The other day I packed the car for a shoot and did something I've very rarely done in 15 years of professional bike photography: I left my flashguns (and all the associated gubbins) behind. No, it wasn't a mistake. In spite of the short winter day and mediocre quantities of natural light, I wanted to complete an entire shoot with just the sun (OK, and a big blanket of cloud) for illumination.
Ever since I started taking pictures of bikes flash has been a big part of the way i do things, and for a couple of very good reasons. First, fill-in flash with a moving subject is a very effective way of maintaining sharp detail where it matters while preserving a sense of movement. If you want to shoot bikes close in with a wide lens, you have no choice but to use flash - it simply can't be done any other way (unless you're going for a deliberately abstract, arty and, er, blurry effect).
Second, off-camera flash provides a degree of lighting control that allows the subject to be lit according to need, whether for dramatic effect or because of strong backlighting. While it would be nice to return to a specific spot when the lighting's perfect, the reality is that I almost always have to get the shot right here, right now, working with the current conditions. Remote flash is an extra tool in the box that allows me to get shots that would otherwise be impossible.
So flash is a Good Thing and, used with a bit of care, needn't look forced or artificial.
Still, I spend an awful lot of time setting up and breaking down tripods, radio triggers and so on. A break from all that was an appealing thought. Throw in the facts that for a while now I've been intrigued by the D3's stellar high ISO performance and I've got a bunch of fast primes sitting on the shelf that don't get much use, and I didn't need any more persuasion. I left the house with a lighter bag than usual, containing just my D3 and 14-24mm f/2.8, 50mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.4 and 200mm f/2 lenses.
There are a few things you need to be sure about when you're shooting with fast primes. First, your focussing technique has to be spot-on. You won't be able to see it at web resolution, but in the portrait pic above there's not enough depth of field to cover the rider's eye - both the left side and right side of the eye are out of focus.
Second, you need to know how to make use of that limited depth of field in a way that adds to, rather than detracts from, the picture. When much of the frame is defocussed, your eye will naturally gravitate to the part that's sharp. But that doesn't mean that the blurry bits aren't important - they're still part of the context.
Third, it's important to know just how wide an aperture you can use while still maintaining critical sharpness. My 14-24mm is perfectly sharp at f/2.8, but I know I need to pay attention to focussing. The 50mm is soft at f/2 but sharpens up beautifully at f/2.8, the 85mm's sweet spot is f/2 and the 200mm is razor sharp wide open at any distance. Knowing all this means I'm not wasting time trying to get a sharply focussed picture at an aperture that simply isn't going to fly.
The thing about all this wide aperture, shallow depth of field stuff is that it's almost the complete opposite to the way I normally work. In reasonable quantities of light I'm limited to a top flash sync speed of 1/250sec or thereabouts, which means I often end up with smallish apertures and pretty generous depth of field. Deliberately opening up creates a whole different feel, throwing both foreground and background out of focus and helping the subject stand out.
The results will, I hope, end up in a mag at some point over the next few months. In the meantime, it's given me something to think about. I'm unlikely to leave the flashguns at home on most shoots, but I just might try to use them a little less in future. We'll see.