Shooting without flash

Back when I first started to photograph social dancing I didn’t own a flash. Well, actually, I did have one, a speed-lite that I bought used from someone, but at that time I didn’t know how to use it. So I just opened my lens to the max, which was f/1.8 at the time, and started shooting. Since then I have figured out how to use the speed-lite and even bought a second one. For that matter, I am now also the happy owner of a pair of Elinchrome ELC pro hd 500 studio lights and a curious assortment of lighting accessories, all purchased second hand, which I hope someday to actually start using. But when it comes to taking photos of social dancing, I still do not use flash.

So why don’t I use flash? Well, there are several advantages to this in my opinion. Being incognito is one of them. Without a flash, and since I maintain a good distance by using a long lens, people don’t tend to notice my camera, as in the photo above. And this allows me to capture candid moments filled with true emotions. True snapshots of the dancers’ improvised performance.

Indeed, I so dislike when dancers do happen to notice me and pose for the shots. These photos I tend to delete without posting. An exception to this is when the dancers acknowledge the camera and make it a part of their momentary performance, as in the photo above and the two below. This I like. It has mood, it has feeling.

Without flash the photos I take can be very dramatic, especially if the room is predominantly lit by spots of various colors. In post processing the colors can be played with, they can be tweaked and harmonized, giving very pleasing results. Since I shoot with fast lenses fully opened I don’t need much light as long as some of the light is hitting the dancers’ faces to give contrast. I try to walk around the room looking for hot spots of light, and I’m learning more and more how to position myself so that the direction of light is interesting. At times I purposely place myself so that the dancers are backlit, as in the photos below.

Some practical advantages of not using flash come to mind. I have less equipment to pack. Running out of battery power is never an issue. Since I have no need to wait for a flash to recharge I can shoot in continuous mode. And perhaps most importantly, I can hold a beer or cocktail in my free hand instead of a light-box.

There are of course many disadvantages of not using flash. I have to hope for adequate lighting in the dance hall, both in terms of quantity and placement. If the lighting is too low or is not hitting the dancers’ faces, then I either follow the videographer around, if there is one, or leave the camera lie and make it a pure dancing evening. Low lighting of course means higher noise levels and loss of sharpness. But for the photographic style I strive to achieve, this is of lesser importance. For example, the photo below was shot at ISO 12800 and only Lightroom’s noise reduction was applied to a minor degree. If anything, the noise contributes to a painterly look.

I do need to retouch every photo individually to some extent. The time I spend on a photo depends mainly on how much I like the photo and how much effort I wish to put into it. If a photo only needs some minor tweaks within Lightroom it might take only 3 minutes or so to finish a photo. When more light and color adjustments are needed, or if I am being more creative and choose to go into Photoshop or another of the editing apps at my disposal, the processing time can easily grow to half an hour or more per photo.

Obviously I am not going to excel as an event photographer since it would be impossible for me to produce large numbers of photos every weekend. I do this for fun, this is my hobby, my creative outlet. I always wanted to be an artist, but I’m too clumsy and impatient to paint or draw. Instead, I take photos, and I try to make them as artistic and aesthetic as I can. For now, choosing to photograph without flash seems to work for me.

Leave a Reply