That is the question…And the answer will vary widely!
Some things to think about when contemplating the use of flash at births:
You can’t count on being able to use the flash! Low light is very common at births, particularly in home births and birth centers. Flash does help tremendously with that low light, but care providers may nix it as a safety issue, or mom might be bothered by the flash and ask you to not use it. Of course, it’s also possible it won’t be an issue at all.
You can’t count on being able to use ambient light! I carry (and know how to use) an external flash. I strongly recommend a flash that can swivel around and bounce, so that you can create softer, more flattering light that has direction to it. And then actually swivel it around and bounce it when you shoot.
If you’re not using flash, don’t be afraid to up the ISO. If you can’t use flash, remember that a grainy photo is still much better than a blurry photo!
Flash won’t make up for poor lens or camera. ESPECIALLY not the pop-up flash! The pop up flash will result in harsh shadows, blown out spots on the skin, and very snapshotty looking photos. On the right is an example from my very first birth, before I learned not to use the pop-up. A flash will help if you have a slow lens that can’t open very wide, but it won’t be able to fix the depth of field issues, and if your shutter speed is really slow, you may still get some blur around light sources (like any computers or blinking lights in the frame).
I personally prefer not to use the flash whenever possible, as I like to preserve the dark mood of the birth room when it is dark. Here’s an example of a photo where the dim, quiet mood of the room is reflected in the photo.
Had I used a flash here, the silhouette effect would have been gone, and the water would have been frozen and not as silky. I like the darkness and flowy look of the water, and I hope that the photos look just like mom remembers. To take this photo, I needed to use my lens that has the widest aperture in my bag – the 50 1.4 – and I opened it as wide as possible. I maxed out the ISO on my D700, and I shot this down on one knee, using my body as a tripod. It only worked because the parents were staying in pretty much the same positions. Had mom been moving, or dad swinging his arm back and forth, this would not have been possible.
Since there is such a wide variation in opinions about flash use at births, I’ve asked a few other professional photographers to chime in on the topic:
Natasha Hance, of NHance Photography created this comparison image showing the difference between using the flash and not using the flash under the same conditions. She says
“it’s really not a debate on which way is right or wrong. That’s why it’s wonderful there are photographers who do both really well because there are CLIENTS who prefer one way or the other and this way they can choose the photographer who will fit their birth and document it best for them. *I prefer the flash look most of the time when it’s done well and specifically hired a birth photographer for my own births that shot with flash. This is just demonstrating the difference, not a right or wrong way. It’s okay to prefer one or the other, but not one is “right”, just different.”
Another experienced birth photographer, Emily Weaver Brown, says
“I use a lot of flash – I live in Seattle and most photograph home/birth center births. So it’s usually very dark. Mostly the laboring mother does not even notice or comment on it. What is noticed is the modeling light / focus assist light.”
Robin Baker, of Birth Blessings Photography in San Diego, uses both ambient light and flash, depending on the situation:
“I love natural light photography. I dont always have very much available light at births however. I use my flash at births when I feel it will enhance the image, mostly at home births ocurring at night. I dont find it necessary to use flash at hospital births because there is usually enough available light. I like to remain flexible but prepared, so I never leave home without my speedlite. I always ask the laboring mama if it bothers her and most don’t even notice it! I use my flash in an indirect way that causes it to “bounce” off a wall or the ceiling and fall softly on my subjects. I find it a great option in birth because you dont control the setting (aka: light) in photojournalism.”
And finally, Morag Hastings is another birth photographer/doula who is from Vancouver, British Columbia:
I always mention it at our prenatal visit, I give my clients a choice and they always choose to try the flash. They never mind during labour because I compose before I shoot, I am not just firing it off all the time. I even use it in the hospital because I am a doula I always make the room dark so there is never enough light to shoot. If there is enough light, I do shoot with natural light. I also like that I can get my high shutter and a higher f/stop and a way lower ISO. I get referrals all the time from midwives and doctors they love my work. The clients I get are wanting images like what they see in my portfolio. My work is mostly done with a bounce flash so they don’t mind if I need to use my tools to get the look they are hoping for.
So the answer to the question “To Flash or Not to Flash?” is really entirely up to you — and your clients!