Flash for Street Shooting

In my previous entry, during my visit to CEX 2012 (camera and electronics expo) yesterday, I did not come home empty handed. Despite all my complains and dissatisfaction raised on the event (poor timing for now having no significant new cameras or lenses), I must say one of the best things about such large expo events would be the bargains, especially at the clearance section. I am a true blue Malaysian, give me a good discounted price, and I will be as happy as a clam. Yes, I did buy two items. 

The first item, being an external flash. 

SUNTAX 20M Manual Flash

Yes, that tiny little flash, and guess how much I paid for it? Most of my friends guessed it to be at least RM100, but it was only selling for RM10 !! According to my friend Kelvin Ng, he would have just bought the flash even if he does not like using it, and use it as a paper-weight !! Seriously, RM10 for a new flash, I do think it was too good to pass. 

Now, about this RM10 flash. It only has two buttons of control on it. One being the on-off button, and two being the test flash button. Thats it, no other controls, no TTL, no Auto, no intensity or power level output control, nothing, it was fixed at one output level, which is the maximum. The output power of the flash, rated Guide Number GN20 (20m distance at ISO100). The flash takes in 4 AA batteries, has very decent recharge rate. The body was built of black plastic, which seemed very sturdy and assuring. The mount on the hot-shoe was plastic, but hard and rigid, with very secure locking mechanism. For a cheap, basic flash, I have no complains with the built quality. I was really, really hoping that the flash has a slave trigger mode, so that it can be fired wirelessly, but no such luck. It can only be triggered when mounted on a camera hot-shoe, but that was fine by me. The interesting thing was, the flash unit comes with warranty card !! Not sure if the warranty is valid but even if the flash breaks down, I would not sweat about it. Again for RM10, what do you expect?

In addition to the above, the flash did come with a sync cable, but while in the rush testing the flash before purchasing the staff forgot to put the cable back into the box when handled to me. I only found out the cable was missing after I have left the expo. I did go back the day after to check if they still had the cable, but it was nowhere to be found. Oh well, not a big deal, but having a sync cable would have created even more interesting opportunities !! Perhaps I should look for compatible cables but lets do that in the future, and play with whatever I have in hand at the moment. 

I know, it was a weird decision to get a flash. All my current cameras, Olympus DSLR E-5, E-520 and PEN E-PL1 have built in standard Pop-Up flash units, which work just fine for most shooting conditions. On top of that, I do own a dedicated external flash Olympus FL-36R, which is capable of more advanced functions such as high-speed sync (Super FP flash) as well as wireless off camera with TTL remote control feature. Surely, having those in my system is more than sufficient for basic flash shooting needs. 

Why would I want to get another flash which was even more basic than what I already have?

All images in this entry were taken with Olympus DSLR E-520 and Zuiko Digital 25mm F2.8 pancake lens. External Flash Suntax 20M was used in all shots. 

Pure Devotion



Stand and Read

Fashion Choices

An Indian Boy

They Come in Large Numbers

Group Photo

I originally wanted to use the new external flash on my PEN E-PL1. After all that is a more suitable combination, since the flash is small and light, more fitting to the smaller PEN body. However, my beloved PEN decided to throw some tantrums, and refused to fire the external flash. Something must be wrong with the hot-shoe mount, because as I tried my FL-36R flash on the E-PL1, it was not triggered as well. Oh well, so much for a small and light combo, I decided to use the flash on my older Olympus E-520 instead. No reason why I did not use it on my larger E-5, just that the flash was too "basic" to be coupled with a "professional" grade camera body. A basic flash setup on a basic entry-level DSLR is more appropriate. 

Now this is the reason why I love being an engineer. Being an engineer means you have the technical background and ability to understand how things work, and subsequently, make things work. Although I have not shot a flash in full manual mode before, since the TTL setting control on the FL-36R was already so reliable all the time, it did not take me long to learn and figure out how to use and control the camera and work the new external flash. The problem with this new flash is that it does not have any power intensity output control at all, and the flash being fired at a constant maximum power every single time. Giving this to a non-technical inclined individual, surely it would seem like an impossible task because of all the manual controls on the camera that have to be dealt with, and the necessity to solve so many equations with so many variable. Ah, mathematics, another love for engineers. We love numbers, we love experimentation, doing trials and errors, and ultimately forcing them to work and bend to our will. While most people would find the manual flash to be cumbersome and unnecessarily pointless, I found it challenging and exciting at the same time. The part to try and make it work was thrilling enough to drive and motivate me to shoot with it on the street. 

Lets break things down to the main controls and variables of the camera, to simplify things. Since the flash output cannot be controlled, there are only a few things to be tweaked, namely ISO, Shutter Speed and Aperture. 

1) ISO
In flash photography, the ISO setting is very crucial. Starting from the basic ISO100, which was used to rate the flash power at the Guide Number of 20m, and as the ISO setting being raised to 200 or 400, the reach and intensity of the flash will increase. Since I was shooting under broad daylight, I was sticking to ISO100 most of the time, and sometimes ISO200 when I was shooting indoors or under shade. Working within the range of ISO100-200 was adequate for most of the flash coverage in this session, hence one variable eliminated. 

2) Shutter Speed
The fastest sync speed with the camera was at shutter speed 1/180sec, and setting the shutter speed anything faster than 1/180sec, the camera wont be able to capture a full frame of image (part of the frame would be darkened). This has been verified with my own testing, hence I can never break the limit of 1/180sec. Most of the time I was shooting at 1/125sec or faster. In certain special circumstances, I do slow down the shutter speed deliberately. For example, when I intended to induce motion blur in my image, or do some panning background, I will need to slow down the shutter speed to at least 1/30 sec or lower for that intended blur effect. Also, when I was shooting indoors or under shade, and I wanted to gather more ambient light, I slowed down the shutter speed as necessary to boost the available light in the photograph. When I was shooting under bright sun, I would not worry too much and just go to maximum sync speed of 1/180sec. 

3) Aperture
Since ISO has been set to just 100 or 200, and shutter speed set to the sync limit (with exception for intended motion blur or low light shooting), the only thing that can affect the flash output, and the one manual setting to directly control the flash output level was Aperture opening. Smaller aperture opening (larger F-number) means having less flash power, while opening the aperture wider (small F-number) will increase the flash intensity. This was fairly straightforward when you think of it, if your subject was very near to you, stop down the aperture to F/8 or F/10 so the flash power is toned down. If your subject was further away, open up the aperture wider (F5.6 or F4) so that the flash will have more reach and intensity. How far and how you correlate the F-number to correspond to the distance from your camera to the subject, comes from your sense of judgment on the field. I did some quick trials, and from the brief experimentation I managed to have some workable estimation to produce decent results. 

Why use this external flash? Why not just use the pop-up flash?

Indeed, my E-520 already has a pop up flash. But that pop up flash is limited to Guide Number 12. Hence the external flash is actually twice as powerful, and has much faster refresh rate for quick shooting. Also, having the flash source being lifted further away from the camera will minimize red-eye effect, and also spread the light better. 

Why go through the trouble of using Manual Setting?

The built in pop up flash has TTL control that is so easy to use, and almost fool-proof. All you have to do is set it to TTL-Auto and the flash power will adjust itself to best suit your shooting needs, minus all the trouble considering all the other camera parameters and uncertainties. But what is the fun if everything is automatic all the time? When you take away all the convenience, and forcing yourself to really go into controlling everything in manual, now that is when the real challenge comes in. Whether you have truly mastered your understanding of the exposure basics, and how to control them to produce the results you seek, will be put to test. It is a great chance to learn, or re-learn the photography basics, and from there onward, improve even further. Before we move on into something more advanced, there are times we have to take a step backward and rediscover the foundations. Only through strong enough fundamentals in photography exposure that we can push ourselves beyond the boundaries of what we hoped to surpass. 

In strong arms

In full concentration

What is in that plastic bag?

Prepared for the ceremony

Innocent smile

Friendly strangers

Different directions

Peace on busy street

Washing hands

This entry may come as a surprise to many, because all this time, I have never, ever, even once, shot on the street using flash. I was never against using flash on the street, but it was a preference I have made to engage the ambient, natural available light for my street photography. I believe in capturing my subjects on the street as they were seen, as closely as they could be to real life, without interference of artificial elements, such as intrusive lighting. 

Staying stagnant is a dangerous thing. I have become very complacent, and staying in a very comfortable place doing my street shooting week after week. Many of my technical execution have become very redundant and repetitive. I have no issues doing the same thing over and over again because I strongly believe that if you truly have the passion and love doing what you do, you won't get tired of it easily, and will keep doing the same thing for a long period of time. At the same time, I also strongly believe that in order to grow and improve, we must have open minds, and not restrict ourselves to certain limitations. Having the courage to experiment, explore and try new things, or incorporate something else into what we always do will keep the perspectives fresh, and interesting at the same time. We may have our own set of what works and what does not, and what we like to do, but challenging that, and doing something completely the opposite will prove to be a personal contradiction, and such contradictions will be necessary to promote maturity in whatever we do. How can you say that flash is not suitable for street photography, if you have not tried it yourself? That was the question I asked myself. I have not shot the street with flash before, and I wanted to experience that first hand, and see for myself how the results would turn out to be. 

So what do I think of flash for street photography?

Honestly, it was totally different from everything that I have practiced, and believed in. The outcome was the opposite of what I wanted to achieve. The lighting on the portraits was not what I have come to often expect from my usual shooting sessions. I have to set the aperture differently from usual, when I go closer to my subjects,  to tone down the flash power, I need to stop down the aperture, in opposition to shooting with natural light when I just have the aperture opened wide for shallower depth of field. The overall feel and outcome of photographs were very unusual and uneven. There was a feeling of grittiness due to the heavy contrast that the flash introduced to the photograph. The highlight burns and strong shadows on the faces of portraits added that "heavy" look which most street photographers seek. It does not matter if the skin was oily or full of wrinkles or pimples, as long as all those imperfections were captured, and more importantly, amplified by the flash over them, the outcome was more desirable. 

The one thing I like about flash on street photography, was how the overall flash power intensified the subject's facial expression. Somehow, the added uneven lighting, with serious highlight and shadow clipping did enhance the look on the face. Whether it was a "shocked" expression, or a generous smile, or an angry "WTF" look, everything was somehow more serious and looked more appealing when flash was added. Perhaps using just the natural light was too soft and even, that you do not see the formations of wrinkles on the face as they smile. Perhaps the deep shadows thrown from the flash in the background made the subject being "outlined", thus having a cut-out quality from the image. In many street photographs, the subject's expression is very important, and when the flash being used can enhance the emotion that the images projected, surely it will work advantageously, if the photographer cared to execute the flash in appropriate manners. 

Surely, it takes a lot more experimentation for me to figure out what works best in my shooting. No, flash photography is not my main choice of technical execution when I shoot on the streets. I still prefer to do what I usually do, no doubt, but as I have mentioned, it is important to keep an open mind and explore varying possibilities. Having variety in creative tools, as well as knowing how, and when to utilize those tools would prove to add more impact and drama to photographs, particular street photography that rely a lot on photographers standing out from the many others. I see a lot of opportunities to use the flash to improve some of my shooting needs. Lets shoot more, and we shall find out more. 

Oh, I did say I bought TWO things from the CEX right? So what was the second item?

A camera bag of course !! And this no-brand camera bag was also RM10, at another clearance section. How I love bargains. 

Do any of you shoot on the street using flash? Do share your thoughts and how the flash works for you, and how it improved your photographs. Also, tell us why do you use flash in the first place !! I would love to hear from you. Personally, I would put the flash away, unless I wanted that certain particular outcome, being very high in contrast and gritty, or to intensify facial expression or convey certain stronger emotion. 


  1. Is that an old vntage flash? You might want to be careful as the extra voltage can fry a modern cameras circuits... google it.
    You can get a safe sync hotshoe adaptor to make it safe - I have one on order.

    1. Matthew,
      No it is a new modern flash, manufactured by a Singaporean company. It works fine, no worries. I am very, very sure.

    2. Matthew, their website is www.suntax.com.sg
      but I think this flash I bought has been discontinued.

  2. Hmmm if I saw it right, then on the back of the flash in the ISO 100 column it says "16", not "20" - so its GN would be more like 16?

    However: good results. And no, I don't use flash on/in the streets - tho today I should have for a shot of a couple whom I placed in the shadow of a tree. I just never think of it as long as I don't have my umbrella and radio remotes and flash stand and such. But having an on-axis flash can sometimes help indeed. As I said, today I should have used it.

    Oh, and that 25mm on "my" E-520 surely looks so sweet! :-)

    1. Wolfgang,
      I am not sure how you come up with the number, but from the table it reads, if your subject's distance is 0.7m/2.4ft away, and if you are shooting at ISO100, the corresponding aperture value should be F22. I sure hope that was how the table was read !

  3. Surprisingly, all photo came out good. You don't have to pay more for a good thing. Too bad, the flash sold out in day 1...

    1. Hey Kelvin,
      I also thought i would have more failures and inconsistencies but somehow they turned out better than expected! More luck I guess!! Good and cheap stuff don't last!

  4. Great post. "I also strongly believe that in order to grow and improve, we must have open minds, and not restrict ourselves to certain limitations." Wonderful way of thinking about it!

    I have never used a flash for street photography. I have always been afraid of negative reactions. Did you experience anything like that?

    1. hey dwaine,
      thanks for agreeing!
      Yes I did get one very negative reaction from an old lady which I shot from more than 10meters away!! What irony, those I shot at close range had no issues with me. nonetheless you gotta be bold and have open mind, being positive and smile pleasantly. people will see us as less of a threat when we show positive attitude first.

    2. Ironic, indeed! OK, You have convinced me to give it a try.

      Here's a quote I was trying to find earlier, but I wanted to wait until I could give proper attribution: "Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out." --James Bryant Conant

    3. Great quote indeed !! Thanks for sharing. We should not hide in our shells forever !

  5. Hi Robin, it goods to hear your positive feedback regarding suntax flash. A friend of mine also brought that kind of flash and was very satisfied with the result. Although its pure manual but the thing is..it rocks - it delivers quality light for its intended distance and....its makes you think before you take the shutter, such happy experience way back the good ol' film days....and now...for digital...kind of going back in history and relearn...

    Thanks again...

    BTW, I'm Jing from the Philippines, and i've reading your blog since your revue of E5 and happy again for the OMD which i'm planning to buy...for the right time

    1. Thanks Jing for staying with me since more than a year ago !! It is great to know I have readers from Phillipines too, it is a beautiful country I must visit one day, after I have saved enough cash of course.