Pop-up flashes often get a bad rep. Sure, they aren’t as versatile as a hot shoe flash. Yes, they don’t have much power. But does that mean you should ignore the pop-up flash on your DSLR entirely? Not at all. In fact, the pop-up flash can be a very useful tool, and unlike a hot shoe flash, you don’t have to spend more money or bring one more thing along with you.
But, using the pop-up flash requires a bit more knowledge than simply popping up the flash. It’s all too easy to ruin a photo with a pop-up flash. By understanding how the pop-up flash works, however, it can be used to snap photos that don’t look like a flash was used at all. Here are seven tricks to snapping great photos with simply your pop-up flash.
1. Use it as a fill flash
Here’s a secret many beginning photographers aren’t aware of. The best use of flash isn’t for when there’s not enough light. The best use of flash is for when there’s too much light. The sun is a bright light source that creates a lot of harsh shadows. Popping up your flash will fill in those shadows, for a more evenly lit image.
The use of a fill flash is essential to shooting outdoors in bright sunlight. If you are shooting portraits, having your subject face the sun will leave them squinting. If you put the sun behind them, they’ll be a silhouette. Unless, of course, you use a fill flash. Shooting into the sun with a fill flash allows you to get a portrait without squinting and without having your subject turn into a dark blob. Since you don’t need a lot of power for a fill flash, the pop-up flash often does the trick.
2. Add a diffuser
The smaller and closer that a light source is, the harsher the shadows will be. Since the pop-up flash is a small (and often close) light source, it usually results in some pretty harsh shadows. A diffuser will spread out that light, making those shadows much less intense.
Diffusing the light will also cut back on some of the intensity, so a diffuser isn’t the best option for when you need to harness all of your flash’s power. However, if you are using the pop-up for just a bit more light, a diffuser will come in handy keeping harsh shadows at bay.
3. Know the range
One of the keys to becoming a better photographer is to understand the tools that you have. With flash, that means knowing the range. A pop-up flash is more limited than a hot shoe flash and generally has to light subjects that are between two and twelve feet from the camera.
That range though, depends on your camera. Check the tech specs and see what distance is listed for you camera’s pop-up flash. Then, experiment to see how well it really reaches those farther distances. Check close distances too for any shadows from your lens or lens hood.
4. Play with distances
Sometimes, the key to getting a good photo with a pop-up flash isn’t about your camera settings, but how you physically set up the shot. Say you’re taking a portrait in front of a blank wall. Do you see a shadow appearing on the wall in the photo? The easiest way to get rid of that shadow is to have the subject move further away from the wall. Easy, right?
Distance between the subject and the flash matters too. Remember that the flash only covers a certain range. But, if the flash looks too harsh, you can simply move farther away and the flash will be less intense. (Of course, sometimes that’s not possible, or you want to be up close. In that case, try out one of the last two tricks).
5. Get familiar with flash modes
Popup flashes have different modes that determine how they perform. Flash sync modes determine when the flash fires. Understanding these modes is a good way to master flash photography, even if you’re only using the pop-up flash.
Under the default mode, the flash fires at the beginning of the exposure. Rear curtain flash fires at the end, and is the best setting for shooting long exposure action photos. Slow sync fires the flash and then leaves some of the exposure without a flash at all to help prevent dark scenes from becoming black backgrounds.
6. Take advantage of flash compensation
Just like exposure compensation adjusts the exposure up or down from what the camera thinks is right, the flash compensation adjusts the power of the flash from what the camera thinks is right. If your flash isn’t lighting up the scene sufficiently, turn the flash compensation up.
If it’s obvious you used a flash, or the shadows are too harsh, dial down the flash compensation. Shooting with the flash at a lower power will help reduce those shadows. Adjusting the flash compensation down will also often help the flash to match the ambient light, so it’s not so obvious that a flash was used.
7. Try manual flash mode
Contrary to popular belief, manual flash mode isn’t just for hot shoe flashes. Manual flash mode adjusts the output or intensity of the flash, and you don’t need a hot shoe flash to do it. In the custom settings menu, look for an option called flash control. Opening that should bring you to an area where you can select the intensity of the flash.
The flash can be set manually either at full power, or using a fraction of that power. Thankfully, there’s no number tricks to remember here; 1/2 is half power and 1/4 is a quarter of the power. If it is obvious you used a flash in your image, try shooting with the flash on a reduced power. 1/4 often works for blending the flash indoors, but you may need to experiment a bit to get it to mix well.
There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the pop-up flash. Sure, you can’t adjust the direction of the light or use it off-camera like you can with a hot shoe flash, but the popup flash works well in many scenarios, you just have to know how to use it.
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