Event Etiquette: Leave Your Flash At Home

It’s been a crazy month for me, shoots almost every weekend and post processing during the week has kept me from posting as much as I’d like. But busy is good, I’m not complaining. I’ve got plenty of material half done for upcoming posts, but I felt I had to sneak in this short one in the meantime.

I’ve said this before, but I feel like it needs it’s own post to really drive the point home; when in doubt, leave your flash at home. As little as 5-10 years ago it would have been unthinkable for people to start popping away with their flash at many venues, but it seems that the more proliferate digital cameras get, the more people feel they need to use them anywhere and everywhere.

I was shooting the Orleans Festival last weekend and no surprise, almost everyone attending had a camera around their neck. Good, great… amazing even! I’d love to see everyone with a camera, the more the merrier, but what really blew my mind was the complete lack of respect I was seeing in the use of those cameras.

Please people, use your head. Just because a performance in an indoor, blacked out theater doesn’t have a sign specifically forbidding flash photography, think about what you’re inflicting on the performers and other patrons. I was shooting the above show, an amazing group of drummers and dancers, and there where dozens of people flashing away the entire show; including one young lady sitting right beside me, popping her flash literally every 20 seconds or so for the entire half hour performance.

First off, it’s just plain disrespectful to the performers. This wasn’t a rock concert where the people on stage are used to crazy light shows and strobes; this was the equivalent to a theatrical performance that happened to include music. And it’s disrespectful to your fellow patrons as well, having flashes going off the entire show kills the mood and can be blinding if it’s going off right next to you.

If at the end of the day you really couldn’t give a crap about either the performers or your fellow patrons, think of yourself instead. You’re really doing yourself no favours by using a flash. Have you even seen a stage with the house lights up? It looks like crap: dusty floors, ropes, wires, plywood backdrops… there’s a reason why the house lights go down during a performance. Using a flash is going to illuminate all that unsightly garbage and ruin your photos. And with most theatrical productions the lighting is plenty bright enough without having to resort to using a flash and your shots will look ten times better. Get yourself a nice fast and cheap 50mm and learn to use your camera. The shots in this post where taken using nothing but the stage lighting; ISO 1600, f1.8 and I was getting roughly 1/250th to 1/320th shutter speed, plenty fast enough to freeze the action. Granted a kit lens probably won’t cut it in this situation, but a fast 50mm is cheap and not having the right gear or skills to take a shot is no excuse for annoying the other patrons and blinding the performers.

I know that 99% of the time there’s no malice in this kind of behavior, most people just don’t think about how their flashes affect others. Some of the blame does spill onto the venues. The way things are with everyone having at least a phone and digital camera with them at events, you really do need clearly marked signs indicating where you can and can’t use flash photography. There’s many events where I’ve come to accept that people will be flashing away the whole time, but there’s definitely a time and place for that.

OK, rant over. Just remember, when in doubt, use your head. Put yourself in the shoes of the performers and those around you. Learn to use your camera and have the proper gear. Above all else, remember that sometimes it’s ok to put the camera down and just enjoy a performance once in a while!

  • http://jbhildebrand.com Jesse Hildebrand

    I was kind of worried posting about this, I’ve always been a strong advocate for the rights of photographers and media to take pictures wherever legally allowed, of all things watching Spiderman while doing some editing made it sink home for me. “With great power, comes great responsibility”… cheesy, corny, cliche… I know, but it’s true. As photographers we have an amazing power, we can freeze time and preserve a fraction of a second forever, and at least in North America, we have the right to do that in any public venue we want. That’s a remarkable amount of freedom and power, when you consider what kind of restrictions are placed on photography in many countries.

    But with this power we do have a responsibility not to abuse it if we want to keep it. Theaters, concert halls, auditoriums are almost never actually considered to be in “public”. They’re mostly privately owned properties so you don’t automatically have the right to photograph them. Be aware that a private venue definitely has the right to remove you from a performance or even ban you for life. Flash photography is the worst for this because it automatically draws all attention to the photographer, and the easiest way to stop flash photography is just to ban ALL photography at a venue. It’s already starting to happen, so please, please, please everyone… if you want to keep your ability to photograph events, don’t antagonize the issue by flashing away during a show.

  • Amelia Bellamy-Royds

    Great post, and I assure you that urging greater etiquette and consideration for others is not at all the same as encouraging censorship — whether you’re talking about cussing or photography.

    As a music fan, I certainly agree that cameras popping flashes in the dark is irritating and disrespectful of both the artists and other audience members. Furthermore, it tends to be counter-productive: the stage lighting is already designed (or should be) to highlight what you’re interested in. Unless you’ve got an amazing flash or are quite close to the stage, you probably won’t get much improvement. You’re more likely to catch the over-exposed head of someone in front of you.

    That said, as an amateur photographer who probably paid less for my multipurpose point-and-shoot than you would for a single lens, I thought I’d add some points to the other side — not as justification, but just as explanation.

    First, most point-and-shoot cameras have small sensors which don’t perform well in low-light conditions. It can be done, but you have to know how to get the best out of your camera and you have to accept some motion blur from long exposures (e.g., see my closest approach to a semi-pro concert shoot here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/abellamyroyds/sets/72157629489434911/ ). And even as more people invest in high-quality cameras, they may be so used to automatically using flash in dim light that they don’t think to test out the limits of their equipment.

    Which brings me to my second point: Many people don’t know how to use their cameras. With many newspapers now requiring reporters to take photographs as well, that may even include people with media passes acting as “professional” event photographers. They don’t know how to find the best balance between exposure time and digital “film speed” sensitivity. They may not even know how to turn off the automatic flash. And unfortunately, people like that are probably not likely to be reading a photographer’s blog unless they stumbled here looking for pictures of their favourite band.

    Now in a room full of people flashing from every corner, you will not be able to educate everyone. But if someone right beside you is driving you nuts with flashes, it might be worth taking a minute from your work to show them how to get a decent photograph out of their camera without using the flash.

  • http://jbhildebrand.com Jesse Hildebrand

    Thanks Amelai, glad you liked it. I know I’m not going to change the world, to be honest half the reason for this post was just to get it on a page and out of my head. It’s happening more and more, and I find myself avoiding large events because of it.

    I went to see Aziz Ansari (stand-up, best known for his role on Parks and Rec) and that concert really drove home how bad the situation has become. Right outside the theater, big sign: “No cameras, No Video”. So before the show started, the audience is a sea of flashes and cell phone screens, and Aziz does an announcement over the PA: “Welcome to the show… blah, blah, blah… just a reminder, please no pictures or videos”. Audience is still flashing away. He comes on stage, audience is flashing away, people are holding up iPads and cell phones… and Aziz starts: “OK guys, I’ll give you three minutes, snap away, take your shitty, shitty pictures with your shitty cell phone cameras and get it over with. Then how bout putting the phones away and just BE here for a while, enjoy the show. I know it’s hard to believe, but Twitter will still be there when you get out”. Ten minutes later the audience is still flashing away. It made me hate us as a culture that we couldn’t just back and enjoy a show after being told, reminded and then berated to just disconnect for a bit.

    Like I said, I don’t think it’s malicious, people aren’t twirling their mustaches saying: “Mwahahahaha, I’m going to pop my flash and blind THE WORLD”. We’re just moving more and more towards a culture of “I’m the only real person in the world, I don’t have to think about how I affect others, because I don’t think they really exist beyond being ‘things that fill spaces I’m not occupying'”. I don’t know if it’s a result of us communicating more and more via virtual spaces instead of face to face, maybe we’re slowly actually forgetting that everyone else around us are actually people too, and not just lines of text on a screen, but it’s happening.