Using On-camera Flash


Fill-flash to the rescue–Taken in San Bernardino during a citywide tribute for  Winter Olympian Derek Parra, this picture would have been a disaster given the high noon lighting, baseball cap on my subject’s face. My flash was not on-camera. I held my flash on its extension sync cord with my left hand and aimed downwards. Had it been on-camera, the foreground subjects would have been over-exposed. Compare this against the vertical picture after the jump.

In my earlier post “More Beginning Photographer Mistakes” I mentioned how not having an understanding of flash can be a source of problems. (See #15 in that post)

Camera manufacturers for prosumer models often include a built-in flash for convenience.

The high end professional models don’t feature such built-in/pop-up flashes because

  1. Built-in flash has a very limited range
  2. Built-in flash is fixed and can’t be aimed or directed
  3. Professionals need powerful external flash units which can swivel its head to bounce light,  but most importantly, can be triggered off-camera in tandem with other units for greater lighting control
  4. Using external flash units in as described in #3 do not produce red-eye.

So if you don’t like red-eye in your pictures, you can try:

Red-eye Reduction Setting in Flash

Those of you who have read the owner’s manual for some of your fancier flash units know there is a mode  that’s supposed to remove/reduce red-eye.

I haven’t had much luck with this. I’m not saying this feature is worthless. It may work for you, but I’ve found it has actually caused me to miss pictures because the camera wouldn’t fire when I want it to.

Best course of action? Turn that feature off and just deal with the red-eye in post-production. iPhoto, Photoshop Elements and the full versions of Photoshop have easy fixes on afflicted pictures.

Firing the Flash Off-camera

sync_cordWhat causes red-eye in your subjects is the close proximity of the flash to the axis of the lens.

The further apart the flash is from the camera/lens axis, the better.

If you don’t have an off-camera sync cord (shown on the right), you can bounce the light from the external flash that’s on your camera’s hot shoe off a white ceiling or white card.

Considerations When Using On-Camera Flash

Before relying totally on on-camera flash, consider that

#1. If you use the flash as the dominant or key light, every picture you take with on-camera flash looks the same.It matters not the time of the day nor the kind of subject.  Because that source of light is fixed, i.e. always right there on the hot shoe, all your pictures will have the same “look.”


Unflattering Effects of On-Camera Flash–(Left)Subjects with glasses will have problematic hotspots or reflections from the flash.
(Right)Subjects closer to the camera are over-exposed producing very distracting elements in the frame. Compare this to the picture I took of Olympian Derek Parra where flash was off-camera.


Hotspot in glasses–In this group shot you can see the effects of on-camera flash in my glasses. If you are ”chimping,” zoom into faces and ones with glasses to see if there are hotspots in glasses. Try asking the person to turn their face sideways or face down slightly so that the path of light from the flash doesn’t come right back towards the lens. Hint: Law of Reflection as it applies to Optics.

#2. On-camera flash casts shadows behind your subject which are distracting. The further you are from the subject, the worse the shadow because your flash or “light source” becomes even smaller relative to your subject.

Small light sources cast “hard” shadows. This is often made even worse if there is a plain background like a wall behind the subject.

#3. If your subject wears glasses, there will be hot spots or reflections in the glasses.

#4. If your subject has depth, closer subjects will be over-exposed because they are closer to the flash than your intended subject. (See picture above)

Best Use of On-camera Flash

So, is on-camera necessarily evil? No, but it should only be used when you have to work quickly. I mean those no-time-to-think, just react, pants-on-fire situations.

Often times in news gathering situations where the window of opportunity is very small, photographers have to work fast.

In my years at the newspaper, I’ve had my share of these sort of assignments.

It usually entails chasing someone like a criminal who’s leaving the courthouse to their car or a celebrity from a car to the gate or door of a building and vice-versa.

Think paparazzi. No room to be nice. It’s every man for himself. A lot of shoving and pushing and trying to get close to your subject.

In that instance, the photographer has no choice but to fire off a sequence and hope he gets a usable image. He doesn’t have the luxury of focusing carefully or working his subject.

His best course of action, choose aperture priority set a small aperture for good depth-of-field and let the flash light the scene.

As long as he has fresh batteries, the flash should be able to keep up with the camera.

If you’re still having trouble visualizing, think of the images you see in tabloids.

They tend to be taken at night when the sport of stalking celebrities by paparazzi tends to occur. The lighting is very directional, harsh shadows and in-your-face. There is nothing artistic at all.

So, if you don’t stalk celebrities but are doing portraits and have absolute control over the subject, you have no reason to be using on-camera flash.

The rare exception is if you’re photographing a wedding. Even then, only in one instance can I think of when on-camera flash has to be used.


No time to get fancy — They’re coming at you fast. Compound that with it being dark in the church. If you were on the ball, you would be in position before the end of the ceremony, two camera bodies with 2 flashes ready. One body with a longer zoom, the other with a shorter lens.

It’s useful to pick out a pew in the distance as a visual marker so that you know when to switch camera bodies because your subjects will approaching and be too tight for the zoom.

This approach maximizes your chance of this key picture in any wedding.

That is the couple’s first time walking down the aisle as husband and wife. Their faces and reaction can never be re-created, so you have to nail it.

Thinking ahead, being prepared and working smart–Here’s a tight crop on the same picture above. You can see the red-eye. Given my choices, I’d rather have the shot and have to fix in post than miss it completely, wouldn’t you?

My research turned up this article which touts “Complementing Ambient Light While Minimizing Flash Evidence” which I happen to agree with. The more subtle your use of flash especially in documentary work, the better.