Ten Tips on How to Improve the Result of Your On-Camera Flash

Ten Tips on How to Improve the Result of Your On-Camera Flash

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.

An example of the wrong use of an on-camera flash, with harsh light, light fall off and ugly shadows.

An example of the wrong use of an on-camera flash, with harsh light, light fall off and ugly shadows.

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.

I shot the Dutch rock band Hangover Hero in a large studio with use of softboxes. With this the light can be shaped just the way you like.

I shot the Dutch rock band Hangover Hero in a large studio with use of softboxes. With this the light can be shaped just the way you like.

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.

This is strobist photography. A speedlite in a softbox on location, with a model in a small pool next to a waterfall. It is like a studio on location.

This is strobist photography. A speedlite in a softbox on location, with a model in a small pool next to a waterfall. It is like a studio on location.

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.

A modern on-camera flash with a swivel head that enables you to direct the light.

A modern on-camera flash with a swivel head that enables you to direct the light.

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.

First you need to set exposure to the ambient light. After you have the exposure you like, it is possible to add the flash light.

First you need to set exposure to the ambient light. After you have the exposure you like, it is possible to add the flash light.

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.

When you change the distance to your subject with every photo, TTL flash is essential. It makes on-camera flash very flexible

When you change the distance to your subject with every photo, TTL flash is essential. It makes on-camera flash very flexible

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.

Bouncing flash can improve the result dramatically. The photo on the left is direct flash, the photo on the right is bounced off the left wall.

Bouncing flash can improve the result dramatically. The photo on the left is direct flash, the photo on the right is bounced off the left wall.

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.

Bouncing off the ceiling can produce ugly shadows like in this example at the left, especially with a low ceiling. By using the left wall you end up with much better results.

Bouncing off the ceiling can produce ugly shadows like in this example at the left, especially with a low ceiling. By using the left wall you end up with much better results.

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.

A flag prevents spill light. Like in this example of the Dutch band Angels and Agony, where I used a stone wall at the right to bounce the light off. Only a on-camera flash with flag was used for this shot.

A flag prevents spill light. Like in this example of the Dutch band Angels and Agony, where I used a stone wall at the right to bounce the light off. Only a on-camera flash with flag was used for this shot.

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 a colored wall is used, the flash light will adapt that color. This will be visible when a flag is used. By removing the flag, you can use the spill light to prevent the color cast.

When a colored wall is used, the flash light will adapt that color. This will be visible when a flag is used. By removing the flag, like in this example, you can use the spill light to prevent the color cast.

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

I shot this model in a large parking garage with no wall within reach. By using a large reflector, held by my assistant, I was able to bounce the flash and get directional light. The flash was flagged to prevent spill light.

I shot this model in a large parking garage with no wall within reach. By using a large reflector, held by my assistant, I was able to bounce the flash and get directional light. The flash was flagged to prevent spill light.

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.

I used ISO1600 to capture the ambient light. If I used a lower ISO, the background would be almost black. By using a high ISO I was able to blend flashlight and ambient light.

I used ISO1600 to capture the ambient light. If I used a lower ISO, the background would be almost black. By using a high ISO I was able to blend flashlight and ambient light.

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.

TTL is not always correct. In those situations you need to correct the flash output. In this example the TTL produced an underexposed image. By setting the flash exposure compensation one stop higher (+1 FEC) the flash gave the correct amount of light.

TTL is not always correct. In those situations you need to correct the flash output. In this example the TTL produced an underexposed image. By setting the flash exposure compensation one stop higher (+1 FEC) the flash gave the correct amount of light.

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.

Blending two colors of light (flash and ambient) can give unwanted results, like in this example. By using a CTO color gel, I matched the flash light to the ambient light. By setting the camera white balance to artificial light, I got a better result.

Blending two colors of light (flash and ambient) can give unwanted results, like in this example. By using a CTO color gel, I matched the flash light to the ambient light. By setting the camera white balance to artificial light, I got a better result.

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.

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28 Comments

"Use TTL". There is an important caveat here, and that is TTL, just like with automatic settings in your camera, can get fooled by your environment. You can use exposure compensation to adjust for that and often that works. But sometimes you hit a unique combination of factors: black walls and ceilings, smoke machines, inconsistency caused by your metering mode, all happening during a fast-paced corporate event, can throw your TTL metering all-out-of-whack.

There is no substitute for knowing how to use your flash in manual mode. It takes all the other variables out of play 'except' distance. You argue that "this is time consuming, tedious, and not very practical". But what it is is a very quick solution when you don't have time to trouble-shoot. Switch to manual, find your distance, then maintain that distance until you've got time to try and figure out what is going wrong.

I use TTL all the time. But I think its essential that if you are going to be using flash, especially when covering events (and even more especially in very dark venues) that you both understand the theory behind adding flash to your subject, and you've got to at least understand the basics of the inverse-square law. If you don't: and you are stuck in a near pitch-black-room with a TTL flash that is giving you alternating massively-over-then-under exposed shots, you are setting yourself up for a very upset client at the end of the day.

Nando Harmsen's picture

That is exactly what I was telling in the article

With respect Nando, you literally said "That is why manual flash is not advisable when you use on-camera flash." You claimed that manual flash was "time consuming, tedious, and not very practical". I think that's bad advice. It can be practical, not tedious and can be much faster if you know what you are doing. This isn't what you were telling in the article at all.

Nando Harmsen's picture

If you are at a wedding, it is simply not possible to check flash power every time when you change distance. You will miss the all important moments when you are are constant checking if the flash is producing the right amount of light. By using manual settings on your camera, in combination with TTL, you can work swift and accurate, concentrating on the moment and not on the settings

You say "its not possible." Yet I've been photographing events professionally since 2011 and I do this all the time. The key, as I said in my original post, is simply not to change your distance. You don't miss important moments. You aren't constantly checking if the flash is producing the right amount of light. ETTL did not become common place until about 1987? How do you think photographers managed to take photographs before then?

Here is a whole thread of people back in 2004 complaining about ETTL.

https://www.dpreview.com/forums/thread/742478

Obviously things have gotten better now. But what you insist "is impossible" simply isn't. My photography mentor taught me how to cover events with using manual controls on my camera and manual controls on the flash. I agree with you that ETTL is very convenient, and should be the go-to mode for photographers to use when covering events. But if you don't know how to shoot manual, and if you encounter a situation that messes with your meter (for example you forget to change your metering mode from "spot", or you are shooting in an environment with smoke machines) then you are in for a world of hurt if you can't switch to manual to get a few shots.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Don't change distance is the key... Well, I don't know about you, but I change my point of perspective constantly during a wedding event. It is easy to say I have to keep the same distance, but tell that to the guests also. "Please stand still, people! Otherwise I have to calculate my flash power again.. I'll stand here, you all stay put..."
That would be the day. hahaha

Well I do know about me: its both easy for "me to say" and its easy "for me to do." Weddings are a sub-set of the events industry. I've shot weddings, I shoot cocktail parties, I shoot conferences, I shoot corporate events. And in every single event that I shoot, without fail, the guests stand still when they pose for me. I don't need to tell them to "please stand still" because they always "stand still". You are arguing a strawman.

I don't know why you are laughing. Using manual flash to cover events isn't as hard as you pretend it is. I'm not arguing TTL isn't valid, nor that it shouldn't be the go-to of the event photographer. I'm saying TTL doesn't always work. That is you understand the numbers behind flash photography some photographers find it easier to shoot with manual flash than they would TTL. That it is helpful to understand the theory behind automated modes, just like you do with shutter or aperture priority on your camera.

I don't doubt your experience. But you're experience blinds you here. I've worked with photographers who have had malfunctioning TTL and they've switched to manual and gotten through the night, no problems. You gotta know your gear. You gotta know what to do when automated systems go wrong.

There is no need to be so dismissive.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Well I get the result I want, in a easy and quick way. I don't feel the need of making it more difficult than needed, and I don't care if others think non-professional of me because of that. If you (and any other person) refuse to use TTL (in this case) because it is not professional, that is okay with me.
I only want to show with this article my way of using flash in dynamic environments, and the possibility of getting results that don't scream FLASH.
But perhaps we think of it the same way, only misunderstand the words we' re using.

Well, we know you get the results you want. But photography is much bigger than just you. And a photographer covering events in different environments that you are used to shooting in could very easily come unstuck if they strictly followed your advice. That's all I'm saying.

Shooting manual flash is really no more difficult than shooting your camera in manual. If you can learn to do one then you can learn to do the other.

And can you stop with the strawman attacks? I haven't used the word "professional." I don't think you are "non-professional." I don't think that because I can use manual flash that makes me a professional. I don't refuse to use TTL. I've told you over and over again I use TTL all the time.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Let's stop the discussion and be friends. It is no use when we misunderstand each other words

Look at it this way: its entirely possible to go through your entire career as a photographer using aperture priority, shutter priority, or even full automatic all of the time. If that works for you then that's absolutely fine. If you get the shot you need then that's fine. But that doesn't mean if you choose to use your camera in manual mode you will "miss important moments", you will be "constantly checking your exposure". Shooting your camera in manual is something you get better at the more you practice and the more experienced you get.

And using your flash in manual mode is just an extension of that. Get more practice and experience the better you get at it. I sometimes prefer to shoot manual flash because I get better and more precise control. I don't even think about the maths any more. I know if I take a step back for a larger group shot I raise my flash settings up by two clicks. ETTL is simply one way of doing things.

Rob Mitchell's picture

The best improvement you can make is taking it off the camera.

John Haugaard's picture

Well, that wouldn't fit the topic of the article then. But, of course, your comment was so helpful, otherwise.

Nando Harmsen's picture

What a strange remark...

Rob Mitchell's picture

Why? If you want to move on from flashing things flat its really no effort to take the flash off the camera.

Because the title of the article is "Ten Tips on How to Improve the Result of Your On-Camera Flash", not "if you want to move on from flashing things flat." There are many different reasons why a photographer would choose to keep the flash on camera. This article is for those photographers.

The statement "The best improvement you can make is taking it off the camera" isn't an objective statement, its a subjective one. The marginal increase in quality can sometimes be offset by increased complexity and more points of failure. The statement "The best improvement you can make is taking it off the camera" would be a great statement to make in an article titled ""The best improvement you can make is taking it off the camera" . But that isn't his article.

Nando Harmsen's picture

It is obvious you did not read the article, or did not looked into the things I wrote. You limit yourself by thinking off-camera flash is the only solution for good results with flash. It isn't. Also with on-camera flash you can make it look like no flash is used, or make it look if off-camera flash is used. Not always, but often.
You must understand, it is about the situations where off camera flash is not usable, and you still want to get good quality of light.

Of course but its not always possible or practical so its good to know ones options no?

Great tips Nando, thanks for sharing.
Sadly, people in the comments assume all photographers shoot in the same environments, situations and that all of them have the same time and gear to shoot a subject every time. Just because something does not suit your needs, it does not mean it won't be usable for somebody in some way.

Francisco Hernandez's picture

These are some great tips! In regards to bouncing the flash and tip 4, I've found that bouncing to the ceiling and behind a little can eliminate the raccoon eye look from bouncing straight up.

Nando Harmsen's picture

It all depends on the room you're in, but yes. Often it can help, especially when there is a wall behind you. But you have to take care not blinding the people behind you. A black flag can prevent this.
By the way, a bounce card can also help a lot when using the ceiling to bounce the light off.

Manual to be avoided? How about a hint instead: f stop = GN/D. Been doing that one in my head for 40 years. PS. When you bounce, Inverse square . Your going to have to compensate. As the distance from the light source doubles you need 4X the amt of light. My God, I actually have to think instead of firing a 1000 frames...It not fair .

Nando Harmsen's picture

I know the rules, I know the formulas, but I don't want to do math when I am taking pictures. Let the system calculate while I worry about composition and capturing the moment.
When I have all the time of the world, with a model in a controlled environment, than indeed, TTL is foolish to use.

You proved my point with so mant with "I don't want to do the math". Thank you.

You just proved my point with "I don't want to do the math". Thank you .

Mr Harmsen. You're article was good (not great and not bad). It hits relevant points for a novice/hobbyist to heed when using a flash on camera. However, how you respond to the comments is very off-putting and makes me not want to read any further articles I see authored by you. Having an FS by your profile photo does not make you better than your audience. Please refrain from making statements of being 'obvious' nor should you be dismissive of some of the constructive comments others are trying to share here. Here is some advice: not every comment another posts warrants a response. The person having last word isn't the winner.