Seven Pop Up Flash Tips

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Here are some tips to improve upon the use of your built-in/pop-up flash.

Use a fast shutter speed. Since the light from the flash provides a burst of bright illumination, you will require a fast shutter speed so that the photograph is not overexposed. In tandem with this, use a low ISO even in dark surroundings to help avoid over exposure. The downside to this is that the background will tend to be under-exposed as the ambient light will not be captured due to the fast shutter speed. Note that the shutter does not control the flash, but the aperture does.

Use flash compensation. You can adjust the power your D-SLR’s built-in flash, so that a photograph does not become washed out or under-exposed. Usually, the flash compensation is indicated in positive or negative “stops”, from -2 to +2. Shift the indicator to the negative side to reduce the flash, shift it toward the positive side to boost the flash. “Stopping down” the flash allows you to take advantage of ambient light, and use the flash as a “fill light”. This produces a better photograph, instead of replacing ALL of the light in the photograph with only the light that comes from the flash. Remember that when you change this setting, it remains there until you change it back again.

Stay close to your subject. If you’re looking to light up your subject, you’ll need to be relatively close to it (within 10 feet or so). A camera’s built-in flash isn’t as powerful as an external flash, so you’ll need to get close enough for the light to reach your subject.

Use slow shutter sync. The camera will extend the shutter time to allow more of the background to show up (illuminated by the ambient light), while the flash illuminates the foreground. This is only possible in aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual modes on your camera. For automated cameras, this setting is often used on the “night” shooting mode.

Use rear curtain sync or front curtain sync. Rear curtain sync synchronizes the flash to fire at the very end of the photograph’s exposure. This is used during action photography to “freeze” the motion occurring in the shot, while adequately exposing the background. Front curtain sync synchronizes the flash to fire at the very beginning of the photograph’s exposure. The shutter remains open after the flash fires, in order to capture ambient light. Front curtain sync is best for still shots in which the action doesn’t need to be “frozen”.

Diffuse your flash. A diffuser will soften the quality of light coming from your pop-up flash. Diffusing the flash can be as simple is putting a few strips of clear tape over the flash – the light is softened, but still comes through brightly. Or, you can purchase a diffuser like this one.

Bounce the light. Put a playing card under the edge of the flash, which will angle (or “bounce”) the light upward. Or, you can buy a product such as this one.

Do you have any other tips or tricks for working with your camera’s built-in flash? Feel free to share them in the comments!

Photo credit: “Nikon D90″ by tarunactivity on Flickr Creative Commons.

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  • Andreas Bexell

    Umm, sorry, but concerning the first point… You can't really control the amount of flash you get with the shutter speed. You'll have to do that with aperture.

  • Bob

    Another thing about the first point … if you go above the “sync speed” of your camera (will be somewhere between 1/60s and 1/250s) then the flash will only be seen by the sensor over a limited area of the shot. A flash anyway lasts only about 1/10000s so what Andreas says is correct.

    The “diffuse your flash” and “bounce the light” links point to contraptions for mounting on the end of regular flashes, not pop-up flashes. You might have meant this for diffusing:

  • Tiffany

    HI Andreas, I wasn't suggesting that you can control the amount of flash, rather you can control how exposed the shot is by using the shutter speed.

  • Tiffany

    Hi Bob, see my comment to Andreas. Also, you are right about the diffuser link, I meant to grab this one:…. Thanks for pointing it out!

  • Vu

    Putting tape on your flash does diffuse it, but it doesn't make it any softer. The only thing that affects the softness (transition from highlight to shadow) is the size of the source. The only way to make your flash softer is to make the size of your source larger relative to the size of your subject.

    And you can't control strobe with shutter speed. Shutter speed only controls the amount of ambient light bleed into your photo.

  • Tiffany

    Hi Vu, thanks for clearly defining light softness.

    Agreed about the strobe/shutter speed. I clarified that point in the article as I was addressing ambient light exposure, not flash control.

  • Amitkhanna84

    How does the curtain choice affect whether the action was frozen or not? I remember reading this somwhere that the burst of light from a flash typically only lasts for 1/1000s or lesser. Thats already fast enough for freezing most subjects. What would using the second curtain add in this situation?

  • Matt Needham

    Yes, the flash will freeze the subject whichever curtain sync is chosen. Curtain sync choice affects how movement by subjects lit by ambient light will be rendered if a slow shutter shutter speed is used with a flash. An example would be a car moving at night. Front curtain sync would have the headlight trails extending out in front of the car (flash goes off freezing car, long shutter allows headlight trail to expose). Using rear curtain sync the headlight trails drag behind the car (long shutter allows headlight trails to expose, then flash goes off freezing car). To the eye rear curtain sync (combined with slow shutter speed) renders motion as we expect with the motion trails dragging behind the moving subject.

  • Brett

    A fantastic diffuser is to stop by a photography shop and pick up one of those semi-opaque white film canisters. Then use a blade to cut a portion from the side, just wide enough to slide onto your flash. You can usually do this for free (if not, super cheap), it's small and durable so you don't have to stress about taking too much care of it, and it diffuses the light quite well.

  • AR Cherian

    Tiffany, these tips were great and nice to have compiled so succinctly. I'm still a beginner but I plan on buying and external flash soon and learning all about flash for the benefit of my pictures. It seems that it is a whole new world.