Flash Or Available Light?
One of the most important books in my collection is The Minds Eye by Henri Cartier-Bresson. I would encourage anyone who shoots candid photographs to read the book. It gives tremendous insight into the great man's thought processes.
On page 28, Bresson talks about shooting a picture story, it could be a wedding, and how to approach taking photographs and not drawing attention. Towards the end of the first paragraph he says this;
“And no photographs taken with the aid of flash-light either, if only out of respect of the actual light – even when there isn’t any of it. Unless a photographer observes conditions as these, he may become an intolerably aggressive character.”
I started shooting off-camera flash at weddings with bare-bulb converted Vivitar flashguns in the mid-1990s. I have shot portraits with flash since the day I opened a studio in the early 90s. I understand flash, I know how to use it, but I have built my career on shooting with available light. When I talk about available light, I'm referring to any source of illumination that exists in a given environment. It can be daylight, candles, fluorescent tubes, table lamps, car headlights, spotlights, anything at all. As long as the photographer doesn't add light (with flash for example), it is available light.
getting a flashgun out is the equivalent of turning up in a yellow high-vis vest with PHOTOGRAPHER emblazoned on the back
Like Bresson, I've always believed flash to be one of the most intrusive aspects of candid photography, especially at weddings. Flash draws attention to the photographer. For me, getting a flashgun out is the equivalent of turning up in a yellow high-vis vest with PHOTOGRAPHER emblazoned on the back. My work is about capturing moments in real-time, to do that I have to make sure I don't draw attention to myself. I also like my work to be authentic and that means being respectful to the light, no matter how good or bad it is.
To shoot consistently with available light takes a lot of skill and experience. There has to be an understanding of light quality and direction, and how to position yourself to use it effectively. For me, available light and black-and-white photography are natural bedfellows. They work so well together. I would go as far as to say, that flash is better suited to colour work.
What flash brings, is ease of use and consistency. It isn't surprising to see many wedding and news photographers using flash. Advancements in technology have allowed flash to be used easily and creatively, with some photographers pushing the boundaries of what is possible with a flashgun. On the downside, ease of use has brought a lack of originality. It's easy to copy the technique, lighting patterns, and stylistic cues of others. Particularly within weddings, most flash-lit photography is repetitive, indifferent, and cliched. Off-camera-flash-picture-of-the-couple-against-a-dark-sky anyone? It's a shame to see because flash should be one of the most creative tools out there. In my opinion, Brent Stirton is one of the most important photojournalists of the 21st Century. His images are the result of god-given talent and years of experience. You can tell one of Brent's photographs without looking at the caption. He has a style which is uniquely his and flash is a part of that style.
finding great light is more satisfying that creating it
So, which is better?
I would rather see a photographer find their own voice than blindly pitch their tent in one camp or the other. Lots of photographers use both available light and flash. If flash allows you to interpret the world as you see it, then embrace it, work with it and create something extraordinary. No more backlit-flash-portraits-in-the-rain-under-an-umbrella pictures though. Please!! The same applies to available light. Learn to use it properly, understand the difference between quality and quantity of light, and add some authenticity to the photographs.Try both and see what works for your vision of the world. You may surprise yourself.
For me, I will always be an available light photographer. I like the challenge of working unobtrusively in different situations and finding something out of nothing. My eye is drawn to light, it is what gets me excited visually, and finding great light is more satisfying that creating it.