How To Use On-Camera Flash:


Camera with a large shoe-mount flash mounted on it.


In this tutorial, I will show you how to use flash to light dimly-lit indoor scenes and how to use it outdoors to reduce contrast using fill-flash techniques.

On-camera flash often gets a bad name because it often produces harsh, ugly, un-natural light. This is especially true of the small flashes built in to many cameras. Despite this, it is possible to produce beautiful, natural light from a single flash unit on the camera.

To take full advantage of this tutorial, you'll need a digital SLR or interchangeable lens mirrorless camera and an accessory flash unit that mounts on the camera's hot shoe.


Why Flash Photos Usually Look Awful

If you use your camera's built-in flash, the flash points directly at the subject. This produces the characteristic harsh, un-natural light that flash photography is notorious for.


Portrait done with on-camera flash pointed directly at the subject.


The photo of my son above was made with the flash pointed directly at him. The lighting is harsh; it looks like a police mugshot! The direct light makes his face look flat.


The Light Comes From The Wrong Direction!

We are used to light that comes from above. Outdoors, light comes from the sun, in the sky above us. Indoors, most buildings have lights mounted on the ceiling. A small flash mounted on the camera doesn't light the subject from above; it shines light directly at the subject from the camera position. This means the normal highlights and shadows produced from light that comes from above, which give the appearance of three dimensionality in the subject, are not present in the photograph.


Ugly Backgrounds

The background looks abnormally dark; this is because light becomes dimmer as it moves away from its source. My son is closer to the light than the bookshelves in the background are, so he is lighter and the background is darker. Direct flash also produces a shadow of the subject on the background. The shadow isn't very strong in this example because my son is standing about six feet in front of the bookshelves. If he were closer to the background, the shadow would be sharper-edged and darker. If you are in a situation where you must use direct flash, moving the subject away from the background will minimize shadows on the background, but that will also make the background as a whole darker.



Though it didn't happen in my example photo, another common problem with direct flash is the dreaded "Red-Eye" effect. This occurs because the light passes directly into the eye, then reflects directly back to the camera from the eye's retina, which is red. Increasing the distance between the flash head and the lens, by raising the flash above the camera, makes red-eye less likely. Built-in flashes produce red-eye more often than accessory flashes because the built-in flash is very close to the lens, while accessory flashes are mounted on top of the camera and the flash head itself is even higher since most flash units are rather tall. Although an accessory flash gives red-eye less often, it can still happen.


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