Having purchased your first external flash you must be super-excited. You must be experimenting with it every time you are making images. It’s like honeymoon all over again, just like the way it was when you got your first DSLR. However, the results from those on-camera external flash bursts are not as exciting as you thought they would be. They are either flat depth-less images, the sort of you got with the built-in pop-up flash or with too much contrast. As disappointing as it may seem, there is a reason for all these. And, more importantly there are ways to counter this problem. Once you have finished reading these tips you will have the know-how to be able to produce better images.

The Nature of Light Source and It’s Effect On Your Photos

Before we delve any further we need to have an understanding of something fundamental here. It is about the nature of light and how the size of your light source can affect your images. The rule of thumb is the larger the light source, the softer is the quality of the light. Conversely, smaller the light source the more contrasty and harsh it is. The sun, the largest light source known to man is essentially a source of harsh light. The reason is it is extremely far away making it a point in the sky. Alternatively, a softbox is a large source of light and the resulting light is much softer. When placed extremely close to a subject, even a small softbox will become a soft light source. That same softbox, however, when placed away from the subject will become a hard light source and produce a harsh light.

On-camera External Flash

On-camera flash is straight on. That leaves very little room to maneuver. It tends to fire an intense amount of light straight-on which obliterates any shadows on the face of the subject. This is what creates those flat shadow-less portraits. At the same time the areas where the light fails to reach deep shadows are produced. This would be areas like the background or just below the nose and the chin. So, the on-camera flash is a taboo. Right? Not really, if you know how to work it. The following tips will show you how.

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Canon EOS 600D / Rebel T3i & EF-S 18-135mm IS & SPEEDLITE 270EX II by 600d

Please note: These tips do not deal with taking an external speedlight and setting it off-camera. You still have the speedlight on your camera while attempting these methods.

Turn the Flash Head Sideways

This is the first and the most effective of all methods. This is something that you can only do with on-camera external flash units and not the pop-up flash units.Turn the on-camera external flash head sideways so that it points away from the subject, at an angle of roughly 80 – 85 ˚. This method tends to work best when you have a white wall to your left or right, something to bounce the light off of. The wall, especially if it is a white one tend to scatter the light in all possible directions, therefore mitigating its intensity.

The source of light, depending on whether it is large or small, can produce a soft flattering light or a harsh contrasty light. The speedlight is essentially a small point of light. That means the light produced by a standard speedlight is harsh and contrasty. This technique is used to make it large and to produce a soft flattering light, more amiable to portrait photography. The light bounces off of the wall and scatters in at a wider angle than at what it was disseminated from the wall. This inherently produces a large soft light which is ideally suitable for portrait photography.

Turn the Flash Head Upwards

If the room you are shooting in has a white ceiling, you could point the flash head straight up. Pointing the flash head straight up also produces a larger and much softer light source. This will however work best when the ceiling is not too high. A very high ceiling will absorb the bulk of the light fired from the flash with no meaningful amount of light bouncing off of the ceiling.

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Flash test Canon Speedlite 430 EX II by Håkan Dahlström

The Flash Bounce Card

Flash bounce cards are basically small accessories that redirect some of the light produced off the on-camera external flash. It does two things. First, it transforms the light source into a slightly larger one than the smaller flash head. The light bounces off the flash bounce card and then gets redirected towards the subject. Second, it reduces the intensity of the light and makes it softer, and thus more flattering for portraits and those sort of things.

Bonus Tip: Shooting Outdoors

When shooting outdoors you need a slightly different approach. You need to use a combination of accessories and techniques to ensure that you have the best results. When shooting outdoors you may not need too much light and so you may be required to shoot at a faster shutter speed. This is because there is already a lot of ambient light around and slow shutter speed is going to capture a lot of that light. So, you need a faster shutter speed to cut down that extra light.

But the problem with fast shutter speed with on-camera flash is that your camera is limited by what is known as flash sync speed. You can’t shoot at a speed more than 1/200 or 1/250 of a second. Resultantly, the first step when shooting outdoor with on-camera flash is to set up your flash so that you can shoot at a faster shutter speed than what your camera’s flash sync speed is. This you can do by either tapping into the flash or the camera itself. Nikon and Canon systems are slightly different in this regard.

On Canon cameras this can be tweaked by going into the shooting menu and turning something in that says FP Sync. Nothing needs to be done on the flash itself. Canon flash units are slightly different. You need to set high speed flash sync on them rather than the camera. Once this is done you are now able to shoot with a higher shutter speed than the flash sync speed.

The exact shooting technique is a bit different. Let’s say that you are shooting in aperture priority mode. On Canon systems, you can control the power of the flash and the exposure settings on the camera separately. Meaning, you can set a faster shutter speed independent of the flash power settings.

To do this use Exposure Compensation on your camera. When you dial down the exposure compensation, shutter speed is quickened to cut down the ambient exposure. The reverse happens when exposure compensation is pushed up.

With Nikon systems, however, when you change the shutter speed using exposure compensation (in aperture priority mode) the power of the flash is also set to a lower output. The two are combined. So, normal aperture priority mode will not be suitable for this technique. What you have to do is shoot in Manual mode. In the manual mode you can set a faster shutter speed manually and also choose the desired flash output. This technique will work in situations where you don’t have a white reflector to bounce off light.

This is all about using on-camera flash and controlling of the ambient exposure. Now for the main tip. With an on-camera flash you cannot really use the bounce technique without a wall around. So, you need something, an artificial wall of sorts to be able to bounce the light off of the wall. That is a reflector. A softer white reflector is what you need. A white reflector produces a softer bounce light that gives similar effect to bouncing light off of a white wall.

Rajib Mukherjee

Rajib Mukherjee

Rajib’s love for the road is second only to his love for photography. Wanderlust at heart and a shutterbug who loves to document his travels via his lenses; his two passions compliment each other perfectly. He has been writing for over 6 years now, which unsurprisingly, revolve mostly around his two favourite pursuits.
Rajib Mukherjee