Using the Pop-Up Flash on Your DSLR

Quick tips for making great photos with the pop-up flash

Close up of a pop-up flash on digital camera
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Many DSLR cameras come with a handy pop-up flash. It's a convenient and quick way to add light to a scene, however, these little flashes lack power, and you need to understand their limitations because they are, admittedly, not the best lighting source. Here are the pros and cons.

Disadvantages of Using Pop-Up Flash

As mentioned, the pop-up flash has limitations and it should be used selectively. Here are some of its drawbacks:

It's Not Directional

The light of a pop-up flash is not directional. This can give a flat and somewhat harsh look to the final image.

It Can Cast Shadows

The pop-up flash is so close to the camera body that it can cast a shadow from your lens. This is a concern when using larger lenses, like a big-barreled wide angle or a long telephoto. The flash will appear as a half-moon shadow at the bottom of the picture.

In an indoor situation, the pop-up flash will cast extremely harsh shadows, which don't create an attractive shot.

Don't ever try to use a DSLR pop-up flash to photograph a large group of people, as it can't possibly cover that kind of distance.

It's Not Powerful Enough For Night Shots

Don't expect the pop-up flash to be able to illuminate even one person at night.

Advantages of Using Pop-Up Flash

The DSLR pop-up flash does have its uses in certain situations. Here are a few cases where it can prove useful.

It's Good at Filling In Light

Have you ever tried to take a photograph of someone outside, but you ended up with an image where half the person's face is covered in shadow? The sun's rays cast a large number of shadows, but your small DSLR pop-up flash can easily correct this problem on a head and shoulders shot. 

Use the pop-up flash to fill in the shadow areas of a close subject. You will end up ​with an evenly balanced shot with the face nicely lit, and good catchlights in the eyes. Plus, the combination of ambient light with the flash will stop the shot from looking flat or looking like one that was obviously lit by a flash.

It's Good at Capturing Action

The DSLR pop-up flash is also ideal for shooting creative action shots. By using a slow shutter speed, panning with the action, and firing your pop-up flash at the beginning of the shot, you will be able to freeze the action, while creating blurred streaks in the background. This technique is known as "flash and blur."

It's best to choose a subject you can get close to for this to be successful, because the DSLR pop-up flash has a very limited range.

It's Good at Making Manual Adjustments to Macro Photos

You can use the DSLR pop-up flash to take macro (close-up) shots of small things such as flowers. On its own, though, the light from the pop-up flash is too harsh and flat, and it could bleach the colors from your image. If you manually adjust the exposure of your flash and set it at least a stop lower than your chosen aperture, you will get enough flash to bring the subject out from its background colors without blowing it out entirely.

Tips for Using a Pop-Up Flash

If you do decide to use your camera's pop-up flash, here a few tips on how to get the best lighting for your shot.

Diffuse the Pop-Up Flash's Light

When the light of your pop-up flash is too harsh, you can diffuse or bounce the light to soften it and make the light more appealing.

A diffuser is nothing more than a semi-transparent piece of white material that softens (diffuses) the amount of light produced by the flash. A small piece of vellum, tissue paper, wax paper, or similar material works great. You can even use random things such as a piece of a plastic milk jug. 

Depending on the material, you may need to adjust white balance and flash exposure to compensate for the diffuser.

Use a Bounce Card

Similarly, you can quickly make your own bounce card to redirect the flash's light away from the subject and onto the ceiling. The light that ends up falling on your subject is less directional and evener. This only works inside or when there's something over your head to bounce the light back to the subject. It's also difficult to do in a room with very tall ceilings, so it does have its limitations.

A bounce card is simply a white opaque piece of thick paper. Index cards, card stock, even the back of a tourist brochure (without too much text) can work and this is a tool that you can scavenge almost anywhere you are at.

Hold the cards in front of your flash or rest them between the flash and the camera. You might need a piece of tape to hold them in place. It's best to use gaffers or painters tape to avoid leaving sticky residue on the camera body.

Be sure that the bounce card is at an angle to the flash so the light isn't blocked. Think of it as a ramp for light and position it where you want the light to go. 

Use Flash Compensation

DSLR cameras have a flash exposure adjustment built into them that you can adjust manually. Look for the lightning symbol with a +/- sign on the camera body or in the camera's options menu. Going up or down 1/2-1 full stop usually does the trick.