The Phoblographer’s Quick Introduction to Direct Flash

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Leica S2 Shoot at the loft (2 of 3)ISO 80

While for years and years, many classic portraitists have preached the word of never using direct flash and instead to make the light as soft as you possibly can, direct flash has always been a very highly valued look amongst the fashion world. Most recently, it has been stylized and glorified by photographer Terry Richardson–who has had many photographers sort of rip off of his look. And while the method is highly prized, it is also tough to pull off.

How is that possible when all you’re doing is pointing a flash or strobe directly at someone and firing? Well, it’s all about the content of the image and the feel of it. And more than anything, that is emphasized by the use of direct flash.

Editor’s Note: You can also check out our guide to introductory lighting modifiers, ring flashes, umbrellas, and softboxes.


What is Direct Flash

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Fujifilm X100s with Diana flash (1 of 1)ISO 2001-1000 sec at f - 8.0

Quite literally, direct flash usage is the style of taking your light source (whether it be an on-camera flash or a strobe) and placing it right in front of your subject and ideally right next to the lens/camera. The result is a very harsh light that honestly, many folks in the photo community is purely ugly. However, it’s also incredibly popular with mainstream fashion photographers and editors.

In fact, this style is so popular that it is now being adapted to video usage–but instead with continuous lighting. Want an example? Check out the lighting in Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines.

Everything out of it looks like it might have been directed by Terry Richardson himself.

Who Should Use Direct Flash

Direct Flash is a method that could probably be said to be the hardest to master. Sure, you’re using a flash and don’t need any lighting modifiers or any knowledge of ratios or any of that stuff. But what makes direct flash so useful is the extra edge that it gives a photo when a crazy or awesome scene is created.

Most users of direct flash create an interesting composition often involving either total craziness, extreme sex-appeal or something brilliantly simple that none of us would otherwise think of. And for that reason, many people scorn it–because it forces you to get back to basics and throw away a need for extremely complicated gear and lighting setups.

In fact, you could call it a slap in the face to traditional lighting knowledge. The more savvy amongst photographers embrace it though.

How Do You Use Direct Flash

Ready for something that will totally blow your mind? Okay; there are two accepted ways to using direct flash:

– Point your hot-shoe flash at a subject when the flash is in the hot shoe, and shoot.

– Place an off-camera light right next to your lens and shoot your subject directly onward.

And that’s it.

But remember, it’s all about your vision first with this one.

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