Is “flash” a skill we will lose?

I can’t help but wonder whether the inexorable (and very welcome) improvements in digital ISO performance (not only in DSLRs) will mean that we will lose something in terms of our collective abilities in terms of “light painting”.

I have this nagging feeling that I am missing out on opportunities and creativity these days when my immediate reaction to challenging light conditions is to ramp up the ISO.

Of course, there are lots of good reasons to do this – if I’m shooting a gig in low light, then the last thing the performers want is some idiot blasting out an eyeful of “speed light” every few seconds.  Obviously, no half competent and reasonable photographer would do that, so you have to resign yourself to the fact that there might only be a narrow window of opportunity to take shots, or that you would have to massively compromise on quality in terms of sharpness or noise or both.

So, more and more, I will leave the flash in the bag and use an ISO that, just two or three years ago would have been out of the question.  The photograph below was taken at a wedding in 2011.  My trusty Nikon D300 was ok to ISO levels of about 800 at best before I felt that the image quality was too compromised.  This meant that I had to set up multiple off-camera flash units and then balance the ambient lighting and flash levels.  My Nikon allowed me to do that through its on-camera menu system.

Flash_REF8748I was really happy with the result – nice detail in the dress, some sense of the coloured ambient lights from the “disco” desk and the action “frozen” despite the 1/5th second exposure at ISO 200.  It felt very “creative” at the time, and I felt that I had achieved something that required significant expertise.  Of course, 99.9% of people looking at the photograph will have had no idea of what was needed in order to make it happen – they just see the result.

With my D800, of course, I can happily achieve an acceptable result with no flash and using an ISO of 3200. But it would be missing the shadows in the dress and on the bride, that I had created by the positioning and the balancing of the flash units.

The other day I ordered a Nikon D5500 – as a back-up camera and to have a half-decent video capability so I can record some how-to photo blogs with the D800.  I’m told that this laughs in the face of ISO 3200 and will give 24MP of perfectly acceptable results at ISO 12,800.  That would mean being able to take the above shot at about 1/300th of a second – more than fast enough to freeze the motion and not have to use flash at all.


I think this picture of a flat that I was letting out works well because the use of off-camera flash brings another dimension to an image that would otherwise have been very flat.  I placed one flash unit just out of sight so that it would highlight the fire place on the right.  It gave the image a sense of depth that the natural light (from behind me) would not have done.

I love having the option for using a high ISO, and the freedom it brings, but I shall continue to get my SB800 and SB900 speed-lights out of the bag from time to time to ensure that I can explore the creative solutions that they can offer.

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