7 Strategies for Avoiding Flash Blow Out

7 Strategies for Avoiding Flash Blow Out


Last weekend I was at a party with my point and shoot digital camera and wanting to take a few shots to help us all remember the night. The problem was that it was a poorly lit room and I needed to use my flash. The result was a lot of blown out images. The flash was too strong! What should I do next time? – Sally

You’re not alone with this problem Sally – I see a lot of shots suffering from ‘flash blowout’ syndrome, many taken on point and shoot digital cameras. In fact while searching on Flickr for such shots today I found so many – it must be one of the most common problems that people face in their digital photography.

The problem that point and shoot camera owners face when it comes to using flash to light a scene is that many point and shoot cameras offer a photographer much less control over how powerful the flash is and what direction the light is pointed (in comparison to a DSLR with a dedicated flash unit that can be bounced in different directions at different levels).

However don’t resign yourself to flash dominated shots – all is not lost. Below are 7 tips for point and shoot users (and DSLR users wanting to use their camera’s flash).

Learn to See Your Flash as a Secondary Light Source

Before I give some specific tips on decreasing the impact of your flash on your shots let me share a tip that a more experienced and wise photographer once gave me.

A flash should only ever be thought of as a secondary light source. In almost every situation that you will want to photograph there will be some level of existing ambient light. This light is important as it is the natural light of the scene you’re trying to capture. Your flash should be used to supplement existing light rather than as the primary way of lighting a scene. If you use a flash as the primary source of light it will look artificial.

As a result of knowing this you’ll find that most of the following strategies are about making the flash more subtle or making the natural light more noticeable.

OK – so lets get on with some strategies and techniques for Avoiding Flash Blow Out:

1. Take a Step Back


One of the simplest ways to decrease the impact of the light coming from your flash is to put a little more distance between you and your subject. While I generally advise people to get in close to their subject and fill the frame – this can often make the effect of a flash even brighter. Many of the blown out flash shots that I see are simply because the photographer is too close to their subject.

Stepping back further away from your subject doesn’t mean that you can’t fill the frame. You could use your camera’s zoom lens (although this can increase the effect of camera shake) or simply crop the shot later on your computer.

2. Diffuse It

If your digital camera doesn’t allow you to have any control over how much light it outputs (see below for more on this) you might want to consider manually making some changes that limit or diffuse the light coming out of your digital camera. This is something that users of dedicated flash units can do by using specifically made flash diffusers – but point and shoot owners may need to get a little more creative and hack their own solution.

One of the most effective ways of doing this is simply to find some semi opaque material to place over your flash. I’ve seen some point and shoot owners stick a little white tissue paper over their flash and others do this with a little piece of cellotape (the semi-opache kind). Just remember that the color of the material that you use will impact the color of the light that comes out of your flash (and therefore the color cast on the scene) – so white tape or tissue paper will give a more natural light than red or blue!


3. Redirect it

Another strategy that dedicated flash users will often use is to redirect or bouncing the light coming out of their flash off another surface. They are able to do this because these flash units are able to be swiveled and shot into different directions.

Point and Shoot users obviously can’t change the direction that their flash points – but might want to try ‘hacking’ their camera in this way also. I’ve seen a few photographers do this simply by taking a small piece of white card and putting it at an angle in front of the flash so that the flash is redirected up onto the ceiling of the room (or even sideways onto a wall).

This little hack will need some experimentation to get the angle of the card right and the results will vary quite a bit depending upon the situation that you’re photographing (distance to your subject, how high the ceiling is, how much ambient light there is etc). Again, the color of both the card you use as well as the ceiling or wall that you’re bouncing the light off will impact the color cast in the shot.

4. Night Mode


Most point and shoot digital cameras have a fun little option on their mode dial called night mode. This mode tells the camera to use a technique called ‘slow sync flash‘. We’ve talked about this previously here at Digital Photography School – but to put it most simply it means taking a shot with a slower shutter speed while still shooting the flash. This means that you get a little more ambient light from the scene while still freezing the action with the flash (like the shot to the left). The shots taken in this mode won’t give you pin point sharp images – but they can be fun and very effective (particularly if there is some nice colored lights in the room).

5. Decrease Flash Output

Some point and shoot cameras have the ability to tell the camera just how much flash you want it to use. This won’t be something you all have at your finger tips but check your camera’s manual to see if you have it. If you do, dial back your flash output by a stop or two to see what impact it has. It might take a little experimentation to get the setting just right but it can help you end up with much more natural shots.

6. Add Light

This one could get you kicked out of the party – but getting a little more light on the scene is another pretty obvious way to help the situation. At an extreme level this might mean turning on all the lights in the room (and potentially destroying the mode) or it could mean moving your subjects to a better lit position near a lamp or light. I’ve done this in photographing wedding receptions – simply positioning myself in front of an open door that leads into a better lit room where the light spills in lighting up the faces of guests on the dance floor.

Another way to increase the impact of ambient light on a subject is to think about reflective light. For example photographing someone standing next to a white wall as opposed to a black wall will mean that any ambient light in the room will be bounced onto them (this is similar to having your own reflector).


7. ISO, Shutter Speeds and Aperture

One last way to decrease the impact has on a scene is to tweak some of your camera’s exposure settings – particularly those that impact how the camera treats light like ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed.

This isn’t the place for a detailed explanation of the basics of exposure (see my previous series on getting exposure right in digital photography) but if your camera allows you to change any of these settings they could be helpful. In brief:

  • ISO – increase the ISO setting and you increase the camera’s sensitivity to light. This means the ambient light in the room will have more effect and you’ll have less need for flash. Keep in mind that increasing ISO also increases the grain or noise in your shots. Read more on ISO.
  • Aperture – as you increase the aperture of your camera you increase the size of the hole in your lens and more light is able to get in quickly. So increasing aperture (this means decreasing the f/number) can be something to experiment with. Keep in mind that this means you also decrease the depth of field in your shot meaning you need to get your focus spot on and that not everything in your shot might be in focus. Read more about Aperture.
  • Shutter Speed – lengthening the amount of time that your shutter is open increases the amount of light hitting your image sensor. This is another factor in exposure that you might like to experiment with. Keep in mind that if there is movement in your scene (even small movements) that the longer the shutter is open the more blur you’ll get in your shot. Read more about Shutter Speed.

Please note – not all point and shoot digital cameras have the ability impact all (or any) of these settings. Check your manual – particularly to see if your camera has Aperture or Shutter Speed Priority Modes. I’d personally start with increasing ISO and then switching to a larger Aperture before playing with Shutter Speed (unless it was part of a Slow Sync Flash strategy).

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Ruth Fix August 24, 2011 10:12 am

    HELP. Is there any way to fix a blown out photo in Photoshop Elements 9?

  • Michelle True January 29, 2011 03:47 pm

    @tessa- That sounds like a great idea, wonder if my family would think I took up smoking? haha
    @simon I really like the idea of the white light from the computer screen when you open a new document. I may give that a try!
    Also, I am sure I have either a coffee filter or a pringles can lid around here most of the time. But the tip on watching for tissue type diffusers to burn is good to know!

  • CharlieJ December 31, 2010 02:43 pm

    I didn't see this tip for a diffuser, but it works quite well -- even if it looks a bit humorous. Recently, I was shooting a high school basketball game... and had forgotten to pack a real diffuser. So, I grabbed a styrofoam takeout tray and cut the bottom out of it; taped the bottom of the tray to the top of my flash and point the flash at the ceiling. The diffused light was perfect to light the players, without blinding them. The result was nice, white light, too.

    These little gems also come in handy with pop-up flash on a DSLR. For less than $20, you can't go wrong.

  • John Parkett December 30, 2010 02:58 am

    For pop up flash work indoors, I use a little reflective card called a Zeh Bounce, which I found on B&H. It works like a typical reflector to bounce off wall and ceilings. I have had much luck with this method and it's flat so it fits into a pocket. Works better than the translucent diffusers indoors, but for outdoor use to help soften, I have a Gary fong puffer, though it is harsher light on indoor shots. The zeh bounce is less than half what I paid for a gary fong puffer. And for indoor shots I have been very happy. Mainly use it for family events at peoples homes. Starts to be come less effective when ceilings are higher than 12'.


    I think they have their own site.

  • Barb October 1, 2010 08:46 am

    In the first few photo examples shown, it would seem to me that using MACRO mode would help tremendously. Not only would the focus then be correct for your close ups, but the power of your flash would automatically adjust for closer subjects and would fix the blown-out issue. For those who are not used to using it, it's the mode represented by the flower symbol. Happy shooting, everyone!

  • Memphis Wedding Photographers May 21, 2010 10:24 am

    Nice article. I've found that bouncing my flash is a great way to improve lighting and eliminate unsightly blowouts on in my wedding photographs. I rarely hit someone with flash head-on unless I'm trying to over power the sun.

  • Joe Marfice February 12, 2010 03:38 pm

    "Isn’t the point of an auto P&S camera that you can easily take photos withour resorting to tissues obver the flash?"

    "I’ve got 3 p&s cameras and they all overexpose with flash. Isn’t it about time camera manufacturers got this right?"

    bikeman, blaming the tool isn't productive. Learn its limitations and strengths, and learn to work with them.

    "Getting this right" is much, much more complicated than you realize. If it wasn't, someone would have solved it by now, and raked in the $$$, eliminating the competition in the process.

  • tessa January 7, 2009 04:21 pm

    One thing I have found that imo is an awesome was 2 diffuse the flash is tobacco rolling papers. They come in lots os shapes and thickness (providing more or less diffusing) and are suuuuper small so can easily carry around several packs without taking up any extra space. With tissue paper it tends to be a tad bulkier and too big.

    Its perferct to just stick an itty bitty piece of tape to one paper and attatch 2 top of flash so you can pull it fown over the flash or lift it back up if needed.

  • Melissa Rodwell September 21, 2008 03:05 pm

    I really enjoyed this post, it has alot to do with subtracting light, which I discuss in detail here: http://fashionphotographyblog.com/2008/09/dancing-in-the-dark-subtracting-light/

  • Henry_Pet August 3, 2008 06:26 am

    I got inspired and taped a piece of aluminum foil to a business card. It's crinkly which probably helps diffuse the light more. Then I hold it up in front of the flash, pointing at the ceiling when I take the picture. Sometimes it works and sometimes I get bright patches or stripes. But I'm sure the idea is sound.

  • bikeman December 13, 2007 08:32 pm

    And b4 I get slated for not knowing how to use a camera (true) this issue was NEVER a problem with my old 35mm cameras. Maybe digital cameras still have someway to go?

  • bikeman December 13, 2007 08:21 pm

    Isn't the point of an auto P&S camera that you can easily take photos withour resorting to tissues obver the flash?

    I've got 3 p&s cameras and they all overexpose with flash. Isn't it about time camera manufacturers got this right?

  • Pete Eddy September 14, 2007 07:17 pm

    A simple soloution on my Canon EOS 400D is to reduce the flash output in the menu. If required in another situation, the flash output can also be increased if required. Shooting in RAW can also allow you to salvage some shots.
    Best regards, Pete.

  • Richard August 15, 2007 09:55 pm

    An other option in low light situations may be to use the selftimer of the camera and not use the flash at all. Because of the little amount of light available the camera automatically selects a large shuttertime making it difficult to avoid camera shake when shooting by hand. By placing the camera on a table or something and setting the selftimer the photo is taken without camera shake.

  • Camcat August 14, 2007 09:22 am

    I tried the Lightscoop over my pop-up flash and it did the trick. It bounces the light and creates very even and nice light. I was having so many problems before with the flash creating a shadow from the lens and of course because the light was generally so unflattering. Check out some sample photos here: http://lightscoop.com/beforeafter/index

  • Ramanan July 25, 2007 02:48 am

    I have also tried diffusing the flash on my old Olympus c-370 zoom dgital camera with white cellotape.It works.

  • Ramanan July 25, 2007 02:43 am

    I am able to shoot without a flash on my Sony DSC H2 by raising the ISO to 400.There is no noise in the pictures when this is done.

  • Hsien Lei July 23, 2007 07:01 pm

    I have been sooo frustrated lately with the too-bright flash on my Canon IXUS 50. After reading this post, I played around with some of the modes that I'd never thought of adjusting before. One thing that seems to work is to turn down the "exposure mode" to -2/3 or 1 and turn on the Vivid function. Now maybe all those pictures of my son's LEGO creations will look nicer! ;)

  • Simon Boyd July 23, 2007 06:07 pm

    Nice Tips, here are some more.

    1: Be careful of putting tissue/toilet paper over your flash, it gets hot and can burn and stick to your flash leaving a burn mark on your flash, use wax paper or a more durable material. Still - its Ok for short use's but dont use for too long.

    2: reflect or diffuse desklamps/ roof lights/ window light with paper or white t-shirts, even a tablecloth. I haven't tried using an albino's chest but im sure it could be done.

    3:You can also do the exact opposite to whats stated in article if you are unable to turn flash power down

    3a: ISO - drop your ISO right down to 50 or less if allowed by camera, you will get a sharper image with less noise but not to much light blowing out.

    3b: APERTURE. set a narrow aperture, get more focus and less light into sensor.

    3c: SHUTTERSPEED. Increase shutter speed - A LOT, less light will hit sensor but you will freeze any motion, and people may not be a "soft" as they would like to appear. this makes for very vibrant background colours of a sunset too sometimes.

    4: wave a flashlight over main part of subject that you want to illuminate.

    5: Sit the subject near a computer (out of the frame maybe) and start a new document with only a white screen, results in soft diffuse light. Try this with a blue screen or other colour casts for interesting effects, try multiple monitors (ie: desktop, laptop and a tv, dont use a radio as they don't have very good lighting abilities.)

    6: combine all of the above and experiment

  • shroticg July 22, 2007 10:11 pm

    i liked the idea of increasing the distance from the subject to make room for ambient light and less built in flash to correctly expose. diffusers also do wonders since it is the picture that matters and shd come correctly exposed. good idea to bring this subject up.

  • Rafael July 22, 2007 10:01 am

    In my Nikon D40 I change the flash compensation levels. Changing the flash compensation level to negative numbers, decrease lighting for the main subject in the picture. Works like a charm.

  • Wil July 21, 2007 03:03 am

    awesome tips !

    I've used everything from a folded napkin to different color t-shirt fabrics to diffuse my flash. Sometimes colored fabric can add a nice warming effect if it's red or orange - but stay away from blue, green, and other colder colors!

    also, the "lightscoop" may be a good "DIY" project in the future because it seems pretty simple to make (instead of paying $30)

    keep up the good work.

  • Kenji July 21, 2007 02:55 am

    For those owning consumer digital cameras (not DSLRs), you can use 2-4 strips of those opaque masking tapes. But the best trick I did with my daughter's camera is to cut a strip from a cloudy plastic (tupperware, Pringle's cover) and tape it over the flash. It diffuses a lot better.

  • EL July 21, 2007 12:19 am

    If you are adjusting your settings to deal with the intensity of the flash, forget about shutter speed.

    Unless you are shooting very very fast, your shutter is going to be open way longer than the flash and the "flashed" part of your photo is going to be exposed pretty much the same regardless of shutter speed.

    It is the aperture controls that control how much flash hits your sensor; use shutter speed to control how the ambient light exposes.


  • Shane July 20, 2007 06:45 pm

    If you don't mind post processing then the other tip worth bearing in mind is to underexpose the image… this will avoid washout of your main subject. The background will probably be rather dark, but this can be quickly and easily rebalanced with 'levels' or 'curves' in most image programs. Sure it will increase noise in the background, but this is a lot less offensive than washing out your main subject.

  • Nadine July 20, 2007 11:54 am

    I like to use the 1/60 shutter speed in low light - I read somewhere (here?) it's as slow as you can go while avoiding camera shake.

  • Joan Trask July 20, 2007 06:21 am

    Thank you for the tips on Flash blowouts. Such simple solution, will be trying it soon

    Joan Trask

  • Jimmy Brown July 20, 2007 06:15 am

    When I need to cut down the amount of flash quickly on my DSLR,I simply wrap the flash with a (clean) Kleenex. Sometimes it takes several wraps around the flash to have the effect wanted.I always keep a small travel packet in my camera bag. I realize I can compensate the flash through the camera menue but this is quick and usually effective. Cheers jimmy

  • violetbliss July 20, 2007 03:12 am

    "find some semi opaque material to place over you lens"

    Did you mean "your flash"?

  • John Flinchbaugh July 20, 2007 02:16 am

    Ed, that film canister trick may be just right for my S2is. I envision it fitting perfectly.

  • kevinv033 July 20, 2007 01:17 am

    I saw something a few weeks ago that will be of help when it comes out.


    Looks very promising for DSLR users without a dedicated external flash.

  • Kira July 20, 2007 12:24 am

    Even easier way to diffuse -- stick a finger in front of the flash, partly covering/redirecting it.

    I thought I was the only one who did this, but a professional photog who took a shot with my little point-and-shoot did the same thing!

  • ktpupp July 20, 2007 12:20 am

    When taking shots at a bar or party, those handy ever-present cocktail napkins make a great flash diffuser! Just hold it over the flash, making sure not to get it in front of the lens. You can fold/unfold the napkin to get various thicknesses to adjust the amount of light it lets through.

  • Steve Newton July 20, 2007 12:04 am

    Another trick I like sometimes, is to partly obscure the flash with a finger or hand. By casting a shadow with your finger/hand you can prevent the flash from over lighting the subject and ad ambient light around. This also keeps the picture a little dark emphasizing that the shot was in a dark/night situation and preventing all your pics from looking like daylight.

  • watershed July 19, 2007 11:07 pm

    Great tips!

    With my S2IS I also have problems with grainy shots at ISOs over 100.

    I usually shoot in "P" mode and turn down the flash as much as possible-- usually 3-4 stops, but I'll experiment to see how low it can go.

    I'm also curious to try some tissue over the flash to diffuse it more. Great idea!

  • AC July 19, 2007 10:55 pm

    I prefer playing with shutter, then aperture and then bump up the ISO. On my S2IS, the noise grain gets pretty bad at ISOs over 100.

  • Ed Z July 19, 2007 09:57 pm

    Good tips for point-and-shoot users. Another thing that works well for a "quick&dirty" diffuser is a coffee filter (or a piece of one. Even works for diffusing larger, shoe mount flashes as well.

    another good trick for diffusing, if your camera has a "pop up" flash (most dslrs and some P&S) is to cut a slit in an old translucent film canister (as opposed to the black ones) and slip it over the flash. I always carry one in my bag if I don't have my speedlight on me!