How to use the Pop-Up Flash

By “Pop-Up Flash” I’m referring to that little spring-loaded monster on the top of many DSLR cameras. You might be able to tell that I have some strong personal feelings for it, since I did call it a monster, but I’ll fight through that for a decently objective article.

Overall, that flash does not have many uses. Most professionals will agree that the light it produces is flat and ugly; produces sharp, unsightly shadows; and highlights the worst aspects of skin. It also gives red-eye.

That being said, the rule of thumb is:
forget it exists and never use it as-is.
It’s why I’m very glad that Canon doesn’t even put these little beasts on their cameras, like my 5D. I even have my phone set to never use its built-in flash.

Now, you probably noticed that I made sure to say “as-is” and that’s for good reason! Certain modifiers can make this light tolerable or, dare I say it, nice.

It’s shadows are very sharp and ugly. One method to help this is by adding a diffuser! They’re extremely inexpensive to buy, as low as about $10. All they do is soften the light so rather than harsh shadows, it’s a soft glow. Here’s one example of a cheap solution (click the image to open the Amazon page):


This slides into the hot-shoe mount* and covers the flash in this semi-opaque acrylic and softens the light. Things like these are even able to be made at home! It just depends on your environment. If you’re getting paid to photograph someone’s wedding, you might not want to be going around with a few layers of plastic strapped to your flash. If you just want to take pictures with friends or around your own home, go for it!

*Hot-Shoe Mount: a socket on a camera with direct electrical contacts for an attached flashgun or other accessory.

Method 2 is to use a bounce. Bouncing light to where you need it is very common in photography, especially when shooting outdoors and you’re reflecting sunlight. In this case, the idea is to put some kind of material in front of the flash so the light can’t go directly through and is redirected elsewhere.

You might be thinking, “Um, if I’m using the flash, why would I want the light to go somewhere else? I want to brighten what’s in front of the camera!” To which I’d ask if you had any idea how bright that little flash is? it’s insanely bright. That’s why when you use it in a dark room, your subjects can’t see and when you look at the picture, you can’t see anything behind your extremely bright subject.

If you’re indoors, a bounce is really great! You can direct the light to the ceiling where it can filter down on the entire room, getting darker the further away from you that it gets, and looks almost natural. It’ll be brighter if the ceiling is lower and white, like those acoustic tiles most public places have. So here’s my little find (click on the image to open the Amazon page) for you!


Again, this little thing just pops into the hot-shoe mount and bounces the flash away! You’ll still brighten the area and you won’t have those ugly shadows. This method almost never produces red-eye either (since red-eye comes from the bright camera flash going  directly into the eye without time for the pupil to constrict and reflecting off the interior surface of the eye and passing through blood-filled choroid membrane). The reflected light is much softer and easier on the eyes!

There you have it! With these methods, you can get away with using an on-camera pop-up flash. Do I recommend it? No. I recommend getting an off-camera flash that attaches to the hot-shoe and putting a nice diffuser on it, or even getting it set up to trigger wirelessly.

If you have no choice, however, there are worse options. Do not use the pop-up flash as-is!

I hope this has been helpful and have a happy 2017!


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