On Camera Off Camera Flash

What is the DIFFERENCE?

The on camera flash

Many of the DSLR cameras have what is called a pop-up or on camera flash, but if you have used this feature you will know that it doesnt always help, well sometimes it even makes your image lighting worse.  Why is that? Well it is because the light, or flash is on the camera and way to close to the lens, and this can create the most unflattering harsh light on your subject.

The reason the light from the pop up flash is a very small light source, and the smaller the light source the harsher the light it produces and sends out.

Being that the light source is so close to, and above the lens and this will make it inevitable that most of your people in your images will have the dreaded red-eye, that is caused when the light source reflects of the retina.

With the on camera flash facing directly at and sending the light straight into your subjects face, this will also make your subject look flat with lack of dimension and well unflattering.

Using the on camera flash should be used only as a last resort. Well that being said there are a few scenarios, where using the on camera flash can give your image that boost.

Taking images of people on a sunny day or with the sun or sunset behind them will cause the person or subject to silhouette, you can pop up your on camera flash, and you can just pop enough light into your subject so that it is no longer be to dark. If you expose your image for the person and do not use a bit of fill flash then your beautiful sunset will be become all washed out behind them. So there is a use for the on camera flash but limit this use.

Remember to turn off your auto mode on your on camera flash that way you are the one in control of when it pops up and not when the camera thinks that it should be used.

Defusing your pop-up flash

So you only have the use of your pop-up flash, what can you do to improve the harsh light?

Well you can purchase a pop-up flash light defuser. There are a few different ones on the market. The one I think is so quick and easy to use is the one made by Gary Fong.  It is so slick and small enough to pack around in a small camera bag.

It comes mounts on your hot-shoe and the curved defuser spreads and softens the light nicely, and the nice part is that is very light and quick to attach.

Using a dedicated or off camera flash

If you are wanting to produce a much nicer light on your subject, more of a professional look to your images, I recommend to use a dedicated flash. They have more flexibility to how and where you project the light and the quality of light going onto your subject.

Some benefits are that you can aim your flash in different directions that is not possible using the pop up flash

You can angle the head of the flash so that you can bounce light off ceilings or walls giving different affects to your image

Using the dedicated flash even connected to the top of your camera, because the light source is farther away from the lens, there is less chance of getting the dreaded red-eye.

You have more control over your light, which in turn will give you a better quality of light on your subject.

Move the light source off your camera

One of the best things that you can do with your flash is take it off your camera. This way you can give your light more direction, coming onto your subject from different sides or from above or even both making it look less flat than having your flash shooting straight onto your subject. This again will give your images more dimension and depth.

How you can do this with your dedicated flash is to purchase a sync cord that you plug into your flash and then into your flash connection on your camera. You can now hold it up high and away from your body and the aim the light down similarly to how the sun would project onto your subject.

You direct the light from your flash with your left hand while taking the shot with your right. You can also have your camera mounted on a tripod making you more steady. But having the flash in your hand you can make subtle changes in angle of light and get different results.

If you have the newer camera’s you can even go wireless by setting your camera’s commander mode for the pop up flash to sync to your dedicated flash but you will need to have the flash unit sensor facing so that your camera will receive the signal to pop the flash. Your pop up flash will have to be in the up position for it to send the signal. You will also want to turn off the on camera flash as this will give mixed light onto your subject.

This little trick will make a bigger difference that one would think, just by getting yourself a dedicated flash and a sync cord or no sync cord is needed if you have wireless capabilities built into your camera.

Getting softer lighting

So you have make a few changes with the way that you use your flash and your lighting still seems a bit harsh. There are a few things that you can do to improve this.

You can put on a light diffusion dome over your flash and this will, as the description implies, defuse or soften the light coming from the flash. Some dedicated flashes will come with these domes, but you can also buy them.  The dome will also spread the light. You want to direct the flash up at a 45 degree angle. This is more for indoor shots. Using the dome this way does not make much of a difference on images taken outdoors

A tidbit is that if you are in a pinch, you can place a piece of tissue over the flash and fasten it with an elastic and this will also diffuse the light source.

Bouncing your flash

Get your flash on a stand

By taking you flash and putting it on a stand and away from being directly beside the camera and either aiming it up with the light reflecting off a flash card or directly on your subject will improve the softness of the light.  Direct on flash will make your subject look flat and washed out.

What you will need to mount the flash is a hot-shoe mount ( some of the Canon and Nikon flashes will come with one ) it should have a tripod thread hole that you will screw onto the top of your stand and then you can slide your flash into the shoe.

Nice thing about a flash stand is that you do not need to hand hold your flash. Not everyone has an assistant and this way you sort of do.

There is no right or wrong place to set your flash but a starting point can be to – place it to your left, and in front of your camera and up about a foot or so higher than your subject.

What is a bounce card and what does it do?

Some flashes (Nikon and Canon) have a little white bounce card hidden right in the flash so you just need to pull it up.  sometimes your flash will also have a defusser which you can slide back down when you are using the bounce card.

This small flash bounce off a ceiling will add or redirect some light and give a bit of sparkle in the eyes (or catch light) in the eyes of your subject.

If you do not have a bounce card as part of you off camera flash, you can purchase some really neat ones.

Below are a few that I really like.  Also Gary Fong makes a nifty little kit that slides over and is held on with a velcro strap and produces some additionally great lighting options.


There are some more things that you can do to improve your use of the on camera/off camera flash and we will touch on them in a later post.