambient by 2-stops. (Right) Without the flash, the shot is unusable.
5. The cover shot for ‘Spedliter’s Handbook.’ The shutter at 1/3200” froze the action. A dozen Speedlites firing in HSS created the beautiful, soft light. BTW, most of the Speedlites were borrowed.
6. The difference between on-camera flash (left) and off-camera flash (right) is dramatic. A half-cut of CTO on the off-camera flash warmed the light just a bit.
7. When fill-flash is done well, it does not look like flash at all. At left, the Speedlite was gelled with a full-cut of CTO. At right, the Speedlite was fired bare. When the color of the flash does not blend with the color of the ambient, the light screams “This is flash!”
Mark Couvillion says
If we’ve already registered, are we eligible to win?
Syl Arena says
Sure…if you win I’ll come up with a special golden ticket that automatically refunds you for buying a non-golden ticket seat.
Syl Arena says
Thanks to everyone who entered the Twitter contest. @Qixotic was the winner. Continue to follow me on Twitter. There will be another contest for Boston, Austin, or SF seats in a few weeks.
Love this, and it’s the absolute truth! I’m another flasher! Thanks for the great blog entry!
Good article. You should never limit your creativity! I’m just starting to use flash and I love it and all the possibilities. =o)