Monday, December 13, 2010

How to improve your built-in flash

Here´s a simple and effective way to improve your camera´s built-in flash.

Usually the pop-up type flash gives you the typical flash picture: light coming from camera axis, hard shadows, red eyes you need some software to remove, white greasy highlights on skin that should in fact look decent and nice. Plus, if you´re using a lens with a rather long barrel, you´re getting a harsh shadow on the bottom of your frame because the flash is too close to the camera. Not the way to win your subjects´ heart.

Professional photographers use hot shoe flashes that can tilt their heads up against the ceiling. Maybe they also have a built-in bounce card or slip-on diffuser that gives them something they call "80-20": 80 percent of the light go up to the ceiling, lighting the whole room in a pleasant and relatively natural way and 20 percent are thrown directly at the subject to break up shadows that are cast by the light now coming from up above. Pretty decent! Let´s copy that.

Okay, so all you got is a pop-up flash? No worries. Go get yourself something white. That´s maybe a piece of styrofoam, the latest bill from the credit card company or a plastic ice scraper. It needs to be at least 90% white or else you´ll get a color cast, and it should be quite larger that your flash´s flashing end.
You noticed - you don´t have to buy any of these - they usually come for free.
Pop up your flash and hold it at 45 degrees against the front of the flash. Now, you´ll bounce almost all the light against the ceiling and all over the room, giving everything in front of the camera a much nicer look. Some of the apt materials will even allow some of the light to go through them, giving you some nice fill-in light. Maybe you will have to correct your flash power up a bit to squeeze enough light out of your flash. And remember: your ceiling should be white, too! Else you´ll get an ugly color cast and lose lots of light. But in this case, you can still flash THROUGH your bounce card kludge (as long as it is translucent), still improving your flash photography look.

Let´s have a look at that:

Pop-up flash w/o diffusion. Looks harsh and ugly. No definition of shape. You´ve seen this before. ISO 100. If this was a living person, he´d beat me for this.

Pop-up flash with solid white bounce (aka ice scraper or camera manual). Much nicer definition, although I had to raise ISO by 1 stop and flash power by 2 stops (you lose a lot of light in high rooms and matte bouncers - but you also lose the ugly shadows on the wall).

Pop-up flash with semi-translucent white bounce (aka styrofoam sheet as seen in picture above) and ISO lowered back to 100. You also get a great amount of shape definition plus you fill in the shadows. Note: the shadow on the wall is irrelevant in real life, since you wouldn´t put your subject right against the wall but well before it. But it still is a lot nicer than without any bouncer.

This is what happens when you let flashlight slip over your bounce card. For art photography only.

In this crop from a portrait I made you can see that I filled the room with so much light, that I could expose for the daylight outside! And this was made with a small Olympus E-500 with its pop-up flash. Actually, in the lamp you can see the mirror image of the flash hitting my ice scraper. Uh... should I explain this in detail?

First, take your camera ans step to the window. It should be in manual mode. Expose for the daylight outside. The small meter in your viewfinder will tell you when you´re getting there.
The shutter speed you are reading is the shutter speed for your exposure. Now step back into the room, compose your shot and pop the flash against the ceiling. Keep the shutter speed that you read from the window, this is what lets the ambient light in your camera. Play with flash power settings vs. aperture to get it right. This one took me six shots to get is fixed to something similar to what the human eye can percieve.

What else you can do:
- Put a yoghurt cup over your flash (eat yoghurt first): sprays light everywhere and makes light nicer. This has been talked about on the internet before alot.
- Put an old (white) cut-open film canister over your flash. It can even hold color gels! Kodak has these. Gives at least a minimum of softening.

Have fun!

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