on-camera flash - photography by hertfordshire based studio owner Alex Saville.

on-camera flash | Part 1 | angling the flash head | take better photos

on-camera flash – is it beast or machine?

Electronic flashes are curious things. They evoke different reactions from different people. To some, they’re strange, mysterious beasts. An area of photography that has them reaching for the safety of the phase “I’m a natural light photographer.”
To others, they’re a pass that lets them into a place called “dark places”. They don’t necessarily know what they can do – but they’ve found out enough to point them at something and make them light up. They use their on-camera flash the way that someone told them to, but don’t necessarily know why. Then there are those to whom they are like an animal which must be tamed. It has behaviour which can largely be predicted, though it can be temperamental. There are also perhaps those to whom they are a truly predictable machine. But they tend to be working in manual mode, and rarely in real time.

I’d say I fall into the third category – the ones that seek to understand their flash.

turn it up to 11…

Part of understanding on-camera flash is getting to grips with the balance between ambient light and the light from the flash. That’s probably the complicated bit. That’s the bit we aren’t going to discuss here though. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll just assume that the flash is going to overpower whatever ambient light is around. That keeps things nice and simple.

angling isn’t just for fishing

We’ll look at the way that an on-camera flash can throw light around, using one of 2 modifiers, and without one at all. One modifier is a snoot. It is silver inside, black on the outside. The other is a neoprene strip that is similar to the snoot, but is a lot shorter, and is entirely black. Both snoot and the black neoprene “gobo” (go between) wrap around the flash forming a tube.

The reason we have not bothered with a diffuser is that they don’t actually make a huge amount of improvement except when using direct flash.

There’s a difference when using direct flash – the shadows are harsher, for one thing. However, trying a diffuser with bounced flash, there was not any significant difference.

what we’ll be covering

Here’s a basic summary of what we’ll be looking at:

  • Some basic rules of light and how it can work for us and against us. Nothing complicated, mind you.
  • Using on-camera flash pointing straight forward, straight backwards, and the angles of elevation between them.
  • Introducing twisting on-camera flash left and right, giving us a range of positions that covers a hemisphere. This is the bit where things get really useful.
  • What happens when someone gets in the way of our shot, why it can be a problem, and how to make it work for us.

some basic rules

Before we get going, a few basic rules.

  • The further away light is, the smaller it appears.
  • The closer light is, the bigger it appears.
  • What appears to be a small light source = hard shadows.
  • What appears to be a big light source = soft shadows.

The sun is big. Really big. If you could stand next to it, firstly, you’d burn up. But let’s just say you didn’t. And let’s just imagine you also had a pair of really cool, dark shades. You’d have a really huge, gigantic light source. It would be like the biggest softbox known to man. (Big light source = soft shadows.)

But here’s the thing. It’s 93 million miles away. That’s a heck of a long way. Which is why, when you look at the sun, it appears to be pretty small. That’s why, on a clear summer’s day, with the sun overhead, you’d got some pretty nasty hard shadows. (Small light source = hard shadows.)

Wait a minute though, you say, what about later in the day, when it gets really nice, with lovely soft shadows? Or what about when it’s cloudy? When it’s cloudy, they act as a massive diffuser. Not a diffuser like the tiny one on the camera flash, but a really big one. Similarly, when it gets late, light starts bouncing around, causing the light you get to be diffused too.

  • Flash power diminishes with distance. The shortest distance being a straight line, bouncing the flash increases the distance to the subject = more power required, or less brightness to the flash.
  • You need something to bounce off, in order to bounce flash. Sky, windows, really high ceilings and so on – they don’t work. But if you’ve not got a nice, friendly wall and/or ceiling, you can use someone’s shirt, for example. After all, a reflector is just a nicely made piece of bounce-friendly surface.
  • Neutral colours such as white and grey don’t colour bounced flash. Strong colours such as red, will colour bounced flash.
  • The darker the colour you’re trying to bounce off, the less will be reflected. Matt black will not reflect anything to speak of. Mirrors reflect (including that mirror-like shiny black).

working that flash back to front

pointing on-camera flash forward

The most obvious direction to point the on-camera flash in, is straight forward. With basic flashes, this isn’t even a choice. It’s forward or nothing. Your iPhone included. Unfortunately, this creates a harsh light, regardless of which of the three options we use. Simply put, it’s because the flash light is a small light. Bare flash (or close to it) causes the light to spill out. The snoot causes the light to focus more in a tight circle. The gobo is part way between.

The overall quality of the light is poor – harsh shadows and flat, giving a lack of depth to the image.

It’s worth pointing out that because the flash is pointed directly at the subject, there is a strong risk of red eye occurring. This is because the flash will reflect directly off the subjects pupils and back at the camera.

pointing the on-camera flash forward, raising it up at 45 degrees.

Here we’re going for a common setting – raising the on-camera flash up at 45 degrees, so that it bounces off the ceiling, and back down roughly spreading out from 45 degrees onto the subject. Immediately, we’ve cured red eye problems. Yay. We’ve also introduced some sort of shape to the photo.

Warning – be careful that the bounce point doesn’t get too close. The risk then is that the flash overshoots the subject, or causes long shadows.

Ultimately, it’s a fairly safe way to use on-camera flash, as long as you keep the distance to subject in mind. Not great, but it’s what alot of photographers do.

pointing the on-camera straight up at the ceiling

So if pointing the flash up at 45 degrees can miss the subject, how about raising it to 90 degrees – i.e. straight up? The immediate downside is more power loss, as we increase the distance to the subject (flash to ceiling + ceiling to subject). But if that’s within range, no problem there. So let’s see what happens.

With the 3 photos that don’t use the white card, the overall impression is nice enough, though there’s not a great deal of depth to the image. And the further we are from the subject, the more any sense of depth decreases, Something to watch out for is people with wider faces. As for the one with the white card, the same could be said. With the white card though, there is an added risk of red eye occurring.

pointing the on-camera flash straight back, pointing it up at 45 degrees

What we’re doing here is making use of a wall behind us. Assuming that the wall isn’t immediately behind us, we’ll get a fairly even light. What we do notice is that if drops off fairly quickly, and is brighter at the top of the image that the bottom. It’s a bit like having a big softbox facing above and straight on to the subject. It’s quite pleasant, depending on the angle, though again, it’s pretty flat. Depending on the distance to subject, we might get some depth difference – what’s closest to us will appear slightly lighter than what’s furthest away.

pointing the flash straight back, and level

Now we look at what happens when we point the on-camera flash all the way back. Overall, we’re getting a pretty flat lighting, even flatter than when we were angling the flash up at 45 degrees and back.

For part two of this article

Read part two of “On-Camera Flash” to find out more about how we can get more out of our flash.

do you find this blog useful?

Bouncing flash is our preferred technique, which we have used to create some lovely photographs. If you’d like to know more about how we think as photographers, subscribe to us and get your free e-book “Choosing And Working With A Wedding Photographer”. You’ll also qualify for a standing discount on all our services and products.

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