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.

16 thoughts on “On Camera Off Camera Flash

  1. I enjoyed this post.  I am a bit of a point and hope for the best camera operator and have to edit most of my photos before they are fit to be seen by other people. As I am growing my social media, I have been trying to improve my photography skills.

    Your tips are very helpful.  I had turned my flash off because I usually take photos during the day but will now try some of these diffusing and bounce tactics for when I do take photos at dusk.  I do this from time to time but have had to focus on things such as a campfire to get light so that my photos are not just a black blob.

    Thank you for sharing these tips and I look forward to future posts.

    1. Hello KerryAnn, 

      I am glad you found my tips helpful.  I try to make the information easy to understand.

      A like to over ride my pop up flash and set it to only pop up when I want it to that way you are in control.

      With experimenting you will learn when to deciding when you want extra light in a shot, and not rely on what the camera thinks you might need.

      If there is anything I can help you with to achieve better images, please drop me a note in the comments and I will help you.

      Happy snapping.

  2. Great Post! I love the tiny little flash bulb that pops out on some cameras I have used. I think this is very interesting as I often take photos with high end (not professionally though). I have had some difficulty with lighting in the past and sometimes I am guessing that the flash was at fault.

    I think the diffuser is a good idea to dull the harshness. A dedicated flash may also be a solution but I am not confident that I would invest in one, but I can always try.

    1. Hello Renton,

      Thanks for checking out my post. The on camera pop of flashes can be handy when you want to just add that bit of extra light to a scene but some situations it can cause other things to happen that you were not expecting. It is a matter of experimenting. I would as suggested in my post, to turn off your on camera flash and only use it when you want it to go off.  That way you can take a shot of a subject without the flash and one with it on and see which works out better. 

  3. I am just learning about photography as my wife said I needed a hobby that would take me outdoors, not quite sure how to take that, lol

    The one thing I have never understood about the flash on a Digital Camera is why it is so bright? You either get a photo of everyone squinting or they are looking away as they think once the flash has gone off the image has been taken.

    I like the idea of a light diffusion dome but wondered if that would take away some of the quality of the image?

    You also mention that tying a bit of tissue around the flash would also work but wouldn’t that cause the flash to blur the image?

    I’m sorry about all these questions but as I said before, I’m still learning, thanks if you can help

    1. Hi Matthew,

      Photography is a wonderful hobby, That is where I started, I enjoy capturing and creating images from the world around me. 

      The on camera flash can be overly bright. Check your manual to find if you can turn the intensity down.  Some cameras have this capability. 

      Diffusing the light with a dome or other means will soften the light it produces. 

      Thank you for your questions if there is anything else I can help answer please drop it in the comments and I will help answer.

    1. Hi Chuck,
      Yes bouncing or deflecting the light on to something such as a ceiling or even off a white piece of cardboard can change the light that lands on your subjects.
      You can even deflect the light of the sun onto a piece of white cardboard or even a piece of cloth and it will improve and soften the light that shines onto your subject.
      If I can help you with any situations using flash please drop me a note in the comments.

  4. Wow. A close friend of mine who is a photographer and I were arguing that his job wasn’t that hard(at least I thought so far). So I just decided to do a little research on my own.

    In school, chemistry didn’t sound as much complicated to me as just using or not using a flash.

    I didn’t know that the red eye can be eliminated, I, have accepted it as something normal. A very informative article. Now I will start respecting photographers work way more 🙂

    1. Hi Stoil,
      There are many aspects to photography. You can just keep it to having your camera do all the thinking for you and except the results or you can
      experiment using other tools to achieve different results.

      In the industry many people just say that all photographers do is aim their expensive cameras and push the button and magic happens and out pops a perfect
      photograph. Not that easy, if you are truly an artist at your craft you need to do a lot more.

      Let me know if I can help you with any photography questions you may have.

  5. This has been an extremely useful article for me. I have always loved to take pictures but I have never been able to get the lighting ever quite down. I recently started a blog and I needed to take photos of items so I got this tent thing and the lighting is separate so it looks great, but whenever I use the built in flash my photos are terrible. I will definitely come back to this for reference, thank you again!

    1. Looking into purchasing a defuser for your built in flash does make a great difference in spreading the light and making it not so harsh.  Also a hint is that on most camera’s you should be able to drop the intensity level of light coming from you flash as this will also help with having overly bright spots (check your manual to find where to set this) The built in flash is so close to the lens and this is also a big cause of harsh lighting, that is why I recommend using an off camera flash more often if possible.

      The on camera flash can work in some circumstances just to pop a bit of light onto a subject.  Just experiment and see which works best for you.

      Anything I can help you with with your photography please drop the question in the comments and I will help.

  6. Gone are the days of the polaroid instant flash camera, in with the modern technology of digital cameras. So many steps are taken with the cameras of today in regards to getting that ‘special shot’, it can sometimes become a mini chore. Special attachments also needed. In college I was going to take a course in photography, but money for startup equipment was a problem, along with lousey class hours. So my interest shifted to other things. The world of digital photography is here to stay!

    1. Hi Rj,

      Well there is actually a resurgence of the polaroid cameras in this digital world. There are ones out there that will both save the image onto a digital memory stick and also print out a small 2 x 3 print of the image that you just shot. There are also retro looking polaroid cameras as well now.

      Taking a course and purchasing all the gear required can become fairly expensive. So one needs to decide how far you want to go with the craft or as you did shift to other things.

      Digital photography is here to stay for sure and is ever evolving. 

  7. Would you consider yourself to be an expert in the photography niche? Is this article meant for more professional photographers? Do most people know what DSLR stands for? You should explain. The topic was good enough to keep my attention until the end because I enjoy taking photos with my plain digital camera. I especially liked how you explained the various aspects of flash lighting that  improves the look of your subject.

    1. Hello Chuck, 

      I feel confident in my photography skills, yes. I am trying to show a bit more advanced photography processes also. I will clarify the DSLR definition “Digital Single Lens Reflex” Camera. I am glad that my information regarding flash photography has been of help. Also the best camera plain or otherwise… is the camera you have in your hand.  Keep snappin..

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