El Monstero – Pink Floyd Tribute 2009

A guitar solo at the edge of the stage is just the sort of act that encourages fans to put down their beers and raise up their cameras. No frontlighting? No problem.

You've probably seen the effect – a serendipitous contribution of flash in one of your photos from some kind stranger who happened to snap a photo at the same time as you. This is catchflash. Here's a look at this effect and how you can use it for live music photography and other events when flashes are a-poppin'.

Catchflash n. The phenomenon of catching the flash from an external source in a photographic exposure. In live music photography, catchflash occurs most readily thanks to the flash from point and shoot cameras in the crowd.

The best part about catchflash is that it can create compelling, off-camera lighting and one of a kind images – basically lightweight, strobist-style goodness. The downside is that it it's unreliable and can take a little planning to capture; it always takes a lot of luck. First, let's take a look at how and why catchflash happens.

The Mechanics of Catchflash

So, how does catchflash work? Here's the chapbook version:

  1. You press the shutter release
  2. The shutter of the camera opens
  3. In the same relative instant, the flash from some kind stranger's camera fires
  4. The shutter of your camera closes

The result is catchflash.

Catchflash and Your Camera's Sync Speed

Shooting at or below the sync speed of your camera will deliver the best results and allow the caught flash to produce an even exposure. With most DSLRs, this is going to be 1/250 or slower.

If you're shooting above your camera's sync speed when catchflash occurs, you're likely to get only a partial exposure from the flash – just like shooting above the sync speed with remote flashes or studio strobes.

Encouraging Catchflash

The best way to encourage catching someone else's flash is simply to shoot when other people are popping their flashes. Beyond that, here are some suggestions for planning for catchflash.

Timing – Naturally, someone else's flash is required for the effect to occur. Instances at concerts or other events where there are a lot of P&S flashes going off will dramatically increase the chances of catching flash.

Shutter Speed – If you think of crowd flash as drops of rain, using a high shutter speed is like trying to catch one of those drops in a thimble. Stretch out your shutter speed and you're using a bucket.

Frequency – Sometimes, less is more. But at other times – and catchflash is one of those times – more is more. By increasing the number of images you shoot while flashes are going off, you're also increasing the chances of bringing home the catchflash.

Examples of Catchflash in Live Music Photography

Here's a selection of catchflash hard at work with shooting notes below each image.

Modern Day Zero @ the Pageant -- 2007.11.21

This image was made at the end of the last song of the night, and Zach here was going big. Unfortunately, the light on him wasn't, but catchflash saved the day.

Radiohead – 2008.05.14

This shot of Thom Yorke occurred just after Radiohead took the stage. With fans in the first few rows and beyond firing up their cameras – and their flashes – this greeting was the perfect moment for catchflash.

Every Time I Die @ the Pageant -- 2008.01.26

For shows with heavy backlighting and very little (if any) frontlighting, as with metalcore band Every Time I Die here, catchflash can produce just the light to help shed light on what would otherwise be dark faces.

Cobra Starship/Gabe Saporta

With a legion of dedicated fans armed with P&S cameras, pop punk shows (Ryland of Cobra Starship pictured here) are a good bet for scooping some crowd flash.

Concert Photos: AFI

This photo shows the light from two cameras, though only one real instance of catchflash (seen in the white light from camera right). The other light is the orange light of an autofocus assist light.

Concert Photos: Incubus

When Brandon Boyd of Incubus came to sit at the edge of the stage, there was no front lighting, but fans were eagerly snapping away.

Bullet For My Valentine @ Pointfest

Catchflash can be especially nice in treatment when it helps cut through mono-color washes, as seen in this shot of Bullet For My Valentine's Michael Paget.

Jack's Mannequin

Catchflash on Jack Mannequin's Andrew McMahon provides a little side lighting here, as well as bringing out details in his Baldwin piano.

She Wants Revenge @ the Pageant -- 2008.06.11

Catchflash, due to the inverse square law, is an effect that is most readily seen at the front of the stage of concerts. However, through a combination of exposure and luck it's possible to see it further back on the stage, as with this photo of drummer Scott Ellis of She Wants Revenge.

End Notes:

Questions, comments? Let 'em rip. If you have examples of catchflash that you have, I'd love to see them, too.