I encountered this problem the other day at one of the many skybars in Bangkok. I wanted to take some photos of my friends enjoying their drinks, but the situation had a few challenges; the only light source came from the bar itself and was not illuminating where we were sitting at all, the space was very crowded so I couldn't set anything up other than in my 'personal space'(no tripods or reflectors), there are no walls for bouncing light, my camera (Canon 5D) is useless for noise above ISO 1000.

I used my hot-shoe flash but this either:

  • Washed the people out, but the city lights were bright enough
  • Captured people in correct exposure and the cityscape lights being not light enough
  • The real problem. Captured people and cityscape with the correct exposure, but there were awkward heavy shadows cast by their eyebrows, chins and noses as the flash was coming from half a foot above my camera.

Without walls to bounce light off, I am out of my element!

I would like a recommendation on what sort of flash setup could get rid of the shadows. It would be great if the setup was light so that I could carry it around all day without a fuss.

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    Difficult to give general answer. With one flash on camera not very much to do... Aperture priority and the flash = best of a bad situation. Will always have harsh shadows. Best to get flash of camera diffuse it and have at least two sources of (generally ) diffused light. Search strobist on google. lots of sites and tips. My personal choice... I also have 5D... carry 3 Canon Speedlights with selection of diffusing, mounting and gelling accessories. Use the built in remote triggering of the canon flashes to get off camera axis light... sky and your budget is the limit – Joop Aug 5 '13 at 6:48
  • @joop This is the sort of answer I was expecting: more flashes, remote firing and diffuse the light. I'll have a better read of the strobist blog. I doubt there will be any 'tips and tricks' that don't involve shedding a few hundred quid and carrying a load of equipment. Thanks anyway! – James Aug 5 '13 at 7:08
  • If you think about it there are almost always things you can do with what you have available. Even if you could afford all the kit available, you wont be able to take it with you all the time. That said sometimes just getting a shot (even if it is not perfectly lit) is better than not getting one at all. If your friends are not also photographers, fiddling with a lot of kit and taking time setting up a shot might be counter productive. – Joop Aug 7 '13 at 6:45

If you weren't doing this already, use slow sync flash. Then you can use the flash to illuminate the people in the foreground, while at the same time exposing correctly for the cityscape in the background. You will need a tripod (or equivalent way of keeping the camera steady), and this way you also have the luxury of choosing a low ISO.

As for the awkward shadows under their nose and eyebrows, this is just generally the result of having direct (non-bounced) flash.

If you only have the camera's built-in flash there's not much you can do about this except to try and move further away and crop/zoom instead. But since you have a hot-shoe flash, assuming you can rotate it, you may be able to swivel it and bounce it off a white clipboard or something. When you bounce flash, it doesn't always have to be bounced off a wall, you can always bounce it off a smaller object. Even bouncing it off a white business card will give it a slightly softer quality than direct flash (probably better than a diffuser you may pay good money for). Try, for example, bouncing it off the pages of a book or newspaper - as long as it's mostly black and white it should be good. Try bouncing it to the side instead of above for a more flattering angle to the shadows.

It sounds like you're probably not interested in more elaborate flash set-ups such as multiple flashes or off-camera flashes since this was just a casual outing with friends and you need to carry the stuff with you, but if you are, there's a whole other world of stuff you could get into!

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  • The 5Ds don't have inbuilt flashes, hence I need a hotshoe (which does swivel). I can't wait to test the home made reflector ideas! However to compound the issue and emphasise why a lot of kit is inappropriate, there is very little room in some sky bars, so trying to set up a few people/tripods holding bits and pieces wouldn't work without annoying everyone else in the vicinity. Bouncing to the side is probably the next thing I'll try when I am in a similar situation. – James Aug 5 '13 at 8:28
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    Instead of a tripod, you can try setting the camera on an adjacent table to use slow sync. – Michael C Aug 5 '13 at 9:56
  • Or on top of a wine glass - that's a trick I've used a few times. – thomasrutter Aug 6 '13 at 1:44
  • See: neilvn.com/tangents/flash-photography-techniques/… for examples of balancing flash against ambient while bouncing with an on-camera flash, handheld. – inkista Nov 18 '14 at 18:50

You could get a ring flash, a light that surrounds your lens. This ensures that light is coming from every direction relative to the lens so you will only get soft shadows around your subject.

The cheapest way to this effect is to buy a ring flash adaptor for you hotshoe flashgun, something like the Orbis adaptor. It's only 1 extra piece of equipment to carry and you can do away with lightstands and umbrellas, making you more mobile.

Here's an example of the ring light effect, normal hotshoe on the left casts dark shadows under then chin and behind the model. The right flash on the right produces softer shadows which surround you subject:

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  • But the ring flash does nothing for balancing the flash illuminated foreground with the ambient illuminated background. – Michael C Aug 5 '13 at 9:55
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    @MichaelClark ring flash doesn't help you balance flash and ambient, but it doesn't hinder you either, you can use shutter speed to balance foreground and background like with any flash. It does however massively help with point three of the original question (emphasis his): "The real problem. People and cityscape correctly exposed, but there were awkward shadows cast by their eyebrows and noses as the flash was coming from half a foot above my camera." – Matt Grum Aug 5 '13 at 10:56
  • The orbis seems like a really neat idea. A little bulky perhaps, but it would have been okay in this situation! – James Aug 5 '13 at 13:06

Easiest way is to get a flash diffuser. You can make a home made flash diffuser from a plastic bag or a Pringles can. Do not forget to put some flash compensation(+2/3 step works for me). I have tried a simple flash diffuser by cutting the bottom of two paper cups and putting it on my in-built flash which has given nice results(very low harsh shadows and much evenly exposed pictures indoor). Try it out and if you are happy about results you may be interested in putting a little money in buying a professional flash diffuser.

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  • I did try a diffuser whilst I was there actually: Duct tape and a cloth napkin! This produced the best photos. The problem with pro diffusers is the size. I haven't yet seen one that is appropriate for more street photography (where not looking like a photographer can pay off). – James Aug 5 '13 at 8:32

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