Have you ever used on-camera flash with disappointing results? In that case you probably didn't use the on-camera flash in the best way possible. With these tips you should be able to get much better results.
When it is too dark, or when the light isn’t that ideal, a flash can can offer a solution. Nevertheless, there are a lot of photographers that prefer to be the “natural light photographer” instead of using this very handy portable light source. Often it is because a lack of knowledge, not knowing how to use a flash in a good way. They probably remember those non flattering photos, with harsh shadows, red eyes, and strong light fall off.
When we speak of good results with flash, we often refer to real studio photography, in a controlled environment with a flash that is not physically connected to the camera. This is off-camera flash, with the possibility to place every single bit of light to your own taste. You can use one, two, or more flashes, with soft boxes or beauty dishes to shape the light exactly the way you want. This can produce fantastic results.
If you prefer to shoot on location, it is possible to bring portable studio lights with you. This is called strobist photography and it is basically studio photography at a cool location. Again, it is possible to shape the light to your liking, and control every bit of light with multiple flashes or speedlites. You can take this to extremes, and make it as expensive as you like.
But just like studio photography, strobist costs a lot of time to set up and shape the light. That time is not always available. When time is limited, and flexibility is needed, a speedlite on your camera can be the answer.
Using a flash on your camera is something completely different from off-camera flash. If you don’t use the flash wisely, the results may be as bad as I talked about in the beginning of this article. But with the next ten tips it is possible to acquire amazing results that can compete with studio and strobist photography, or you can have results that don’t show the use of flash at all.
Before I give the ten tips, always keep in mind there are two different exposure settings with flash photography. First is the exposure of the surroundings or the background, and second is the exposure by the flash. The flash light will almost always be on the subject, and the amount of flash light will make the exposure, regardless of the exposure of the surroundings. The exposure of the surroundings is set by the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.
1. Measure the Ambient Light
Before you start using the flash, first measure the ambient light and set your camera settings accordingly. If you like, you can make a few test shots without flash, to get the desired ambient exposure. Use manual exposure for these settings. As long as you are in the same location, and the ambient light will not change, you can keep these settings for every shot. But when you change the location, or the ambient light changes, you have to measure and set it again. Use your desired aperture and shutter speed, and choose the ISO for the desired exposure. This means you might need to use a high ISO value. In a lot of occasions it might be good to under exposure the ambient light one or two stops. It will accentuate the subject when flash will be used.
2. Use TTL
For studio and strobist photography, you determine the flash intensity once, and keep it that way. No matter where you stand relatively to your subject, the off-camera flash will have the same distance to the subject. Manual flash will give a constant result concerning light and light quality.
But when you have the flash on your camera, it will be at the same place as where you are standing. It means you have to change the flash intensity every time you change the distance to the subject. This is time consuming, tedious, and not very practical. That is why manual flash is not advisable when you use on-camera flash. By using TTL the camera will measure for every photo the exact amount of flash light to get a proper exposure. So, no matter what distance your subject has, the amount of flash light will be adjusted automatically.
3. Use Indirect Flash if Possible
When you use direct flash, harsh shadows will occur. The direct light onto the subject is all but flattering. When you use a correct exposure for the ambient light, this will already be reduced. The flash will be a fill-in flash, in a way, although it is still the main source of light. By using the flash indirect, you can improve the quality of light significantly.
When using indirect flash in a small room, the light will be distributed evenly, reducing shadows almost completely. The flash light is not only reflected by the wall you use to bounce the light, but also the other walls and ceiling. In a larger room, the light will be more directional because it will only be reflected by the wall you use for bouncing.
4. Try to Avoid Bouncing off the Ceiling
If possible, use a wall for bouncing instead of a ceiling. Especially in larger rooms, the light will only come from above. There is a significant risk of ugly shadows under the eye brows, nose and chin. If there is no other possibility and you have to use the ceiling, try to tilt the flash head some 30 degrees towards the subject. It will spill some direct light, lifting up those ugly shadows. A flash bounce card is also possible to use, of course.
5. Use a Flag to Avoid Light Spill
The beauty of studio photography is the directional light. Light is only coming from the direction of the softbox and nothing more. When you use a wall to bounce the flash, the wall will become your softbox. But as long as the subject will see the bare flash head, even from a small angle, direct light is spilling onto the subject. By flagging the flash head, you prevent any light spill, and the flash light will become directional, just like in the studio.
6. Watch out for Walls with Colors
Not all walls are white or almost white. When the walls have a color, the bounced flash light will adapt that color. A green wall will change the flash light into green, and a red wall will turn the light reddish. This will happen especially when you use a flag for directional light.
When you find yourself in such a situation, it is wise to remove the flag and make use of some direct light. This way you the direct flash will correct at least a part of the color cast.
7. You Can Also Use a Reflector to Bounce Off
If there is no wall nearby, you can also use a person nearby with a white shirt. Or you can let someone hold a reflector to bounce the light off. Of course you need a helping hand for that. Just be creative
8 – Don’t Be Afraid to Use High ISO Values
By using indirect flash, you will need a lot of flash power, especially in large rooms. That is why a powerful speedlite is advisable. But sometimes even the most powerful speedlites aren’t enough. In those situation you have to use high ISO values to register enough ambient light, so your flash does not have to work so hard, and the surroundings won't turn out too dark.
9. Use Flash Exposure Compensation
Sometimes the subject is not exposed correctly with use of TTL. Don’t change the exposure settings of the camera in those situations. Every change in camera settings will be compensated by the TTL, and the flash exposure will stay the same. When the flash power is not correctly measured by the TTL system, you will have to use flash exposure compensation. This way you tell the system how much more light the flash has to produce, or how much less light. This compensation can be found on the speedlite and it is often called EFC.
10 – Use Color Filters to Colorize the Flash Light
Normal flash light has nearly the same color temperature as daylight, which is approximately 5000 Kelvin. Artificial light is something like 2700 Kelvin, and will look like yellow-orange. If you set your ambient exposure to show the existing yellow-orange artificial light, and you add the blueish flashlight, you end up with two different colors in the photo.
It is possible to add a CTO (Color Temperature Orange) filter to the flash head, turning the color of the flash from blue into orange, the same color as the ambient light. By changing the camera white balance from daylight or flash to artificial light, the camera will filter out the nasty orange color.
With these tips it is possible to get very good results with a flashlight connected to the camera. If done correctly, the results will be very good. On the other hand, when you have mastered the art of photography with a speedlite, you don't have to use flash in every occasion. You can still use only natural light for stunning results. Just use flash if your photo can benefit from it.
Do you use a speedlite on-camera, or not? Will you give it another try with these tips, if you are not satisfied with the results so far? Please share your experience with on-camera flash in the comments below.