Dear Leica Photographers... have you considered using a flash?
Henri Cartier Bresson believed it was insulting to the natural light to disturb it with artificial lighting - which is why he never used a flash. Because of that, many Leica photographers accept it as gospel to follow his example. It would be heretic. Personally, I believe that position is shortsighted, albeit convenient. But then again, it's not as if I use a flash on a regular basis. Besides, what's the point of ever using one? With high ISO technology as advance as it is, a person can shoot in relative darkness without ever needing a portable light source to make documentation possible.
Still, a reliance on high ISO seems rather limiting, in terms of exploring your scope of possibilities.
When it comes to incorporating fill flash in the documentation process, I must confess the extent of my expertise is recreational at best. But that is expected, since I never had a hands-on need to hone my skills. Even when I was doing photographic work for professional reasons, I was never the one tasked with setting up the lighting. I never had to endure such hardship, since I always had an assistant who dealt with the tedious chore of getting the light and subsequent exposure correct.
In retrospect, I should have been more proactive at the time, when I had a material reason to include secondary lighting in my image taking process. But, I suppose I never thought I needed more familiarization, because... well... what's the point? I mean, flash photography is just so tedious. And I'm never going to do it outside the studio, because it's one more item to bring, one more set of batteries to remember, and one more set of variables to complicate the entire image taking process. The whole process is such a pain. I'm sure many of you feel the same way - assuming you've experienced it already.
Clearly, I am no expert, with regards to my fill flash ability. But for the sake of this post, that might strangely make me better suited to demonstrate why flash photography isn't prohibitively challenging in recreational use. Given my skill sets without the helping hands of my former assistants, there will definitely be no chance of any over exuberance on my part to complicate this blog post. So don't worry, I won't be expanding your horizons with potentially intimidating practices like using colored gels, high speed syncing, or multiple flashes - at least not at the present.
Much of what we assume about the difficult reputation of using a flash is a holdover from film photography. Admittedly, it was tricky back then. Not that it was impossible. But there was always a certain amount of blind trust involved towards one's ability to meter correctly - whether by experience or from repeated light readings. And on those occasion when absolute certainty was necessary beyond a doubt, we depended on polaroid backs (albeit limited to medium format cameras) for instant visual verification of the exposure.
Of course the process hasn't changed all the much with digital photography. Professionals still rely on their experience and double check with repeated light readings. But unlike film, we no longer need to rely solely on trust or a polaroid back. Nowadays, instant visual verification is just a play button away. All one needs to do is double check the exposure of a sample image capture on review, either on the rear LCD screen of the camera or on a computer screen (if the camera is tethered properly).
Realizing how digital cameras can potentially make flash photography much less challenging, I wonder why more Leica enthusiasts will not consider it. I mean why not? I'm curious myself. But, I suppose it's not difficult to understand. Like most natural light photographer, it's not as if I'm particularly eager to expose how rusty I am with a flash - especially outside the safe confines of a controlled environment. So for this reason, I decided to familiarize myself behind closed doors, with Anna and Judit holed up inside my office on a Saturday afternoon.
Yes, Anna was finally back from her extended trip.
For this demonstration, I limited my gear to just the Leica M10 and the Leica SF24D (which is a simple flash). It's not as if I were in a position to complicate my demonstration with more gear. So for the first image set, I didn't do anything overreaching beyond your typical vanilla composition of two people seated normally. And as you might expect, the first couple of image captures (not shared on this post) were all overexposed - which is why it made no sense to be overreaching in composition.
I suppose I could have spared myself some needless heartache in exposure, if I didn't misplace the user manual for the SF24D. Because of that, I was forced to undergo a process of trial and error. Fortunately, figuring out how to use the SF24D isn't exactly rocket science. You can set it to TTL, Auto, or Manual - which is what I did, for the sake of this post. With regards to what one can manipulate on a flash, you can either increase or decrease the ISO, aperture, and exposure compensation settings. All this may sound very intimidating, but it really isn't.
All a simple flash is really designed to do is deliver additional lighting at different levels of intensity. So essentially, the exposure compensation, aperture, and ISO settings are all designed to do more or less the same application of delivering different intensity of light. Where they differ may derive from how that delivery of light is synchronized to the camera - I'm guessing. But to be frank, I really don't see how this differentiation can be significantly material in practice. At least this is my opinion, at this stage of introduction.
It's either you set the flash to fire with more intensity or less.
In determining the intensity of light, there are two main variables to consider. The first is the distance of the subject from the flash. The further away the subject is, the more intensity is required for the light to reach the subject for the desired exposure. The second is the desired exposure you want. Depending on your objective, either you require full intensity from the flash to light up the entire image, or just a fraction of it to bring out some details from the shadows.
Admittedly, this is a very simplistic approach to introducing flash photography to Leica photographers. It's nothing new to seasoned professionals armed with DSLRs. But, simple is good, if you're just starting out. I mean, just look at me. After one lazy afternoon spent fooling around with a flash, I’ve gained enough comfort to get some reasonably decent results. And believe me, there is no better feeling than improving on something you enjoy. If nothing else, its the incentive which makes you want to experiment further in unexplored possibilities.
Anyway, do yourself a favor if you haven't already done so. Get yourself a flash, and practice with it on your digital Leica rangefinder. It's not as prohibitively challenging as you might first assume. And once you figure it out, it's just one more option you have at your disposal under poor or irregular light conditions.
All images photographed on a Leica M10 with a Leica SF24D flash. Lens used on this blog post were the Leica APO 50mm f/2 Summicron ASPH and the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH FLE. All images were shot at f/5.6 and ISO 400. All images have been optimized in Lightroom. Images which were cropped have been stated on the image captions.
By the way, Judit's been on so many post for the month of January. It's like she's a part of the blog already.