Birth photography has a bunch of hot button issues, but this question in particular seems to bring up a lot of heated debate in online communities- Should I use flash at a birth?
This is an easy one! If your style leans more towards natural light and you love the look of natural light, then by all means shoot with no flash. If you use on-camera flash to enhance the natural light of the room, great- do that. If you never take a photo without adding/controlling the light, then carry-on. What doesn’t work is using blanket statements like, “Flash disrupts laboring moms, you should never use it,” or “You can’t document births if you don’t use a flash!”
Here are a couple things to keep in mind for each scenario.
Available Light For Birth Photography
Births can be dark, like pitch black, and cameras need light to work. Prepare your client by talking to them beforehand and letting them know what your lighting requirements will be to achieve the look of the photos in your portfolio. Know how high your ISO can be pushed and what the grain will look like. Some people confuse grain with being out of focus, show them examples so they understand what grain looks like. You can make the suggestion of turning up the lights when you want to take a photo and turning them back down again when you are done, but keep in mind this could be disruptive and I find that it makes your presence more noticeable. Be sure to practice in a very dark room (preferably one without windows) and make sure you can create images you would be proud to provide your clients.
The benefits of using available light is that you don’t have to have a flash, the weight of the flash, or batteries for the flash, and the look of your images will more closely match how the birthing room looked. The downside is that you may not have enough available light to capture the whole birth story. Notice I didn’t say natural light. Natural light comes from the sun, available light can come from the sun but also can come from overhead lights, candles, light strands, or hallway lights.
You like consistency and control, I totally get that. Like any tool you use, you have to practice and understand how it works and what effects you can create. Most birth photographers I know will bounce a flash off the ceiling or a wall, but never use a pop-up flash pointed directly at their client. Flash photography at a birth is most noticeable by the other people attending the birth, but I have never had a mom tell me that it bothered her, but there is a first time for everything. I always talk about the option of putting the flash away if the mom requests it. I prefer not to use it if I can avoid it. It is very important that you understand how the direction, and power of your flash effects your images, and be able to change them on the fly. I like when it isn’t always super obvious that a flash was used and I never like the look of a pop-up flash.
The benefits or using a flash (with focus-assist beams) is that you will get consistent looking images in extremely low-light environments. The downsides are the added weight you carry on your camera, having to carry extra batteries, and the possibility that the mom may change her mind during the birth, which may be a problem if you aren’t familiar with shooting in very low light.
Using A Combination of Available Light and Flash At A Birth
This is the method I use most often. If the room has lovely windows and beautiful directional light, I will use that until I can no longer create the image I want. When it gets too dark I then switch over to using flash. I recently had to turn my flash off when the baby was emerging because my focus-assist beam was moving the lights the doctor was using to do her job. Even though she said it was fine, I opted to turn off the flash.
Here is an example of a birth that I started with no flash and then in the switched to flash when the sun went down.
I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer when it comes to deciding to use flash. I like having another tool that helps me do my job and create photos they way I am envisioning them and that reflect what is in my portfolio. Do I wish every birth happened in room with floor to ceiling windows during the golden-hour- of course, but fat chance that is going to happen.
What I would like to see in the birth photography community is that we get past this being such a heated debate. We all do things differently and to belittle or bully someone that does it differently isn’t productive. Figure out what type images you want to make. Start pinning images that you are drawn to, and then figure out what the light source was. If you are unsure you can always ask, then go and practice until you consistently get the result you want.