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How to Soften Up Harsh Flash Lighting

How many times have you taken a photo and regreted that you used the on camera flash? The result is glaring highlights, shiny foreheads, and beady eyes, from the powerful direct hit of the small built-in flash. In this post René Edde shares some tips on how to avoid this.

There are a few ways that you can soften up that flash and make it look more natural, even the tiny little built-in flash on a compact point and shoot camera. If you soften your on camera flash, or bounce it off the ceiling, you will take away the harsh hard-edged shadows.

flash1.jpg

1. Create a Bounce Card

A technique used by press photographers for years. Take a small white index card, tape or rubber band it below the flash so that it bounces the flash onto the ceiling and fills the room. This can be a bit more tricky with the little on-camera built in flash and may require some McGuyver-like duct tape technique. But the result is worth the work. You get a nice even fill to the light. How you create the card will depend on how your flash is built into your camera.

See the two photos (above and below). A white post-it note is a good way to create a bounce card on the go. You can see that I cut and modify one for the compact Canon G9 (above) or for my Canon 430EX Speedlite (below), just stick it on the front and go.

flash2.jpg

2. Make a Tissue Soft “Box”

Simply take a piece of tissue and put it over the flash on your camera. If you prepare this in advance you can neatly tape it in place, but you can always turn this option into a grab and go technique. Grab a tissue or thin paper napkin and hold it over the flash, point and shoot. It works best if you use a double layer tissue or fold it in two. This softens the light of your flash in your photos, even though the light is still direct.

There are more expensive tools that you can buy to soften your flash. For your SLR add-on flash, I highly recommend the Gary Fong flash diffuser systems.

With any of these techniques you may need to play around with the settings on your camera a bit. In essence you may need to trick your camera into the right exposure. With all of the automatic functions of cameras these days, you need to learn how to out smart the auto functions.

?It could be as simple as fidgeting with the exposure modes or overexposing the photo by a half to a full stop. This is going to vary based upon the camera and the model that you have. Try different techniques in the same scene and see what works best for your camera.

Think of these techniques as making a little lampshade for your camera flash. Try either of them or fiddle around with techniques of your own. The key is to spread out and diffuse the light and to bounce it off of something more broad than your camera flash (like an entire ceiling).

Just remember if you have a ceiling that isn’t white, or use a paper or card that isn’t white, that color will effect the color of the light and will tint your entire photo.

Recommended Reading: 7 Strategies for Avoiding Flash Blow Out

René Edde is a freelance photojournalist based in Chicago, IL. When René isn’t shooting on assignment for newspapers or working with local and international non-profits on documentary stories, you can find her teaching English to Tibetan monks in Nepal. You can see more of René’s work at her website and her adventures on her blog.

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Guest Contributor This post was written by a guest contributor to DPS. Please see their details in the post above.

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  • Reznor

    I have one of these Gary Fung Popup Flash Diffusors and I really don’t see a difference. I’m shooting with a Digital Rebel XTi and have shot several images with and without the diffusor. Looked exactly the same, the shadows were not one bit softer.
    When it comes to softness of light, the main factor is the size of the light source relative to it’s distance to the subject. A spotlight creates harsh shadows, so you use a giant softbox to diffuse it. A tiny little diffusor toy like the Gary Fongs don’t make a difference.

  • http://www,mikestechblog.com Mike

    Yeah, I gotta try the bounce flash off the ceiling with a white card trick – good one! Typically I hate harsh flash so much, I just don’t use it. Thanks!

  • Lennard

    Nr.2:
    Be careful if you put a tissue to close on your flash, and never tape it directly onto it. Because the flash get very hot and there is a risk to burn the tissue and the plastic cover of the flash!

  • http://flickr.com/photos/kirklau/ KKL

    Since the “hardness” of the light is dictated by the relative size of the source verse the subject. so adding pop up diffuser doesn’t really help. having said that, if you are in a room with white wall, because the diffuser is spilling all the light everywhere, some bounce back as a large light source. hence the softening.
    same thing goes to the hotshoe flash diffuser (including the dome shape one from Gary Fong). It helps only when there are places for the light to bounce back as a large light source (i.e multiple white walls around. ) so if you are shooting outdoor, or in a room with dark wall, you might as well not adding it since it won’t soften the light. it will just make it weaker.

    and Lennard above got a good point, watch out for burning paper… I burn some cheap red gel before like that.

  • Tomblerone

    You could also buy a 4$ diffuser off ebay;)

  • Robbie Ewing

    I used a round white paper plate at a BBQ to great effect on my D300 on board flash recently. set the EV to +3 and used the plate to shoot through and bounce. Inspired inebriation!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robbie_ewing/3847579245/

  • Pam

    This was good information but I will add this…the white card taped to the front of the flash is something I haven’t tried. The Nikon Speedlights have the white card built in on the back of the flash. That said, I suppose because the flash unit can turn 360 degrees one could pull the card out and turn the flash head so the card is at the front. I will definitely try this approach.

    Diffusers can help but you have to know how to use them. One can’t just strap a Fong on and not have harsh light. I have seen the results of improper use.

    The author here points out the use of exposure compensation. The new speedlights do have their own EV mode. I’m just learning about this on the flash unit and I’m going to say this may be what will actually work.

    One more bit of information…Scott Kelby’s Vol # 2 “The Digital Photography Book” points out that bounce flash in a white room will only work if the ceiling or wall is 8′ to 9′ away. I know this to be true because I was in a house with 15′ ceilings and tried to bounce off the ceiling with okay results. See here:

    Kelby also talks about distance from subject helps in reducing harshness. This is all a lot of information to learn but…what else do we have to do for the rest of our lives but learn?

  • Matt

    I agree with reznor and KKL; I’ve never understood the insistence that small diffusers are effective. KKL is right that it could create some more bounce, and it’s possible that the attenuation of the flash strength from a diffuser could let environmental lighting influence the exposure more.

    This seems to be one of those superstitions that photographers hold on to. We’d be better off without it.

  • http://www.robgreer.com Rob Greer

    Your tissue soft box suggestion should be reconsidered. Flash heads can get very hot. Part of their design includes heat dissipation characteristics. If you cover the flash with a tissue, you’re changing the thermal dynamics of the flash and opening yourself up to all kinds of potential problems.

  • IVAN HAMILL

    A VERY CHEAP WAY TO MAKE A DIFFUSER IS BY CUTTING A SECTION FROM A PLASTIC MILK CONTAINER . IT HAS THE RIGHT DENSITY, CAND BE BENT INTO SHAPE AND YOU CAN DOUBLE THE THICKNESS ETC TO GET THE AMOUNT OF DIFFUSION REQUIRED. SIMPLE AND NO COST INVOLVED!

  • anonymous

    Just remember if you have a ceiling that isn’t white, or use a paper or card that isn’t white, that color will effect the color of the light and will tint your entire photo.

    affect, not effect, please.

    sorry, just one of my pet peeves

  • http://www.canon5dtips.com AlainP

    These techniques dont soften the light, they just weaken it and aim it in another direction. The only way to soften light is to increase its size relatively to the subject. That is why people aim at the ceiling, opposite walls, ect…

  • Marty

    I use a fabric softener sheet (gone thru a couple dryer cycles to get out the chemicals) rubber-banded over the strobe. Cheap, easy on and off when more direct light is called for.

  • Paul D

    Re: Nikon flashes – the white card is at the top of the flash for a reason. I always use it in a bounce position and the white card helps diffuse / deflect light wider. I don`t see why you would aim to turn it round Pam. It was designed to be used such

  • http://www.ganddstudios.com Dan

    a piece of milk carton works well for an inexpensive diffuser, the sids are even round..but like you, I am not giving up my Fong

  • Jane

    Speaking about external flash units only I guess, but a guy at a camera shop recently told me to use a piece of ladies stocking/pantyhose !! Of course they should be white and preferably not ON the lady in question! lol

  • zaug

    Here is one I made for pop-up flash:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaug/3472329160/

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrocki mark nawrocki

    white pantyhose and not on the lady? man, you take all of the fun out of it!

  • iamunique127

    Oh sure, plastic milk jugs work in all kinds of shapes as light diffusers but first you have to drink 4 litres of milk. Yuck!

  • http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com Norm Levin

    I’ve employed a modified version of the index card bounce light deflector on my SB-600 Speedlight. I use a 4×4 card which works very well to diffuse the flash even if the ceiling is over 9′. It acts like a mini-umbrella.

    If you’d like to see some examples:
    http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Weddings/Wedding-Portfolio/6453400_cvZ6d#623403791_46eFJ
    http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Weddings/Wedding-Portfolio/6453400_cvZ6d#P-4-20
    http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Portfolio/Bar-Bat-Mitzvah-Portfolio/7844711_tLQFE#508422851_44DuV
    http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Portfolio/Bar-Bat-Mitzvah-Portfolio/7844711_tLQFE#508399777_rKiz9

  • http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com Norml

    I’ve used a variation on the bounce card theme for a while with excellent overall results. Instead of an index or business card (or the Speedlights own card), I crafted a 4×4 bounce card out of shiny white construction paper and cardboard. I attach it to my SB-600 with nothing more fancy than a rubber band. Sure, it doesn’t look all that slick, but you can see the results for yourself. One advantage is that I don’t need a 9-foot ceiling, as the card bounces enough diffused light in almost all situations, even outdoors.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/26605572@N05/3790491838/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/26605572@N05/3788741027/
    http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Weddings/Wedding-Portfolio/6453400_cvZ6d#623403791_46eFJ-A-LB
    http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Weddings/Wedding-Portfolio/6453400_cvZ6d#623434752_XZAJx

  • http://www.twitter.com/afmarcom Angelique

    If you have a large flash, a little cover made of white pantyhose works well.

  • http://www.theartfulcrafter.com Eileen

    Very helpful suggestions. Thank you!

  • DON

    best Ihave ever used is the HARBOR DIGITAL kit use it doing school candids …works well because it has a much bigger surface area then the FONG has

  • CJ

    For the built-in flash, I often try the flash (not exposure) compensation to begin with. Most of the dslr have the function.

  • Lauren

    Using the the built-in flash, what should my camera settings be? I’ll shoot in manual mode but then switching from no flash to flash do I keep my settings the same? It seems like I ought to change them but, what do I change them to and why?

Some older comments

  • CJ

    August 6, 2010 02:53 pm

    For the built-in flash, I often try the flash (not exposure) compensation to begin with. Most of the dslr have the function.

  • DON

    October 9, 2009 11:41 am

    best Ihave ever used is the HARBOR DIGITAL kit use it doing school candids ...works well because it has a much bigger surface area then the FONG has

  • Eileen

    September 28, 2009 03:51 am

    Very helpful suggestions. Thank you!

  • Angelique

    September 15, 2009 12:08 am

    If you have a large flash, a little cover made of white pantyhose works well.

  • Norml

    September 12, 2009 10:35 am

    I've used a variation on the bounce card theme for a while with excellent overall results. Instead of an index or business card (or the Speedlights own card), I crafted a 4x4 bounce card out of shiny white construction paper and cardboard. I attach it to my SB-600 with nothing more fancy than a rubber band. Sure, it doesn't look all that slick, but you can see the results for yourself. One advantage is that I don't need a 9-foot ceiling, as the card bounces enough diffused light in almost all situations, even outdoors.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/26605572@N05/3790491838/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/26605572@N05/3788741027/
    http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Weddings/Wedding-Portfolio/6453400_cvZ6d#623403791_46eFJ-A-LB
    http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Weddings/Wedding-Portfolio/6453400_cvZ6d#623434752_XZAJx

  • Norm Levin

    September 12, 2009 04:47 am

    I've employed a modified version of the index card bounce light deflector on my SB-600 Speedlight. I use a 4x4 card which works very well to diffuse the flash even if the ceiling is over 9'. It acts like a mini-umbrella.

    If you'd like to see some examples:
    http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Weddings/Wedding-Portfolio/6453400_cvZ6d#623403791_46eFJ
    http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Weddings/Wedding-Portfolio/6453400_cvZ6d#P-4-20
    http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Portfolio/Bar-Bat-Mitzvah-Portfolio/7844711_tLQFE#508422851_44DuV
    http://naturalportraits.smugmug.com/Portfolio/Bar-Bat-Mitzvah-Portfolio/7844711_tLQFE#508399777_rKiz9

  • iamunique127

    September 11, 2009 01:15 pm

    Oh sure, plastic milk jugs work in all kinds of shapes as light diffusers but first you have to drink 4 litres of milk. Yuck!

  • mark nawrocki

    September 11, 2009 11:05 am

    white pantyhose and not on the lady? man, you take all of the fun out of it!

  • zaug

    September 11, 2009 09:50 am

    Here is one I made for pop-up flash:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaug/3472329160/

  • Jane

    September 11, 2009 08:57 am

    Speaking about external flash units only I guess, but a guy at a camera shop recently told me to use a piece of ladies stocking/pantyhose !! Of course they should be white and preferably not ON the lady in question! lol

  • Dan

    September 11, 2009 04:32 am

    a piece of milk carton works well for an inexpensive diffuser, the sids are even round..but like you, I am not giving up my Fong

  • Paul D

    September 11, 2009 03:03 am

    Re: Nikon flashes - the white card is at the top of the flash for a reason. I always use it in a bounce position and the white card helps diffuse / deflect light wider. I don`t see why you would aim to turn it round Pam. It was designed to be used such

  • Marty

    September 11, 2009 02:59 am

    I use a fabric softener sheet (gone thru a couple dryer cycles to get out the chemicals) rubber-banded over the strobe. Cheap, easy on and off when more direct light is called for.

  • AlainP

    September 9, 2009 01:38 pm

    These techniques dont soften the light, they just weaken it and aim it in another direction. The only way to soften light is to increase its size relatively to the subject. That is why people aim at the ceiling, opposite walls, ect...

  • anonymous

    September 9, 2009 01:05 pm

    Just remember if you have a ceiling that isn’t white, or use a paper or card that isn’t white, that color will effect the color of the light and will tint your entire photo.

    affect, not effect, please.

    sorry, just one of my pet peeves

  • IVAN HAMILL

    September 9, 2009 07:54 am

    A VERY CHEAP WAY TO MAKE A DIFFUSER IS BY CUTTING A SECTION FROM A PLASTIC MILK CONTAINER . IT HAS THE RIGHT DENSITY, CAND BE BENT INTO SHAPE AND YOU CAN DOUBLE THE THICKNESS ETC TO GET THE AMOUNT OF DIFFUSION REQUIRED. SIMPLE AND NO COST INVOLVED!

  • Rob Greer

    September 9, 2009 04:04 am

    Your tissue soft box suggestion should be reconsidered. Flash heads can get very hot. Part of their design includes heat dissipation characteristics. If you cover the flash with a tissue, you're changing the thermal dynamics of the flash and opening yourself up to all kinds of potential problems.

  • Matt

    September 9, 2009 12:04 am

    I agree with reznor and KKL; I've never understood the insistence that small diffusers are effective. KKL is right that it could create some more bounce, and it's possible that the attenuation of the flash strength from a diffuser could let environmental lighting influence the exposure more.

    This seems to be one of those superstitions that photographers hold on to. We'd be better off without it.

  • Pam

    September 8, 2009 11:25 pm

    This was good information but I will add this...the white card taped to the front of the flash is something I haven't tried. The Nikon Speedlights have the white card built in on the back of the flash. That said, I suppose because the flash unit can turn 360 degrees one could pull the card out and turn the flash head so the card is at the front. I will definitely try this approach.

    Diffusers can help but you have to know how to use them. One can't just strap a Fong on and not have harsh light. I have seen the results of improper use.

    The author here points out the use of exposure compensation. The new speedlights do have their own EV mode. I'm just learning about this on the flash unit and I'm going to say this may be what will actually work.

    One more bit of information...Scott Kelby's Vol # 2 "The Digital Photography Book" points out that bounce flash in a white room will only work if the ceiling or wall is 8' to 9' away. I know this to be true because I was in a house with 15' ceilings and tried to bounce off the ceiling with okay results. See here:

    Kelby also talks about distance from subject helps in reducing harshness. This is all a lot of information to learn but...what else do we have to do for the rest of our lives but learn?

  • Robbie Ewing

    September 8, 2009 10:57 pm

    I used a round white paper plate at a BBQ to great effect on my D300 on board flash recently. set the EV to +3 and used the plate to shoot through and bounce. Inspired inebriation!
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/robbie_ewing/3847579245/

  • Tomblerone

    September 8, 2009 08:30 pm

    You could also buy a 4$ diffuser off ebay;)

  • KKL

    September 8, 2009 12:09 pm

    Since the "hardness" of the light is dictated by the relative size of the source verse the subject. so adding pop up diffuser doesn't really help. having said that, if you are in a room with white wall, because the diffuser is spilling all the light everywhere, some bounce back as a large light source. hence the softening.
    same thing goes to the hotshoe flash diffuser (including the dome shape one from Gary Fong). It helps only when there are places for the light to bounce back as a large light source (i.e multiple white walls around. ) so if you are shooting outdoor, or in a room with dark wall, you might as well not adding it since it won't soften the light. it will just make it weaker.

    and Lennard above got a good point, watch out for burning paper... I burn some cheap red gel before like that.

  • Lennard

    September 8, 2009 10:57 am

    Nr.2:
    Be careful if you put a tissue to close on your flash, and never tape it directly onto it. Because the flash get very hot and there is a risk to burn the tissue and the plastic cover of the flash!

  • Mike

    September 8, 2009 10:44 am

    Yeah, I gotta try the bounce flash off the ceiling with a white card trick - good one! Typically I hate harsh flash so much, I just don't use it. Thanks!

  • Reznor

    September 8, 2009 10:18 am

    I have one of these Gary Fung Popup Flash Diffusors and I really don't see a difference. I'm shooting with a Digital Rebel XTi and have shot several images with and without the diffusor. Looked exactly the same, the shadows were not one bit softer.
    When it comes to softness of light, the main factor is the size of the light source relative to it's distance to the subject. A spotlight creates harsh shadows, so you use a giant softbox to diffuse it. A tiny little diffusor toy like the Gary Fongs don't make a difference.

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