I attended the Glenside Street Fair yesterday. It's one of the annual neighborhood fairs common in the Philadelphia area, where people gather to have a good time and photographers lurk about, searching for easy prey. The day was cool and overcast, which kept the temperature comfortable and kept the contrast ratios under control; too much control, in fact. When I began to notice that the lighting in my photos was flat and lacked a certain "zip," an idea popped into my head: Why not use the pop-up flash? So I did. The photo above is one of the better examples of the results. The flash adds much-needed definition to the lighting and helps separate the subject from the background. There was no help for the drool though.
Now I know that to some of you the idea of taking pictures of strangers in public places with an electronic flash on your camera is anathema. It seems overly bold, even aggressive. Depending on where you are and how you do it, it definitely can be perceived that way.
In my case I was using a small camera and lens (Pentax K-5 with 21mm f/3.2 DA) and looked like just another dad at the fair, out snapping pictures. I wasn't even the only one using flash. The overcast was so heavy at times that the pocket digicams and cameraphones were automatically triggering their built-in flashes to add much-needed illumination. In short, it was no problem.
The trick to doing this, should you be interested, is as follows:
1. Use a moderate wide-angle lens and get in close to your subject. This is particularly important when you're using a small flash with a limited range.
2. Keep the ISO low enough that your shutter speed is within flash sync range.
3. Use flash exposure compensation to dial-down the intensity by 1 - 1.5 stops, otherwise your outdoors flash exposures will look overlit and artificial.
4. Keep your rig as small and inconspicuous as possible. A large DSLR with a fat zoom and a hefty accessory flash unit would make anyone nervous about your intentions, including other photographers.
5. Strike up a conversation with someone before you ask to take their picture. For most people, electronic flash is a normal part of snapshooting and they will think nothing of it.
6. If you prefer a more candid approach, you may be comforted to know that flash used outdoors during daylight is not as noticeable as you might think. Just be careful not to startle anyone. Most people don't mind or barely notice street photographers. What they do mind is someone nearby triggering a flash in their eyes without warning.
As always, I invite anyone who's had any success with this technique to contribute their insights. I can't be the only one who's had this flash of inspiration.