Shooting with an In Camera Flash

Shooting with an In Camera Flash

Has anyone noticed how there has been a real anti-flash vibe going around recently in the digital photography sphere? I’m seeing it in books, websites, forums and even from manufacturers of cameras themselves with the recent release of loads of cameras that would rather push ISO up very high than use a flash.

While I would totally agree that flash photography can blow out a shot with it’s harsh light – there are times where there’s no getting around using it and where (when used correctly) it can actually ‘make’ a shot.

My preference with flash photography is to have dedicated flash that is either on a hotshoe, flash bracket or off camera – however there are plenty of times when all you’ve got at your disposal is the in camera flash. 99% of all cameras have them – so perhaps it’s time we thought about how to get the best results from them.

Here are a few tips:

1. Get In Close

The main limitation of built in flash units is their power. Whereas external flash units have their own dedicated power source and can be quite large – a built in flash shares it’s power with your camera’s other components and it’s generally quite a bit smaller.

Knowing this should drive you to get in close enough to your subject for the flash to have some impact (usually within 2-3 meters). If you can’t get in close (for example if you’re at a rock concert and are sitting in the back row) you’ll probably achieve better results by turning your flash off and bumping up the ISO setting.

2. Try Slow Sync Flash

Another limitation with in built flash units is that they can produce quite harsh results that mean any other ambient light in a scene is lost. This is partly because the light they produce is unable to be directed/bounced indirectly onto your subject.

One way around this is to use Slow Sync Flash. You can read about this technique in our tutorial on the topic – but in short it involves choosing a slower shutter speed and firing the flash while the shutter is open.

3. Diffuse or Direct Your Flash DIY style

I’ve already alluded to the problem of not being able to diffuse the light produced by a fixed flash unit – however one technique that some inventive photographers use is to take a Do It Yourself approach and create their own diffusers.

Some photographers I know always have a roll of semi-opaque adhesive tape in their camera bag to put over their flash. This doesn’t stop the flash’s light but diffuses it.

Other friends take a little piece of white card with them which they put in front of their flash to bounce it up or sideways.

Using these techniques might mean you need to play with exposure compensation (you’ll probably want to increase exposure by a stop or two) as your camera won’t be aware that you’re taking some of the power out of it’s light.

4. Fill-in Flash

Don’t just use your flash when it’s dark. Often when shooting outdoors a flash can really lift an image up a notch – particularly when photographing a subject with strong backlighting or one with harsh downward light. A fill in flash lights up shadowy areas. Read more about Fill Flash.

Read more from our category

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

  • vicky May 21, 2013 02:22 am

    Awesome.. I always ruin my photoes because of lack of knowledge about inbuilt flash photography.. :) thanku so much .. for the infoemation

  • anna July 26, 2011 02:40 am

    i was asked to take a photos of wedding in 35mm and medium format. all black and white. generally i feel pretty comfortable with my 35mm but do find that i need to dodge and burn. i just bought a flash and was curious if the same things for digital apply to film cameras and also if i can have my camera in an automatic setting or whether it should be in manual? any feedback?

  • Charley July 14, 2011 11:54 pm

    I honestly didn't take the time to read all of the previous replies, but I use an old opaque film canister, cut a slit in it so that it fits over my fill flash. Works pretty well. But, I prefer to just keep my external flash mounted to prevent the flash from popping up when it's not necessary to use.

  • Oliver January 8, 2011 09:09 am

    My usual flash technique is to use a small piece of aluminium foil to bounce the light to one side. Its the same ideas as turning a hot shoe flash unit sideways, but you can do it with a regular in built flash. It can give some really nice results when the lighting comes from the side.

  • Kenny B July 22, 2010 02:41 pm

    I wish I read this just a couple days ago! I was taking pictures and getting frustrated with the exposure; I could either get a decent sky, or have the subject properly exposed. I didn't even think about flash. Luckily, it was just with my girlfriend, so I'll have plenty of time to redo them :D

  • Bill Genova April 28, 2010 10:04 pm


    I have now taken up photography more avidly in the past few months. Your web site has provided me with untold information and challenged me to do things I had not ever thought of in photography. A simple thank you is not suffice.

  • Jessica April 20, 2010 07:54 am

    flash is tough to work with. thanks for the tips!

  • mbw March 5, 2010 03:04 am

    I just bought one of these Pixco Flash diffusers on ebay... still waiting for it to come in the mail, but it looks promising

  • digitalhead September 6, 2009 01:36 pm

    I was not aware that my photo was used on this website..

  • Rob July 11, 2009 09:27 am

    I also use an empty opaque plastic film container with it neatly cut out to slot over my onboard flash. Seems to do the trick nicely. At the moment I'm trying to decide what is best to use for macro..a ringflash or a remote flash that I can also use on camera.
    Love the articles Darren..cheers......R

  • George E. Norkus July 10, 2009 01:43 pm

    Nice article!

    One thing to add, most any strobe will bring out red eye. Sure most cameras offer anti red-out ability but you'll find in doesn't always work on infants, blue eyed people and true blond haired people.

    Sometimes from the side, red eye comes shows up if the person is wearing large contact lenses. Besides, I hate the anti-red eye flashes!

    Note: I've taken photos of one child that came out with yellowish-orange eyes. I showed the mother and told her to contact an eye doctor. She did and thanked me later for the near loss of her child’s eye to disease.

    Note to Erik:

    Instead of using a coffee filter, try the same attachment with different colored tissue papers and amount of layers. Coffee filters are too coarse.

    It's hard to believe all the tricks us old timers used on their cameras that are making a digital comeback!

  • Peter Downie July 10, 2009 06:59 am

    Thanks and congratulations to Darren, this site is a terrific service. When I have to use the on-camera flash on my Sony A300, I ALWAYS adust the white balance up by two notches; this results in a more natural -looking tone, and very succesfully removes that washed-out look which flash seems to produce. I would be interested to hear what others think.

  • MrJackson July 10, 2009 03:39 am

    I can't use my on-camera flash with any of my lenses except the kit lens, which i don't use anymore anyway. The bottom 3rd of the frame is generally blocked from the flash by the lens, though in a pinch i can get something usable. So I stick to my hotshoe flash, and it's almost always with me.

  • Linda Moore June 12, 2009 04:37 am

    This is probably the wierdest thing you have ever heard, but to diffuse my built in flash I cut a ring of cloth out of a thin white child's sock. I just drop it over the flash and it works great.

  • Chris Jones April 24, 2009 10:46 am

    Here's a word of warning: if you grab a sheet of paper to diffuse your flash, make sure it's blank, and don't hold it too close. I was fooling around taking pictures of my dog one day, and I decided that my in-camera flash needed to be diffused, so I quickly grabbed a sheet of paper off my desk and held it up in front of my camera. When the flash fired, I heard a loud bang and the flash started smoking. Turned out the paper was printed and some of the toner was actually in contact with my flash. The toner exploded when the flash fired, and now every time I try to use my flash it makes a sort of acidy smell, and even smokes if I try to fire it too many times.

  • arvind s grover January 28, 2009 12:19 am

    I had great success making a flash diffuser for the small flash that's built into my digital SLR (Canon 40d) using the Make tutorial. All you need is one of those opaque 35mm film canisters. I took fantastic shots in a nearly pitch-black space of people's faces, with no flash blow out!

  • Don Bird November 7, 2008 11:09 pm

    If you are doing concert photos the best lens to use i think would be 50mm .But if you dont have the money because
    a lot use in camera flash and set ios to 800 or 1600 i do
    this and it works well for me.

  • Don Bird October 24, 2008 06:21 am

    I do concert photos and i do not use flash.Whati do do is
    set the iso up to 800 or 1600 and havent had to much problems.When i get to a club i go before the show starts
    i take shots with deferent setings to see what the best
    settings to use.There are times i have used flash plus
    set iso up.ONE thing i have never had to a external flash.
    I have had great photos doing it this way.

  • diesel April 23, 2008 08:36 pm

    whew! for a while there i thought i was the only one who used flash. now i won't feel quite so guilty. Thanks for all the tips guys.

  • Textalon September 13, 2007 05:43 am

    Try using a cut up piece of used fabric softener sheet as a diffuser, it might give you what you're looking for.

  • Alan April 23, 2007 06:39 pm

    Hello, I have a one question. I have a cheap camera with a bult-in flash, when should I use the flash?

    Can I use flash on an overcast day when photographing a car about 5-10 metres away? Thats what I am doing soon. Or shoud i inly use the flash when all day light has nearly gone??

    thank you all.

  • ben michalski April 13, 2007 04:36 am

    Has anyone ever thought of this....?
    meter your flash output at 20ft, 15ft, 10ft and then 5ft.
    make sure your meter and distance are at exact f stops or either +1/3 on the high side and -2/3 on the low side.
    Set your flash to MANUAL 1/1 before you start the "On Camera Flash Calibration technique" Then fire away!

    Then you may want to use something called "A GREY CARD" remember those? anyone still remember that a camera can't see color temp without some help from the person squeezing the trigger and a piece of grey paper...duhhh!!!

    after that is it all over again with a diffuser.
    write all of this info down...memorize it...apply it...


  • Carl April 12, 2007 06:44 am

    Donovan: When it comes to buying lenses, nobody can tell you what to buy. There are no "best" lenses for a camera, because it depends entirely on what you intend to do with them. Think about what you'll be shooting, and from that decide what focal length you'll need, whether IS/VR/whatever will help you, whether you need a wide aperture for lots of light and so on and then look up the options available to you. L-series glass is always (in my experience at least) awesome, but it comes at a price. But whatever your decision, remember this: it's no good buying a top of the range camera if the glass you put in front of it isn't up to the job. All the megapixels in the world can't rescue the crap light that your lens passes through. Your lens is the most important part of your camera. Don't be afraid to invest wisely.

  • Carl April 12, 2007 06:41 am

    I think the reason that people have been very anti-flash of late is two fold:

    1) The built-in flashes on cameras generally suck. They're too close to the lens and they (with occasional exception) give harsh, direct light. That said, I know a very good wedding photographer who reckons that the built-in flash of DSLRs these days are pretty good, for when all else fails.

    2) Getting good flash lighting right is difficult. Like, really difficult. Manufacturers know this, which is why they'd prefer to push the ISO instead.

    That said, there are times when using a flash is simply the best approach. I often use my flashgun, even on a lovely day, because catchlights in a subjects eyes can make a photo. So yes, embrace your flash, but learn how it behaves, learn how to control it and treat it like that loyal dog which occasionally goes barmy and kills next door's cat.

  • Donovan April 11, 2007 02:39 am

    Are there any good guides as to what lens one should buy for a Canon EOS 30D, it seems to be quite a daunting task, considering the price. Any suggestions or guides out there?

  • Fraser April 10, 2007 09:43 pm

    For those with an EOS camera this is a great reference:

  • Dave April 10, 2007 07:45 pm

    I went through a phase of being extremely anti-flash, but in the last few months, especially since switching exclusively to shooting RAW, I've been using flash a *lot*.

    I shoot lots of gigs in crappy clubs and with clearance from the band I'll take some with flash so at least I know I've got some usable pics! The best ones tend to be late on in the gig and shot with a zoom so that they're close-up, without any annoying wall-shadow and with the beads of sweat picked out by the flash.

    Also very useful is the "portrait" auto-mode for the paprazzi shots (fans with band members and so on) after the show.

    Examples on my flickr stream.

  • Erik April 10, 2007 01:24 pm

    Can't remember where I saw it but awhile ago I got the tip to use a coffee filter (held on by rubber band) to diffuse the built in flash. I've been doing that ever since and the results are surprisingly good. As a matter of fact I did a birthday party for my cousins kid at a Chuck E. Cheese recently and somehow left my 580 at home. The coffee filter saved me and the photos!

  • Lachlan April 10, 2007 12:59 pm

    best flash tip i ever heard:

    when using an in-built flash, make sure that any shots you take have the flash above the lense (especially portrait/full body shots)... otherwise you highlight the subjects groin/chest (depending on how close you are).

  • mike April 10, 2007 12:43 pm

    I agree, I have been heavily against flash in most cases, however, when I do a shoot with really strong back light, I need to fill the subjects face with light, I usually use a piece of white cardboard, but when that is not an option, flash is a good ally, however, one has to be careful, nobody likes those pictures where people look like they are ghosts!

  • Andrew Ferguson April 10, 2007 09:05 am

    "Has anyone noticed how there has been a real anti-flash vibe going around recently in the digital photography sphere?"

    Don't tell me you haven't seen, Darren. :P