Thursday, 9 August 2012

How To Get Better Lighting From Your On Camera Flash

Oh yes, you heard me right I was indeed mentioning the flash that sits on top of your camera. I know there are many who’d rather let an opportunity pass than turning on their on camera flash; lets discuss how best we could tame this little monster to better suit our needs. Let’s try to make on camera flash behave the way we want it to, rather than consistently giving us flat, unattractive pictures.

Flash Photography
Flash Photography

And remember in this article when I refer to on camera flash I’m actually referring to both your camera’s inbuilt flash unit (the one that pops up often) and the dedicated flash guns that we mount on our camera’s hot shoe. Mastering flash photography could get you a long way in tackling difficult situations (photographically speaking). Many a times flash is a necessity rather than a choice and it is for those situations that we are gearing up.

What exactly is wrong with on camera flash lighting?

on camera flash
Photo By Tasha Courtney

Well there are actually three different things or basic principles of light that affect the picture quality.
  1.     Size of the light source in relation to the subject (larger the source, softer the light and vice versa).
  2.     Distance of the light source from the subject (closer the light source softer the light and vice versa).
  3.     Angle of Approach – Direction from which light hits the subject (light originating from same angle as the lens cause red eye and makes images look flat and lifeless.

It appears our buddy the camera mounted flash is small and also near the lens producing light from almost the same angle. So let’s see how we could improve the light coming out of it my simple adjustments and modifications.

Diffuse it

Diffusing the light originating from the flash is a very effective method of improving the quality of light, you could either purchase commercially available diffusers (for both in built flash and speed lights) or use whatever is available on location. Tissue paper, White paper, A semi transparent film canister, Yogurt cans etc could all come in handy. Idea is to make our flash appear like a large light source and softening the light by giving it more spread.

Diffuse Flash
Diffuse Flash

Bounce it

In case of pop up flashes you will need specialized equipment like the “Lightscoop” inorder to do it but for dedicated speed lights this is the easiest way to better pictures, especially when you are in a room with bright walls and ceilings to bounce light off from. By bouncing your flash light off the walls and ceiling practically you are converting your one tiny light source into a huge one (the size of the surface it is bounced) thus enabling you to take studio style shots with just a flash. Let’s discuss the most common bounce techniques employed by photographers.

Bounce Flash
Bounce Flash

Wall / Ceiling bounce

It pays to understand the scene perfectly, like if you have a high ceiling or not, what color are the walls, are they too far off, is there any other surface available nearby,(it could even be people wearing bright color dress). Remember light picks up color from the surface they bounce so if you bounce from a blue wall you’ll end up getting blue light instead of white. So correct your white balance settings accordingly. Although the flash unit itself is a relatively small light source, it will cover a wide area of a wall and ceiling. This will provide a wider, more diffuse “light source” for the subject.

You could also tilt your flash head towards left or right to get light coming at an angle relative to your subject, useful to bring out the extra dimension.

45 degree Reverse Bounce

Another common technique is to angle your flash up and behind you to fill a small to normal-size room up with beautiful light. Trick is to turn your flash head around and up at about 45 degrees to hit the wall and ceiling behind you.

Gel it

Gels are small pieces of plastic paper which come in all shades, you use red, orange, yellow etc. to warm up the light, and shades of blue to cool off.

Gels Used in Photography
Gels Used in Photography

Flashes are balanced to match daylight, but even daylight during different times of day differ, so when you are using flash in combination with other sources of available light, it pays to watch the colour temperature of the ambient and match your flashes’ accordingly as it might be very convenient while post processing as your images will have consistent colour. If you are shooting in RAW then you should not be that worried about white balance while shooting, but having even, colour balanced light across the frame is a good thing to have(at least sometimes).

There are other creative uses of gelled flashes, which we will be covering in a separate article.

Flag it

Simply put flag is a small piece of opaque material that when attached on your flash head prevents light from going in certain directions. The principle is light coming out of the flash travels in a wide pattern, spilling light directly on to your subject when you are actually trying to get side lighting by balancing it off certain surfaces. It could be anything from a piece of hard paper to cardboard, black foam etc.


Today’s digital cameras and flashes have very advanced metering systems which communicate with each other and determine the flash output required for the scene at hand. TTL stands for Through the Lens Metering. Good news is that it even works in situations when you are bouncing your flash off surfaces, it could make your life a lot easier in tight situations. A better understanding of Flash Exposure Compensation and General Exposure Compensation will help you master station TTL. We will be covering those in separate articles.

Make use of High Speed Sync

Normal sync speed for your flash and studio strobes fall in the range of 200 / 250. It should be just fine for most occasions, but when you really need to increase your shutter speed for situations like shooting outdoors in broad daylight; High Speed Sync is the trick to use. Enable your flash’s High Speed Sync function (if your camera has it) and you are free to choose any shutter speed that you desire. Even if you leave high speed sync option on it will only be used if you are shooting beyond your camera’s normal sync speed; else the flash will operate as it normally would. So go through your manual and turn in on.

Matching Flash Output with the Ambient

One of the most commons errors that happen when using flash to light a scene is the difference in exposure levels between the subject and background, often flash lits up the subject pretty well but leaving the background a couple of stops dark. Result is what we call the dark tunnel effect. The subject almost appears like it does not belong there. Trick is to either dial in flash exposure compensation or turn into manual mode and adjust your shutter speed so as to let in more ambient light to expose properly.