3 Reasons to Control your Flash and 10 ways to do It

3 Reasons to Control your Flash and 10 ways to do It


There are many different ways to alter the light coming out of your pop-up and external flash units and many different reasons you might want to do it. Personally, I hate the look of the pop-up flash and even the Speedlite when it’s aimed square-on at my subject and am always looking for ways to get around using them altogether.

{Reasons to alter your flash}

  1. To create catchlights
  2. To diffuse the harshness of the default burst of light
  3. To maintain ambiance in the environment where you’re shooting. For example, as soon as you introduce a flash into a lovely party atmosphere, the ambiance gets sucked right out of the room.

{Ways to alter & control your flash}

  1. First and foremost, the most obvious and cheapest (free) way to fiddle with your flash is to turn the strength down. On an external flash, you can dial down the strength if you just need to introduce a little added light and not a full-powered burst. Play with that and see where it takes you.
  2. You can bounce your external flash off of nearby ceilings or walls. This will spread the light and change the direction from which it is coming.
  3. Lots of photographers do the business card trick to create catchlights in their subject’s eyes and many newer external flashes now come with a catchlight panel attached. But this doesn’t do anything to diffuse or lessen the strength and it doesn’t effect the spread of light. Just know what tricks do what so you can choose what to employ for each different scenario. And incase you don’t know what I mean, the ‘business card trick’ is where you use a rubber band to attach a white business card to the top of your flash unit to create little white reflections (catch lights) in your subject’s eyes. Like this.
  4. A third thing I often read about is placing a tissue over the flash. I’m sorry, but…a tissue? I’m gonna get hate for this, but let’s be sensible. If the flash was so weak that a little teeny weeny tissue would make a difference, I wouldn’t be writing this post. Just sayin. I’ll say it again: when you need to be sure that your flash is adding to your scene, not taking away from it, you’re looking for ways to change the direction, lessen the intensity and/or alter the spread of the light coming from your flash. A tissue ain’t gonna do it.
  5. External flashes often have clear(ish) little screens that can pop out of the unit and down over the bulb. This is called a ‘built-in wide panel’ and is used to widen the range of the light coming from the Speedlite. Contrary to popular thought, it is not a diffuser and is meant to be used with super wide angle lenses (up to 15mm when used on a Canon Speedlite 580ex, for example). This means that the flash won’t just focus on the center of the image.
  6. In researching different methods for this post, I discovered these little reflector gizmos which look like a pretty decent way to command some more control over your on camera flash.
  7. Lastolite makes a lot of really cool, affordable, gadgets and gizmos for fiddling with your external flash. Personally, I’ve played with their Speedlite beauty dish and I have two Ezyboxes for off camera flash. I’ve found them to be a great way to experiment with my Speedlite without breaking the bank.
  8. I mentioned this next alternative in my last post about photographing indoors (the comments are what sparked my idea for this post). Lightscoop. I want it to stick in your head as the numero uno best way to reign in your pop up flash indoors. The Lightscoop fixes all manner of pop up sins and is surprisingly cheap in price, but not in quality. When I take mine to a party or event, everyone wants to have a go – it’s made me the most popular gal at many’a party.
  9. One other method for your pop-up flash is a diffuser like this one which attaches to your hotshoe and wraps around. Some people may find it exciting to construct accessories like these on their own.
  10. Lastly, it’s important that when shooting with a flash in manual mode, you make sure to have the white balance set for flash, especially if you’re shooting JPEG and have limited control on the temperature after the photo has been taken. A flash gives a cool color temperature so setting your WB to ‘flash’ will add a bit of warmth to your scene. If you’re shooting in auto, this will take care of itself but if not, don’t forget to check your settings before you start shooting.

So that’s all, folks! I know there’s an abundance of further ways to get the results explained above so please share your own tips and tricks below.

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Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • Adana Kent Haber April 22, 2013 06:54 pm

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  • Jean-Pierre December 7, 2011 04:17 am


  • matthew.zbaracki October 28, 2011 10:19 am

    ad. 2.
    try to bounce the light of the floor - it's one of my favourite uses of speedlite when i'm shooting bands (small gigs in clubs or pubs).
    this way you can keep all the colours of stage lighting, and add some 'evil' fill light, works really amazing with hardcore/metal bands.

  • Meg October 28, 2011 05:58 am

    Not sending hate, but I've enjoyed good results with placing tissue over the flash. Works better than simply dialing down the strength, which I also do. The scoops and reflectors are great for a planned shot, but sometimes one is working in the moment. What I've finally resorted to is simply placing a couple of layers of opaque cello tape over the pop-up flash to diffuse the light and soften the harshness. Works great! But far and away I usually skip the flash and "fix it in post" with Lightroom. That works great, too.

  • Jeremy Harris October 28, 2011 04:34 am

    You didn't mention actually taking the flash OFF the camera and putting it on a moveable light stand. I found this to be the best way to light a subject without destroying ambiance.

  • Matt October 28, 2011 04:11 am

    For the white balance issue, a better option is to white-balance the camera to the ambient light (e.g., tungsten), and then gel the flash to match. CTO gels to convert the flash temperature to a more tungsten temperature. They come in different strengths, too. This allows you to shoot indoors, with a flash, and have the light from the flash match very nicely the ambient light, so e.g., your background/peripheral objects and your subject are all exposed under same/similar color temperatures.

    Gels are cheap & easy to apply, and when coupled with the bouncing and other tips really help improve your photographs out of the camera.

  • Raul October 28, 2011 04:10 am

    Thanks for the writeup.
    #3 should be "affect" not "effect."
    #3 "in case" not "incase"
    #4: If you fold a tissue enough times and tape it over completely covering the light output area, it can diffuse a light (same with tissue paper). However, the light is sometimes so strong, that it can burn the paper. It is not recommended in my experience
    Everything else is awesome. Thanks again.

  • TSchulz October 21, 2011 03:20 pm

    In point #9 the link takes you to the site for the Gary Fong Popup Flash Diffuser.

    I found a cheap knock-off of this item from Hong Kong through an eBay seller. I think it was .99¢ plus $4 shipping or something. I totally swear by this. You just slip it in your hotshoe and it covers the popup flash. The shield has these little "bubbles" in it that help to spread the light out more. It really does an excellent job of diffusing and softening the light from a popup flash.

  • wedding photographer kent October 14, 2011 04:00 am

    Interesting article.
    I sometimes us a piece of tissue over the flash on my little point and shoot. Otherwise I bounce the flash wherever possible. I also use the sto-fen on occasion.
    I have also found taking the flash off camera with a trigger, lightstand and brolly is fab

  • Guillermo de la Maza September 26, 2011 12:23 pm

    If you only have the built-in flash of your camera and want a cheap, yet efficient way to diffuse it, you can just cut a hole thru a 35mm film canister (white translucent) and put it on top. It really does wonders specially when there's a ceiling or wall (not too distant from the camera) to bounce the light off.

    Last but not least, if you want to diffuse or bounce your flash in a cheap way, buy some bath curtains. Make a frame or find a way to hold it still with tripods and you can use them just like you use an umbrella or a soft box. Add the black foamie thing and you're all setup!

  • Hamza September 25, 2011 06:06 pm

    Great write up on flashes. In the film days not so long ago I was so nervous using flash that till such time the photos were printed I was not sure about the result. Thanks for this great information on the control of flashes.

  • Peter Carty September 24, 2011 09:46 am

    I noticed the "Lightskoop" is intended for the deflection of pop up flash. Another on the spot method is to place a styrene or similar disposable coffee cup over the flash. It works very well!

  • Sheera September 24, 2011 06:31 am

    Whether this article is actually about diffusing light or controlling flash is sort of irrelevant considering it's a good conversation starter.

    Thanks to people's comments amateurs know that this is about diffusing light; but honestly, would people have read iy if it was titled 10 ways to diffuse light?? I doubt it!

    Also ... some tips for controlling & diffusing the light/flash on cameras with pop-up flashes is always needed

    Lastly, I'll add people with popup flashes if you don't appreciate the light from the flash, push it down and use lamps and other external lighting sources (when you can) ... a well placed lamp or two can do wonders for some pictures

  • Paul vS September 24, 2011 01:50 am

    A cheap iTTL-cable can help you to get the flash off the camera, which is helpful when you can't bounce it (like outdoors or in a club with high/dark ceilings). Holding the off-camera flash in your other hand will make it harder to operate the camera one-handed but you get the benefit of having the light coming from other another angle/distance.

    With the diffuser - you can buy a cheap one for $2 on eBay and tape it to the flash with duct tape.

  • Alejandro Silva September 23, 2011 09:40 am

    The lightscoop trick can also work without buying the lightscoop. I keep a small hand-held mirror in my camera bag for this very purpose. I used this trick for these headshots:


  • Mike Kulp September 23, 2011 07:45 am

    Has anyone experience any issues with the Canon 580EX II? I have been shooting with www.5FingerEvents.com and ocassionally while shooting in a club my flash greatly overexposes my shot..like a lightening bolt hits the sensor....any help or suggestions would be greatly apprecaited!


  • Chris Oaten September 23, 2011 07:43 am

    What? No mention of getting your flash off-camera? You can spend about $100 on a radio trigger to fire a speedlite (some cameras such as the Canon 7D have wireless triggering built in) that's placed off-axis to the lens and this can greatly improve the quality of light from a speedlite? Why? Because the numero uno problem with on-camera flash isn't that it's harsh, it's that it's flat, providing no modelling for your subject's features and thus is not at all flattering. Perhaps you alluded to it in some of your points, I'm not sure, but the real "art" of speedlite lighting comes from getting those things off your camera and using them creatively. Take a look in the 7D's flash control settings and you'll find you can set 1:2 and 1:4 ratios *from the camera* and if this is used with a 580EX and 430EX triggered remotely plus a hot-shoe-mounted diffuser over the pop-up flash, well... you're a walking studio. :) Just saying.

  • Wolf September 23, 2011 06:28 am

    I have a Stofen diffuser for my Speedlite and found it to be more effective than tissue. In conjunction with bounce, it really "brightens" everything without any harsh shadows etc. Still getting used to the flash and the diffuser but it's pretty handy.

  • Mark Taylor September 23, 2011 06:12 am

    I hate to disagree with the tissue comment, but . . .
    I have used that method. And in a pinch stretching a single layer of WHITE tissue across the flash will soften the light enough to make a decent on the spot portrait.
    Just make sure there are no fold across the flash lens and secure it with a rubber band. It takes away the harshness, you can even tilt the flash head into a slight bounce position to lessen the amount of light even more. Don’t take my work for it, try it for yourself. Ten feet way, WHITE tissue paper straight or slightly bounced. See for yourself

  • Sarah September 22, 2011 01:30 pm

    Another way of looking the diffuser / tissue thing is:
    - a good diffuser bounces the light around more
    - a tissue just blocks some of the light - in which case, dial down the amount of flash and save you some battery power.

  • Randell John September 22, 2011 05:28 am

    There are only three ways to control flash -
    Flash to subject distance
    Flash output - The flash doesn't produce more light it just produces it for a shorter or longer period of time.
    Camera Aperture setting. f4 lots of flash hits the sensor/film - f22 not so much flash hits the sensor/film

    The other 7 bits of info has absolutely nothing to do with controlling 'Flash' and are mostly ways to soften the highlights to produce a better shadow/highlight transitional area.

    W.B. setting is a camera setting and again has nothing to do with flash. Using other WB setting when using flash can create some stunning results. Who writes this garbage. I thought this site was about teaching up and coming photographers.

    The author is confusing the basic grass roots of flash photography. It can be confusing enough for someone trying to improve their photographs - Lets not cloud the facts.

  • sillyxone September 22, 2011 04:45 am

    for the diffuser (garyfong, or tissue/screen hanging in front of flash), it's most effective when you are close to the subject. When you're moving away from the subject, the increased light source area will become insignificant. Like the sun, it's a big light source, but when is too far away from the earth, it becomes a point light source (and thus, the shadow it creates is harsh).

    You can search for "diffuser" on instructables.com and diyphotography.net

  • Spyros Henaidis September 22, 2011 03:29 am

    Great tips. The lightscoop and the pop-up diffuser especially. I teach photography classes locally and I'm going to look in to those and I'll probably start recommending them to my students.

  • David September 21, 2011 11:19 pm

    Its clear that there is a certain amount of snobbery in play here. If all you have with you is a tissue, it will give you a softening of flash discharge and should not be discounted. Frankly my plastic diffuser was expensive and really not much better that a 1 cent piece of paper! Other than this the article was helpful, thanks!

  • TrentReznor September 21, 2011 08:40 pm

    It's stupid to bounce your feeble little pop-up flash off the ceiling. It's gonna lose 1-2 stops of power, depending on the ceiling's height. It won't do you much good any more. I bought one of those flash diffusers that go on your hotshoe, took some sample pictures with and without it attached. See no difference at all. Waste of money.

  • F-64 stopper September 21, 2011 03:30 pm

    Fatal error, youre not altering your flash. Youre altering and controlling the quality and quantity of the light coming out of the flash. Using a flash is about creating light to assit in adding light where it isnt or to help "fill" a subject with light. There are numerous applications in which you could use a flash and this piece of trash doesnt express much creativity other than how to place an object next to your flash. You introduce people to the idea of using products with no explanation or visual representation of what the final result looks like when using the product.

    You neglect to mention that taking the flash off the camera increases the dynamics of how you can create, bounce, fill or place light within a composition or on a subject.

    Instead of mentioning things you "read" about, how about trying to express things you "KNOW" about and have done. Giving the reader the first person perspective will give them confidence and allow them to take your advice. I would rather hear someone give me a piece of advice instead of saying "this one time, I once read about something I have never done, so all I can do is tell you that it might exist, but then again, I dont know."

    Learning how to use strobes, flashes, or how to work with light is not easy and there is a lot to learn and know and things like this, articles like this, build up in peoples mind that they can do it without real knowledge.

    Just saying.

  • Martin September 21, 2011 02:56 pm

    Another way to alter and control your flash is to move it off your camera's hotshoe, and position it elsewhere. There are plenty of ways to trigger remote flashes in manual mode or via TTL, and the strobist website has lots of useful information about learning to use off-camera flashes.

  • ccting September 21, 2011 10:38 am

    I don't have any external flash system, i only depend on in-camera flash that the flash head cannot be adjusted and without diffuse box / color /tone gel. Reflection, wall/ceiling bound, tissue is the only choice if the minimum intensity of flash adjusted cannot solve the problem

  • ccting September 21, 2011 10:34 am

    hahaha, you can try using a very thin tissue, or reflection from a white card or bound back from wall / ceiling or diffuse flash box for very close up / macro photography.

    The guide number for flash is in feet. When it is too near , then it may make sense..sense we can control the thickness of tissue.

  • Doug Sundseth September 21, 2011 05:24 am

    A tissue in front of the flash will increase the beam spread (angle illuminated) at the cost of a couple of stops (or so) of flash power. This is a less efficient version of a dedicated diffuser dome or cap.

    A tissue may also reduce the intensity of specular highlights. It does not significantly change the size of the light, so won't have much effect on hardness or softness.

  • LitchfieldHills September 21, 2011 02:54 am

    There are tons of techniques for controlling your flash and making it look natural on Neil vanNiekirk's web site. I have spent hours reading there, actually purchased his books.


  • Erik Kerstenbeck September 21, 2011 02:49 am


    I like to use a number of light modifiers on my flash, like products from Lumiflex. Bouncing sometimes is not possible if you are shooting outside, The second two shots in this series of outdoor glamor shots used an off camera SB600 as a fill flash - the light was already getting hard at around 11AM, so shooting in the shadow of the plane required this help.


  • Erik September 21, 2011 02:18 am

    If it's about leaving a piece of cloth hanging over the flash, I agree, I don't see the point. Holding some paper, or letting a tissue hang stretched out, in front of the flash will make a difference.

  • John Woods September 21, 2011 01:59 am

    A tissue isn't making the light source any larger. The entire flash head illuminates when it is discharged, with a hot spot in the middle. Wrapping tissue over the head makes it a "diffuser" that is the same exact size as the flash head. You haven't increased the size at all. You may have lessened the hot spot, but its minuscule in a source so small. The only way a diffuser "enlarges" the source is if it is placed at a distance from the source.

  • JB Haber September 21, 2011 01:56 am

    Kudos for a very useful post. It's great to have so many low-cost and no-cost ideas in one post. These are all great ideas to try that won't break the bank. It just goes to show that you don't have to purchase expensive flash accessories to try and improve your photos.

  • Xavier September 21, 2011 01:49 am

    I've never tried tissues, but a few years ago, while attending a wedding (as a guest, not the photographer), I was trying to lessen the intensity of my flash, and I ended up using coloured napkins (folded, so that they can be effective), and it was a lot of fun playing with the different colours. A kind of poor man's flash gels :)

  • Erik September 21, 2011 01:45 am

    The point of a piece of paper or a tissue in front of the flash is that the flash (a small light source) will illuminate the paper, making it a larger light source and therefor gives less harsh light. It's not gonna do magic for you photography, but isn't just nonsense either.

  • Rob September 21, 2011 01:24 am

    Can't talk a bout flashes without mentioning the black foamie thing! Google it...

  • Spica September 21, 2011 01:12 am

    How come a tissue isn't changing the result ? Putting a tissue on your flash is adding a diffusing layer in front of the bulb, so that's definitely altering the flash effect (at the very least, the light is much less focused than with a bare flash head). Not the most efficient not the best result, still it HAS some effect.

  • jeannette September 21, 2011 12:40 am

    Why does my flash make 'frying' sounds and takes a good while to settle down so I can
    take a picture?

    Thanks for your help.