Pick up a magazine or fall down Instagram’s rabbit hole and you’re likely to come across at least one photograph lit up by an unnaturally bright flash — a flash that floods the space, evenly illuminating every detail in vivid color. When it catches someone unaware, laughing or cheering or yelling, you can see clear into their mouth, all the way to the pink inside of their cheek.
Under this light, which is ruthless but not unflattering, you can count the grains of quinoa in a Sweetgreen Chicken Pesto Parm bowl. You appreciate every buttery gradient on the toasted exterior of a Waffle House sandwich. The subjects of the photograph may be young Fortnite players, royal wedding superfans, or political protesters; no matter who they are, their teeth look whiter, and their skin glows as though post-facial, even more so when amplified by the luminosity of a computer or phone screen.
The key elements of this ubiquitous photography style are a direct flash, high color saturation, and a blunt-force sense of hyperreality. It’s used by both consumer brands and journalistic institutions, from Bon Appétit to the New York Times.
“That look we refer to as the ‘heightened look.’ That pop of flash helps to elevate what would normally be a fairly banal situation,” says Jody Quon, the photography director of New York magazine. “The colors become more saturated; there’s a little bit more lit drama to the image. I wouldn’t say it’s cinematic, but it is, slightly, in a more crude way.”
Product photography with a stark, direct flash has become a signature for Coming Soon, a mostly vintage furniture store in New York that opened in 2013. It transforms a pale pink velvet sofa, irreverently set on a concrete floor, into a gleaming pearl of an object. A glass side table looks as crystalline as the ocean in the Bahamas.
Owners Helena Barquet and Fabiana Faria say they initially gravitated toward this look because it creates a mood that’s playful and not at all precious.
“We always hoped that the store would be a fun experience for people to come into,” they explain over the phone, “and that type of photography at that moment seemed to be the match.”
Some photographers turn to it as a matter of necessity. Cole Wilson, a regular contributor to the New York Times, says he learned the technique of “blasting light everywhere” from another photographer and found that it gave his images a uniform look when he had to work quickly. When Wilson shot the 2016 Democratic National Convention for a Racked story about political fashion, he roamed around the protest site outside the venue, raising a handheld flashbulb to snap a photo before the person knew what was happening.
The blast of light approach has also proven useful when Wilson has been tasked with capturing executives in their natural habitat.
“I’m in these really shitty spaces where you don’t have a lot of control over anything,” he says. “They have low ceilings and really boring office furniture. There’s nothing to work with that feels aesthetically inspiring.”
This has become a common photographic strategy for business stories. When New York magazine was working on a feature about IAC chair Barry Diller a few years back, Quon’s team was told at the last moment that they had just five minutes to photograph Diller in his office.
“Not the most photogenic situation,” Quon says. “Not the easiest picture to make.”
So she hired Jason Nocito — a master of what Quon calls “docuport,” or a mashup of documentary photography and portraiture — to give it the “heightened look.” In the final photo, Diller is striding forward, his gaze fixed, one finger pointed at the camera.
“The combination of the flash and how Jason caught him, you could feel the ego of Barry Diller in the picture,” Quon says. “It wasn’t just a generic businessman of a certain age. It brought a little sex appeal to the image.”
A heavy flash can make a bland room look cool, in a garishly mundane way; office dwellers suddenly look energetic, caught mid-action. This style can also give the unromantic appearance of putting its subject under a microscope, which fits the bill when the story is about corporate America.
In the retail world, Barquet and Faria feel a similar desire for photography that emphasizes clarity.
“We live in a very peculiar moment right now where everyone, even if the economy is doing well, has this weird unease,” they say. “There’s more of a need to be honest, almost like a burning need to be more candid, versus smoke and mirrors.”
It’s certainly not the gauzy, dreamy look made popular in the early 2010s by Petra Collins, a young champion of the female gaze who now shoots Gucci campaigns and music videos for Selena Gomez. But a photograph shot under harsh, direct light isn’t necessarily more honest than that. It’s an ultra-stylized way of looking at the world — raw, but exaggerated.
It would be wrong to call high-flash photography a trend. In the earlier part of the 20th century, the photographer Weegee made it a hallmark of his gritty black-and-white pictures of murder victims, fires, and the crowds that gather at crime scenes. (Weegee provided the basis for Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler.) Rounding the corner from the ’90s to the aughts, the German photographer Juergen Teller rose to prominence in the fashion world thanks to his blown-out editorial and advertising images, which gave luxury brands like Marc Jacobs and Céline an off-the-cuff, unvarnished look.
Teller’s overexposed style is versatile, by turns idyllic and confrontational. It can sell a Marc Jacobs Daisy fragrance to teenage girls at Macy’s just as easily as it can provoke discomfort in adults, if the sight of a stranger’s bare asshole — lit up, unmistakably, by the camera’s flash — makes you feel weird. (I’ll let you Google that yourself.)
The unapologetic anti-professionalism of direct flash photography has no better poster children than Terry Richardson and American Apparel, both known for their bright, highly sexualized imagery of the mid-aughts. Longstanding sexual harassment claims against Richardson finally gained real traction in the #MeToo era, leading the publishing giant Condé Nast to bar its publications from working with him. American Apparel, having ousted founder Dov Charney (who’s also been accused of sexual harassment) in 2014, filed for bankruptcy twice before shutting down all of its stores and selling to Gildan.
Relaunched and readying to open its first store since closing down shop, American Apparel seems focused on maintaining a cleaner image. But that heavy flash is all over the new pictures it’s posting on Instagram — just with less controversial content. Meanwhile, Richardson may be a pariah, but his influence remains strong.
Of course, this kind of photography can also be applied to more wholesome pursuits.
“The stronger, harder light style of photography is nothing new, but it certainly is perhaps evolving into a bigger trend in terms of our photographic language,” says Michele Outland, the creative director of Bon Appétit.
It wasn’t so mainstream in the food world when Outland launched Gather Journal in 2012. When she was coming up as an art director at Martha Stewart Living, food photography was mostly about shooting dishes by a window, bathed in natural light. At Gather, Outland wanted to give food a more cinematic treatment, which often involves a dramatic burst of light.
Outland praises this style for being graphic and modern — ideal, as others have remarked, for capturing the energy of a place. Such was the case when Bon Appétit staff photographer Alex Lau was shooting the lively staff and fiery food at the Brooklyn Thai restaurant Ugly Baby for the magazine’s list of America’s best new restaurants this year.
Appropriately for our information age, this style gives us details. Those details may not capture the full reality of the situation — no photograph can — but there are certainly a lot of them.
“If you have a flat style, everything becomes the focus of the image and it maybe makes the viewer’s eye wander throughout the image rather than immediately going to the subject when the background is dark,” explains Dolly Faibyshev, a photographer who loves using flash against a blue sky. “It’s more meaty, and there’s more detail.”
Indeed, it’s a style favored by the popular beauty and fashion websites Into the Gloss and the Coveteur, both of which built their names by going into the homes of cool, creative people and documenting the full contents of their medicine cabinets and closets, respectively.
As with all things aesthetic, creatives’ interest in a heavy flash is going to wax and wane. Since moving into a bigger store space that allows for new light positioning, Coming Soon’s owners have brought more shadows into their product photography. The look is still one of blunt brightness, but with some creeping darkness in the mix.
Should Barquet and Faria stray too far from their signature look, however, their Instagram followers might revolt.
“We’ll sometimes post darker photos, and we notice that when we do that, we don’t get that many likes,” they say. “People don’t want that from us.”