Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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How can I take good pictures using the built-in popup flash of my camera?

Usually I try to use available light only but sometimes there's just isn't enough light for proper exposure (at a reasonable shutter speed).

I know about all the drawbacks of the popup flash, I know it's hard to take good pictures with it — but it's all I have at the moment.

Please don't tell me to just get an external flash (I know, but don't have the budget at the moment). My camera is a Canon 550D (Rebel X2i in the US) if it makes any difference.

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Just to alleviate any budget concerns - a basic off camera flash doesn't have to cost a fortune. They exist for under $50 US amazon.com/gp/product/B003IZ9XTI . Don't get fooled into thinking you HAVE to buy a Canon branded 300 dollar flash. –  rfusca Apr 28 '11 at 19:11
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Reminds me of the sorta-old photographers joke: "Question: How do I get professional looking pictures with this instant camera? Answer: Don't use that instant camera to take pictures." If you want good results with a popup flash, in the long run your best bet is to not use the popup flash... No snark or sarcasm should be read into this comment, BTW. Only sharing my 'cranky-old-guy-photographer' thoughts on the matter. :-) –  Jay Lance Photography Apr 28 '11 at 19:16
    
@rfusca - unfortunately I'm not in the US or Europe, so my choices are to buy the $300 Canon flash (for more than $300) buy other high price 3rd party flash that is available here, buy a "no name" flash that I can't even find on Google (no reviews, no company web site, no online stores that have it) or pay about $50 just for shipping. –  Nir Apr 28 '11 at 20:20
    
@Jay Lance Photography - you are absolutely right, but as a "responsible adult" I can't spend too much money on a hobby and I've just used up my birthday presents on a prime lens and a tripod - so that means I have to make do with the popup flash until I can find a good excuse to spend the money on an external one. –  Nir Apr 28 '11 at 20:28
    
While it still might be out of your budget, this flash is $160, comparable to the highest-end Canon & Nikon flashes, and comes highly recommended by Strobist: mpex.com/browse.cfm/4,14648.html –  ieure Apr 29 '11 at 16:59
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5 Answers 5

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The problem with the pop-up flash is that it's a small, directional point of light, aiming directly at the subject. This gives harsh shadows behind the subject and makes the photo generally unflattering.

There's a number of things that you can do to make this better:

  1. Make the point of light larger. The professionals often use massive softboxes - large uniformly illuminated boxes of light which give very soft shadows which are very flattering. You can make your source of light slightly larger by buying or making a diffuser - something that sits in front of your flash and diffuses the small point into a larger point of light.
  2. Bounce the flash off the ceiling. This is like turning the ceiling into a massive softbox. You can achieve this by putting a small piece of white card at a 45 degree angle in front of the flash. Experiment until you get the best results.
  3. Use a longer exposure to balance the flash and the ambient light. Try putting the camera on a tripod or stable surface and allowing a long exposure as well as the flash. This is good for capturing a specific moment but allowing the background light to fill in the dark shadows that you would get otherwise. This is often set up as an automatic scene mode called "Night Portrait" or something similar.
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All valid points. However, the benefits you'll get by trying to implement them will be small. I.E.: You can only diffuse/enlarge that tiny flash so much, and you only have limited flexibility bouncing with a card. Personally I wouldn't spend a dime on pop-up solutions, but save towards a good (used?) strobe head instead. –  Craig Walker Apr 28 '11 at 14:31
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Agreed, but the question did explicitly state there wasn't the budget (at least right now) for an external flash. Plus it will help him understand how flash light can be modified, which will make any future purchases more informed. –  Maynard Case Apr 28 '11 at 14:39
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Fair enough... I just hope he doesn't spend $30 on a Gary Fong Pop Up Flash Diffuser when he could have a real flash for $50. –  Craig Walker Apr 28 '11 at 14:51
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+1 Many of the mods for making it a little better can be done for basically free. However, the best way to get good results with it is to not use it. :) –  John Cavan Apr 28 '11 at 16:15
    
+1, but you forgot a very important thing: the color of the flash. Most of the time when you need flash, you're indoors under tungsten lighting, often dimmed (which makes it even redder.) I find that warming the flash (using a taped-on gel or one of these) makes the pop-up flash a lot less jarring. –  Evan Krall Apr 29 '11 at 5:09
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There's more than one potential problem with a built-in flash; the location of the light is just one of them. It's also important to be aware of the power and range of this flash -- especially if you start playing around with diffusing it or bouncing it, as this will impact its range.

Short of getting an external flash (which you'll definitely want to keep on your wish-list), you should also look at how you can affect your shots by using the flash exposure compensation control on your camera to increase or decrease the flash amount, relative to the metered setting. You'll definitely want to be familiar with this control if you start bouncing or diffusing the built-in flash, because the camera doesn't know that you're altering the flash in this way, and thus, is likely to get the flash intensity wrong unless you give it a little help.

BTW, if you let us know what sort of problems, specifically, you've seen with the built-in flash, we can target our answers a little more specifically, too.

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Modern dSLRs, including the Canon 550d mentioned in question, meter flash using TTL and do not need adjustment of flash compensation when bouncing or diffusing, TTL automatically adjusts power when using those tricks. –  Imre Apr 29 '11 at 13:54
    
Thanks for the correction. –  D. Lambert Apr 29 '11 at 16:46
    
In my experience trying kludgy bounce tricks before I broke down and bought a real flash, though, something doesn't quite go right with TTL, and maxing out the flash compensation did help. –  mattdm Apr 30 '11 at 2:53
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Flash photography can be among the more complex photography, and part of this is due to the smarts on-board the camera, known as ETTL in the Canon world. Do yourself a tremendous favor and read thru the fantastic bible of EOS Flash photography on Photonotes.org:

http://photonotes.org/articles/eos-flash/index.html

If you use your on-board, flip up flash, you have no choice in using ETTL, so you need to understand how it is impacting your choices of camera mode setting and what the camera does in each setting. Experimentation is key in learning this.

If there is plenty of light to expose the image properly, choosing Tv or Av will ask the flash to work as a fill, and the camera will set the shutter speed and/or aperture based on the ambient. If ambient is too low, the camera will chose the settings that match ambient, meaning it will likely be poor settings for hand holding or capturing moving people (like f4, 1/15 sec).

In this case, you can always move to Manual, set the shutter speed below 1/250, and choose your aperture, thus forcing the camera to decide for itself how to power the flash. This often results in odd flash results, which you can then control by using FEC or Flash Exposure Compensation. Look in the Flash Control section of the Camera Menu. This setting allows you to reduce or increase the power of the flash, thus balancing things out.

But, if you just want a reasonable image with on-board flash, try out the 'P' mode, as it generally does a fairly nice job for the run of the mill photos where you dont' want to think about it.

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Canon DSLRs don't let you manually control the output of your pop-up flash? On Nikons, manual flash power is buried in the menu, but at least it's there. –  Evan Krall Apr 29 '11 at 4:32
    
You can't do manual control of the output of the built-in flashes for Pentax cameras either. You can change the "Flash EV compensation", but that's still calculated as an offset from the automatic value. –  mattdm Apr 30 '11 at 2:10
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Actually, by experimenting you can get some decent results. I personally use different kinds of paper as diffusers. I have even used credit card vouchers in a hurry.

Unfortunately, my native language is Spanish so it's hard for me to say the correct names of the papers I've used but I can tell you that translucent papers are the best. Other solutions may come from some objects otherwise known as garbage, for example, I once experimented with the "lens" that had come off a car lamp during a crash. Also a bike reflector can do (removing the dark plastic backing).

A few considerations: The flash radiates light in some sort of a cone. Your improvised diffuser should be as big as to intercept completely this cone, and you should hold it as far from the flash lamp as possible, but never further than the front of the lens. If your diffuser does not cover completely the flash's light cone, you will get it's shadow projected in the background, and if you put it further than the front of the lens, the light from the flash will bounce directly into the lens ruining your picture (Unless any of these are your intended results, creativity after all...)

The bigger the "diffuser" the more it will soften the light. Maybe you can make some sort of diffuser mount out of cardboard paper, clips, adhesive tape, etc... so you keep your both hands free to operate the camera.

But after all, remember, the built-in flash has more limited power, and any diffuser you use will dim the light. Do not expect to get professional looking pictures, but they can definitely improve. Experiment until you get decent results, and do not limit your creativity, you can use diverse materials, even colored ones, papers, plastics, cellphone silicone covers, etc. But take into account the previous advice, do not spend money in any of these! Recycle! Use any material you come across for free! And please, no not stick or glue anything to your camera, but if you feel you need to, use only adhesive tape like masking tape and remove it as soon as you can.

Also consider a small mirror like the ones in makeup kits, or aluminum foil to redirect the flash and bounce it in the ceiling or a wall.

Some situations I've had an advantage from this: 1) Once in a darkly lit restaurant and having only my Point&Shoot, I was able to take a better picture by using a credit card voucher to avoid burned areas in the noses and foreheads. 2) I had forgotten to recharge my external flash batteries, so they where dead, I had no tripod but wanted to take a picture outdoors at night. With a little piece of paper I did the trick.

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You can build a "light shovel" with cardboard, aluminum foil and duct tape to redirect and soften the flash. The flash bounces off of a small mirror, travels through the shovel to a larger mirror, and out toward your subject. Here are instructions to build one along with a picture of the light shovel, and links to some sample photos. Very clever.

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