Two famous street photographers, Charlie Kirk and Bruce Gilden, are frequently accused of their aggressive style of picture making.

With a wide angle prime they throw themselves into their subject, thrusting lens and off-camera flash in a seemingly intimidating way. This is an all-out ballsy, aggressive and confrontational style of photography, it seems.

Gilden is less apologetic about his style, claiming his gritty, urban pictures are a reflection of the Brooklyn tough-kid in him. Kirk, meanwhile, has claimed it’s a great way of engaging with your subjects. But how can this be if you’ve just scared the living daylights out of them?





“This is an all-out ballsy, aggressive and confrontational style of photography.”

 – Jamie Furlong



I’d been meaning to give this style of photography a go since I bought my petite OM-D this summer. Getting a bit bored with the usual Indian travel shots I’ve been looking for ways to push myself in a new direction (new for me at least).

I figured, why not combine my knowledge and love of India, and apply this style of photography to it? I might just come out with some interesting results and, more importantly, I’ll find out for myself whether Kirk or the naysayers are right. First, the nerdy stuff.




The Set-Up

Dirty Harry, a photographer from Crete who’s up there with the best of them, wrote an article on Eric Kim’s blog about using a flash for street. A couple of things interested me. The first was his insistence on going manual. As a photographer who swears by the Av setting (aperture priority), this bothered me a little. The other thing he mentions is using a cable vs remote. With a cable you benefit from TTL (through the lens) luxury, so the camera tells the flash how powerful to flash. With a remote, or with a cheap one at least, the flash and the camera work independently other than the camera telling the flash when to trigger.

I have a cheap wireless remote so I opted for this second approach. I also switched my camera to BULB (manual), so the shutter stays open for as long as I hold the button down. I opted for slow-syncing, or second curtain flash, which means the flash goes off not at the beginning of the exposure but at the end. This meant that the shutter could be open for up to a second, and since I went out when it was still light I shut down the aperture to f/22. I whacked up the strength of the flash to +5.

Of all the prime lenses I own, I chose the smallest in size. It’s a cheap Panasonic 14mm, which is a 28mm equivalent on the micro four-thirds Olympus OM-D. I almost sold it the moment I bought the Olympus 12mm (24mm equivalent) since the IQ of this lens is far superior. I’m glad I didn’t because this evening this lens proved its worth. Light, small, unobstrusive, and sharp enough to get results.

I zone-focused, though there was no method in my calculation other than to know that subjects between 0.5 to 2m appeared to be in focus. This was aided by the small aperture, of course.





Results and Lessons Learnt

Although much of this was trial and error, I’d managed to guess the settings pretty much straight away (thank you Dirty Harry). The problem, however, was framing.

Shoving a camera randomly at a passer-by isn’t going to get a decent picture. There still has to be some consideration to framing, subject and background context and I wasn’t always getting the results I wanted. It’s near Christmas and there are lights everywhere. I realised that by moving the camera all the way down, or all the way across, I was getting annoying streams of light in the way of my subjects, which kinda frustrated me a bit.

As I mentioned the lights were a distraction and it wasn’t until the end of my session that I was learning how to control this. Since the flash was going off at the end of the exposure I also had to think about framing at that point, and not when I pressed the shutter. That also took me half an hour to figure out!

Some of my images are just normal flash shots at night, there’s nothing particularly mysterious or enchanting about them, which is what I was really after but, like I said, this is trial and error and the images here are of one hour last night and 20 minutes today.



Post Production

I spent about 30 seconds on each exposure in Lightroom, converting it to black and white. Using a flash in the dark doesn’t leave a lot to play around with in post production save for increasing or decreasing contrasts. None of the images have been cropped except one, which I cut from landscape to portrait.





The naysayers are wrong. Not only was this an enjoyable, thrilling style of photography, it made a lot of people smile. If you’re uncomfortable with street photography anyway, then you’re gonna hate this style of photography.

If you like taking pictures of people, then this is a lot of fun.People smiled after the fact. They’re confused for a moment because a random flash has just gone off, and this is the expression you’re catching, but as soon as they realise “it’s just a camera”, they smile or nod. If they don’t, I always say “alright?”, which invariably leads to a smile of approval. Only one man objected, and I knew he would anyway. He was queueing up outside the liquor store (drinking, though legal, is frowned upon here in Kerala). However I made a joke about him being on the front page of all the newspapers in India and within 10 seconds we were laughing and joking. He even invited me to jump the long queue to get a bottle of wine!





As a fat, grey-haired tourist with a whacking great big dslr, Indians saw me coming a mile away. This is one reason why I downsized to the Olympus OM-D, which is about the size as a small rangefinder. Now that I’m in the dark, they can only see a fat bloke. They don’t see the camera and they don’t see the flash in my other hand, so a lot of time they don’t see me coming. End result? They’re not smiling or posing. Good.

I love it. I love this style of photography, and I’m loving the rawer results I’m getting compared to my usual travel stuff. It’s not a new technique, people have been doing it for years, but for me this is a breath of fresh air. I’ve always loved the interaction with my subjects if and when it happens, and this is no different. I’ve a lot to learn still, but I’m gonna love learning this technique.





In short, this off-camera flash technique has given me a new burst of enthusiasm, it’s made me more confident about using a flash, and it’s producing some results that are new to my line of photography.





Do you do this style of photography? Can you give me or anyone else further tips? I’m loving my results from my first attempt (one hour last night and 20 minutes this lunchtime) but I’m always looking to push myself, so any comments would be appreciated.




Dirty Harry’s Guide on Eric Kim’s Blog

Dirty Harry’s Pictures on flickr:

Bruce Gilden’s Website:

Charlie Kirk’s profile on flickr:

Burn My Eye Collective: