8 On-Camera Flash Tips: How To Get Better Lighting From Your On-Camera Flash

8 On-Camera Flash Tips: How To Get Better Lighting From Your On-Camera Flash

On Flash Camera Tips

Image by Steve Hanna

You can get great lighting for your portraits with on-camera flash. And there’s no need to purchase expensive attachments to modify your light, because everything you need is already there. The thing to understand is that your flash unit is just another light source at your disposal. Fortunately, you can learn to control the light it produces and shape it to your needs. Plus, it has the added benefit of doing some of the thinking for you when you need it to.

Since the light your flash unit produces directly can appear rather harsh, you’ll have to do one or both of the following in order to get more pleasing lighting from it:

  • Create a larger, wider area of light relative to your subject.
  • Illuminate your subject from an angle other than directly off the top of the camera.

The following tips will help you accomplish these goals:

1. Bounce It.

This is the number one secret weapon when it comes to on-camera flash techniques. Indoors, a typical room with light-colored walls and ceilings will provide you with all the bounce surfaces you need to make beautiful pictures. Using this technique, you can achieve softbox-style lighting, or even very broad lighting, with your flash unit alone.

Wall/ceiling bounce

Although the flash unit itself is a relatively small light source, it will cover a wide area of a wall and ceiling. This newly illuminated area will provide a wider, more diffuse “light source” for the subject.

On-camera flash bounced off wall and ceiling, camera left.

To create a portrait with the bounce technique, I generally tilt the flash unit to hit the ceiling and wall as I visualize a large softbox there, at the traditional portrait lighting angle, to my subject. This technique is very versatile as it can give you everything from very dramatic split-lighting to soft, even illumination. The subject’s orientation, and the resultant secondary bounce around the room (providing fill light) are the keys to creating the effect you want.

You can even angle your flash up and behind you to fill a small to normal-size room up with beautiful light. Spin it around and up at about 45 degrees to hit the wall and ceiling behind you.

2) Flag It.

Something most people don’t realize is that light comes out of your flash unit in a wide pattern, not in a straight beam. While most of the light is focused forward, there is a good amount actually spilling out perpendicular to the flash head lens.

Even when your flash is set to a narrow zoom, plenty of light still spills off the sides. A small flag can be used to block this effect from your subject.

When bouncing your flash, at certain angles close to that perpendicular plane, direct light will hit your subject. This isn’t necessarily something you have to avoid, but it can result in “point-and-shoot” type shadows, especially if there is a wall or other flat surface just behind your subject.

To eliminate this effect, you can place a small piece of opaque material or black foam just long enough to block the direct part of the light from hitting your subject. That one little change can make a big difference in the overall look of your shot.

3) Make It Bigger.

The size of your light source, relative to your subject, affects the overall look of the picture. This is generally because a larger light source will create a smoother transition between light and shadow, or what you might call softer light.

Craft foam bounce card with rubber band.

We’ve already discussed how bouncing your light off a wall and ceiling will make the relative size of the light illuminating your subject larger. But what if you don’t have a wall or other surface to bounce your flash off of? You can still make your light source bigger by using a simple bounce card. Because the light being directed toward your subject is at least twice as large as the face of the flash, you’ll get that much more surface area coverage. This usually results in more pleasing illumination if you’re not too far away from your subject.

Indoors, a bounce card like this has the added benefit of throwing light onto your subject from two directions, forward and bounced off the ceiling.

Simply use a piece of white cardboard or crafting foam attached to your flash head. Of course, you can orient the flash in various ways to direct the light as you like.

4) Use TTL.

Most modern flash units offer a variety of modes to shoot with. For example, I will often use my flash units off-camera, in manual mode. This allows me to maintain consistent manual control of the flash’s output power in relatively static shooting situations, like traditional portraiture.

Through-The-Lens (TTL) mode, on the other hand, puts the flash unit’s output under the control of the camera and flash. The camera and flash essentially work together to decide how much light the flash emits in order to properly expose the subject. Most modern TTL systems like Canon’s E-TTL and Nikon’s i-TTL are really great at what they do.

TTL can be used in just about every shooting situation including shooting in your camera’s manual mode, outdoors, and even when using bounce techniques. Since TTL can make life a whole lot easier for you, especially in fast-moving shooting situations, there’s no reason not to use it extensively for on-camera flash work.

When you’re ready, you might want to learn more advanced techniques using Flash Exposure Compensation and general Exposure Compensation controls in conjunction with TTL flash. These controls allow you to make easy adjustments to flash and overall exposure while still letting the TTL system do most of the thinking for you. Very handy indeed.

5) Use High-Speed Sync.

If your flash unit has a high-speed sync setting, turn it on. Most normal sync speeds for your flash will be limited to about 1/250 – 1/350 sec. That’s fine for situations where you’re in an environment with dim light. When shooting indoors, for example, you are free to shoot at any appropriate shutter speed UP TO your normal flash sync speed limit. That means you can just as easily shoot at 1/40 second to record ambient light, or faster if you choose to isolate the subject or really freeze the action.

1/2500 sec. exposure required high-speed sync for this promotional shot using f/2.8 outdoors.

However, whether indoors or out, if your exposures require a higher shutter speed, high-speed sync will allow you to shoot at virtually any shutter speed, generally up to 1/8000 sec.

You’ll usually need to work with higher shutter speeds if normal sync at your chosen aperture and ISO will result in overexposure of the ambient lighted portions of the image. This can happen easily in outdoor portrait situations, where the ambient background is rather bright, and you’d like a little fill flash on your subject. High-speed sync to the rescue!

Leaving your high-speed sync mode on all the time doesn’t mean it’s always in use. Your camera and flash will only use it if you are shooting beyond the normal sync speed. Otherwise, the flash will simply revert to its normal behavior.

6) Gel It.

DSLRs have the advantage of overall color control via the white balance (WB) setting you use. And if you’re shooting in RAW format, you easily have enough information in the image file to adjust for proper WB after the fact in something like Adobe’s Lightroom.

But there are times when you want to make sure the light coming off your flash unit is close to the same color as the ambient light. This will ensure that most of the light in your images are in the same ballpark, color temperature-wise.

Again, you’ll likely get the best results if you adjust WB during post processing, but this way the images will have a more consistent color throughout.

To bring your flash into the tungsten range of color for most ambient situations, you can use a Color Temperature Orange (CTO) filter over the flash lens. Set your camera’s WB to tungsten, if you like, and fine tune the WB in post as necessary.

7) Use The Ambient Light.

Another tell-tale sign of misused on-camera flash is the dark tunnel effect. This happens when the camera is exposing well enough for the flash illuminated subject, but not enough environment light is being recorded. Allowing the ambient light and surroundings to appear in the image will place your subject in context and give the image a sense of atmosphere.

Bounce card combined with 1/40 sec. exposure.

Even if your camera has a preset flash mode for achieving this effect, I strongly recommend switching over to the camera’s manual mode. This will allow you to manually determine slower shutter speeds to achieve exactly the amount of ambient light you want for the image.

Creative use of direct flash and long shutter speed.

I find that shutter speeds of 1/15 – 1/40 second work for most environments, including outdoors at night. Regular TTL should still be employed in order for the camera and flash to make a good determination about the exposure of the subject (what the flash is concerned with). But, you are in control of the ambient with the shutter speeds you select.

8) Turn It Off.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do with your on-camera flash is nothing at all. As you become more proficient with it, you might be tempted to use it all the time. However, you don’t want to become dependent on it. After all, there’s plenty of good light available in most situations. But when you need a little extra here and there, it’s nice to know you can always slap on that flash and get great shots on demand.

Sometimes flash fill light just isn't right for the picture.

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Some Older Comments

  • mawie February 16, 2013 02:13 am

    can i use olympus flash light with canon camera?

  • jun zhao September 16, 2011 08:10 pm

    our company have all kinds of camera flash,they can be fited for nikon canon. if you want ,please contact me at once.

  • Stephanie May 1, 2011 12:18 am

    Really enjoyed this article and learned a lot. I am mostly self-taught, so many photography tips articles can be over my head. I feel like I can start appyling some of these techniques now. Thanks!

  • Sonya pdf August 2, 2010 06:09 pm

    Hi Was Wondering What would you pick a canon d500 or a nikon d5000?? because i still thinking to pick d500 what would u pick?

  • Gavin July 26, 2010 11:41 pm

    Hi there

    I recently visited a game park and we went on a few night drives. I use a canon 500D with a 580EX MKII flash. The problem that I have is that the aperture speed is too slow resulting in a blurred image. I missed a lot of shots because of this. I shot in AV mode ISO 3200 and F5.6. I even became so desperate that I put it on Full Auto mode.

    Sadly I missed many good photo opportunities because of this. Does anyone have any tips? Since it was in the bush, there was no other light available except my flash.

  • Gbenga Loveeyes Images July 26, 2010 06:12 pm

    Thank you DPS. I like this, I feel am learning all again.

  • ronnie July 24, 2010 04:32 am

    Real big thanks. Never big on flash photography, but with eight simple tips you have made the task less daunting. Keep em coming !

  • Amy Romberg July 23, 2010 10:58 pm

    This is an extremely helpful article for photographers who use natural light as a primary light source. Since there are often times when there isn't enough light (especially indoors), these tips are incredibly useful. The diagrams are great. Thank you for sharing!

  • Andy July 23, 2010 01:21 pm

    How about covering the flash with color paper? it will give a good effect, too

  • Garry July 23, 2010 09:17 am

    Thanks for the article, especially the high speed sync hints. Here's a source of some interesting flash diffusion material...before you throw out that broken flat screen monitor pull it apart and you will find some big opaque or clear or patterned or glossy black pieces of plastic. A bit of time and experimenting gives interesting results with close up multiple flash units, particularly on insects and other small objects.

  • Mandi July 23, 2010 07:54 am

    err... 580 ;)
    Shooting with 5DMkII (also very new! - moved up from a 450D)

  • Mandi July 23, 2010 07:51 am

    Thank you! I have a new 530EX II and I didn't know about the High-Speed Sync setting - I have been using my flash on auto (all camera settings on manual) and often wished I could have a faster shutter - thanks!!

  • Marko July 23, 2010 07:39 am


    P-TTL is Pentax Through The Lens. E and I mentioned in the article should have been C (canon) and N (nikon), but marketing departments... what can you do :-)

  • Lauren July 23, 2010 05:36 am

    Thanks so much for this article! I have a speedlight flash and have been wanting to learn how to use it to its full potential. The tips you gave here are great, I'm especially happy to see that I can get a soft box-like effect with it by merely using a bounce card. I have bounced it off walls/ceilings before but sometimes this doesn't always give the effect I want. I'm looking forward to trying out the techniques you have suggested here! :)

  • Anonymous July 23, 2010 04:56 am

    Very helpful considering I just got an sb600 speedlight a few weeks ago! thanks!

  • Nathan July 23, 2010 04:24 am

    Great article. Just got a new 580 ex II and was wanting to know more about the high speed sync option. You just explained it for me and now I'll know how to use it in my next shoot. Cheers =)

  • jameswhe July 23, 2010 03:41 am

    Glad I read the article. Just bought a new rig, including Canon TOL speedlight. Had forgotton all about high speed sync.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  • risk July 23, 2010 02:26 am

    Seriously thinking on buying a flash, and suddenly this article is posted!!! Thanks for the tips, i think they'll be very useful :D

  • Cathy July 23, 2010 02:17 am

    Great information. I prefer no flash when possible, but you provide some good ways to use flash. The high speed sync is especially helpful.

  • Paul Speed July 22, 2010 08:49 pm

    Found your artical on flash photography useful. I have a pentax R360FGZ which has loads of different functions. Can you explain what P-TTL is. I tend to set my flash to high speed sync which is 1/180 or faster and bounce it of the celling. I can also use very slow shutter speeds which I have not used yet.
    With so many different functions it's hard to know which one to use.

  • Andy Merrett July 22, 2010 04:10 pm

    Re: point 1. It's worth noting that most camera's on board flash is totally static (apart from the arcing vertical movement from closed to open position, and I'm not even sure the camera will fire the flash if it's not totally upright) therefore direct angling techniques won't work.

    However, kind of in line with point 2, you can do a little bit of light redirection (at the expense of some of the flash's intensity — not a great problem with most onboard units) with the use of white card angled in front of the unit. This could be used to bounce the light off the ceiling.

    However, it's still definitely worth getting a dedicated and detachable flash unit, then you have the options of all sorts of angles. Particularly as many of the higher end DSLRs don't have any built-in flash unit.

    Great article, though.

  • Martin Soler HDR Photos July 22, 2010 04:07 pm

    Thanks a lot for the tips. My next purchase is a flash and some simple tricks with rubber bands and cardboard are welcome!

  • Ed Verosky July 22, 2010 01:29 pm

    @sillyxone: High-speed sync doesn't have to be complicated in typical use. The main thing you have to know is that it allows you use flash at higher shutter speeds (beyond 1/250 sec.). Useful for some outdoor shooting where flash power isn't of great concern and your subjects are relatively close.

    @Ion: Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) is simply a way to dial down/up the flash power while still using TTL. It does not directly affect the ambient exposure. If your camera is in manual mode, you can control the flash exposure (subject) and the ambient independently, quite easily via a simple shutter speed adjustment.

    In my eBook (mentioned above) all of this is discussed in detail, including a strategy to make it all very easy, virtually foolproof, to control.

    @Greg: I agree. Some of these tips would be great to go in-depth in articles of their own.

    @Reid506: If you are using TTL, you don't have to worry about it because TTL measures the light hitting the subject regardless of where it's bouncing from. However, yes, as light travels, it does in fact, lose intensity, bounce or no bounce.

  • Ed Verosky July 22, 2010 01:23 pm

    @sillyxone: High-speed sync doesn't have to be complicated in typical use. The main thing you have to know is that it allows you use flash at higher shutter speeds (beyond 1/250 sec.). Useful for some outdoor shooting where flash power isn't of great concern and your subjects are relatively close.

    @Ion: Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) is simply a way to dial down/up the flash power while still using TTL. It does not directly affect the ambient exposure. If your camera is in manual mode, you can control the flash exposure (subject) and the ambient independently, quite easily via a simple shutter speed adjustment.

    In my eBook (mentioned above) all of this is discussed in detail, including a strategy to make it all very easy, virtually foolproof, to control.

    @Greg: I agree. Some of these tips would be great to go in-depth in articles of their own.

  • Reid506 July 22, 2010 12:09 pm

    I have a silly question that might not should be here. If not, just let me know and I'll post elsewhere. If you point your flash straight up and use a white card or if you angle your flash to bounce off a wall or ceiling, is there any exposure compensation involved? What I mean is, by not shooting directly at the subject, would I have to open up a half or full stop or is this all speed of light stuff and no matter what angle or how many bounces the light makes it (the light) would get there at the same time anyway? Hope this makes sense.

  • Greg July 22, 2010 11:16 am


    Like this one a short while back?

  • Mei Teng July 22, 2010 10:59 am

    I bought a speedlite recently but have not used it much. I find understanding flash photography quite a challenge as some of the tips mentioned here are quite complicated for a newbie like me.

  • Jason Collin Photography July 22, 2010 07:41 am

    Thank you, this article reminded me that when I do use on camera flash, I do not use my HONL accessories enough, nor my gels enough.

  • Greg July 22, 2010 05:50 am

    I always have mixed feelings regarding tips like these ones. Some of them (like "bounce it") are pretty obvious, at least to the person who already bought the flash to attach to his/her camera. And some of them are complicated, and can't be explained in a short tip.
    Maybe it would be better to write a whole article about one tip and explain it in more detail giving a few visual examples of before/after.

  • tim July 22, 2010 05:29 am

    It will be great to have an article on speedlights, their features, advantages, and differences.
    There is so much information and thoughts on taking photos and lenses and ways to setup lights, but really little information on flashes, and strobes.

  • Lon July 22, 2010 03:55 am

    As to switching over to manual mode to control ambient light, a quick, and less precise shortcut is to adjust the flash power using the camera's Flash Exposure Compensation if it is so equipped. When using flash straight on for fill light on close subjects I always have FEC turned way down.

  • sillyxone July 22, 2010 03:17 am

    #5 on high-speed sync is a tricky topic that not everybody understand. This article explains in more detail:

  • scott July 22, 2010 02:35 am

    Get the speedlight closer to the axis of the lens opening rather than 9" above it where most speedlights live. This will make it cast a less obvious shadow under the chin and can even look more like a high-fashion light. You will have to hold it there and use a TTL cord or make some fancy bracket out of palm-fronds and snot (or whatever you happen have handy). David Hobby wrote a similar tip a few days ago as well, if that helps validate this practice some of us have been using for a coon's age.


  • Nobody July 22, 2010 02:20 am

    @fajar: I believe that would be for another article, and also a little difficult to cover the entire range of available flashes.

    I suggest the following:
    Must have both adjustable angle and variable output
    Should have manual adjustment
    Is GREAT to have both TTL and manual adjustment.

  • fajar July 22, 2010 01:13 am

    Good stuff this. I'm looking to buy a speedlight for my camera. Maybe you guys could do some review and explain more of this stuff like high-speed sync?