Don't ever use your 'pop up' flash again. Ever.

Your camera likely has an “on board” flash. If you own a DSLR, it’s the little flash that will pop up on top of the camera.  I’d rather shoot at max ISO, or perhaps not even take the picture at all, than use that on board flash.
I might be exaggerating.  But if so, only a little bit.

The deal with on board flashes is that they simply make every picture look completely flat.  And this makes sense.  All the light is coming straight from the camera (on axis).
Here’s the look it produces:
Harsh.  Flat.  Stark shadows under the chin and behind the subject.  Tiny catchlights in the eyes.
What’s even worse is when I see these “photographers” outside in perfectly perfect open shade, and they’re using their on camera flash as “fill light.”  Bummer.
What they’ve done is take perfect, soft light (because open shade comes from a huge light source, and thus is soft), and they’ve BLASTED it with a 1″x3″ light (extremely small = extremely hard light).  Compound that with the fact that it’s on axis, and now it’s a completely flat image (because they’ve obliterated all shadow).
Okay, all that said, I know that sometimes…it’s dark.
And obviously we still need to be able to take pics in many situations where there’s not enough ambient light.

The solution? Speedlights.

nikon speedlight
Speedlights are simply flashes that slide into the hot-shoe of your camera.  Here’s a link to Canon speedlights (which will fit all Canon DSLRs) and here’s a link to Nikon speedlights (which will fit all Nikon DSLRs).
Here’s the deal, though.  If you’re going to actually buy a speed light, I HIGHLY recommend that you buy one with a pivoting head.  Because then you can “bounce” the light.  If you can’t pivot the head and bounce the light, you’re right back where you began.  You only have a fancy on board flash.

You Need To Bounce

The most common method of “bouncing” is to simply point the flash at the ceiling.  The ceiling then acts as the light source, which is off axis, and thus we still have a direction of light that will produce some highlights and shadows.  Even more, as the light travels (and spreads out), we now have a MUCH larger light source (the ceiling), and thus much softer light.
But don’t forget, as so many often do, that you can bounce the light off side walls and rear walls.  Play around with your angles.  Try to think of how natural light from a window might light your subject.
Let’s go through the options one by one.

Bounced Off Ceiling

The reason the ceiling is often a fav among photogs is that it’s usually white.  Thus the light bouncing back doesn’t have a funky color hue / cast.
The disadvantage, as you see above, is that it can place shadows in the wrong place.  The light is much softer than direct light.  Because, again, we’re now working with a bigger light source.
But since it’s coming straight from above, we’re going to have shadows in the eye sockets.  Kind of like mid-day sun.  Raccoon Eyes.
Some flashes have a little piece of thick paper that you can pop up to help with this (and give a better catch light).  I actually suggest searching for another angle to bounce.

Back and up

There was a wall behind me.  So follow me.  If I angle the flash behind me a bit as well, the light will bounce off the ceiling, but also the wall.  This will help fill in those raccoon eye shadows.  Here:
Now, yes, if you have a neon green wall, you might notice a green tint to the light.  Kerbi’s room has neutral walls.  Works just fine.

Side Wall

The wall to Kerbi’s right has a couple windows.  I had the white wooden blinds completely closed to block out all light for this little tutorial.  Those white blinds make a great object to bounce the light off of.
It gives a familiar light pattern.  Makes sense…it mimics the light we’re used to seeing every day: window light.
Notice it lights the entire room quite naturally.
I’ll end with a very slight edit.  I bumped up the exposure in Lightroom by about .3 (1/3rd of a stop).  And that’s it.  Here’s the final … nothing award winning by any means.  But far batter than the snapshot feel of the on board flash:

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  1. Hmmmm… I like this post. I’ve always hated the results from my on board flash, but never knew if/when it was “supposed” to be used (why’s it even there?!). I did buy a speedlight with a pivoting head, but never tried bouncing the light. Or even pivoting the head, technically. Looking forward to that.
    Also looking forward to the video mentioned above. And the “before & after” sample pics. You know, for us [ismember]s (and code junkies). 😉
    LOVE your writing and sense of humor. LOVE your videos and how easily you break down concepts for amateurs like me. LOVE the price I paid (YAY Black Friday!) for the amazing quality of work and effort of time you’ve put into this. I was worried before I bought it. After a few days of cramming SPS, I’m encouraged that I CAN do this! Thank you!!!!!

    1. Crazy thing Kathy…I was just working on updating this post YESTERDAY. For realz. I should have it up next week. You caught me 🙂
      Thanks so much for taking the time to say nice things. It’s a huge encouragement.
      And yes, you def CAN do this.

  2. I agree with 99.9% of what you said about onboard flash.
    What’s your thoughts on using onboard flash for some low-level fill flash when outdoors IF you don’t have a speelight with you at the time?
    Appreciate the insights,

    1. Hey Gary, thanks much for the great question. At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of taste. But I totally hear ya. If you really need some fill flash, then perhaps you can do it on axis (with your on camera flash)…but so long as you’re shooting in all manual. This way you can control when the flash is flattening things out too much. Same thing if you’re using a speed light outside in the same scenario (with no walls or ceilings to bounce off of). The best solution, of course, is to get the speed light OFF the camera, and then fire that speed light with a radio controller (Pocketwizard, etc). This off camera flash allows you to have the best of both worlds, but of course is more of a commitment and perhaps is on to that next level of photography. Of course….this might be a good class to add 🙂

  3. A million thanks!!! Every since I got my DSLR, I’ve been wondering why I have all these crazy shadows behind people when I use the flash. But I need the flash for most indoor photos, so I didn’t know what to do. I just put a speedlight on my Christmas wish list. Thank you!

    1. Haha Carol, yes, sounds like a speed light would be a great item for Santa. That or you could get a really fast lens… 😉

  4. I don’t have a speed light and definitely don’t like the camera flash. I read somewhere that in a pinch you could use a small white business card and wedge it just in front of the flash. I was amazed at the difference that made. Maybe another option for someone until they have a speed light.

    1. Hey Shannon! Thanks for the tip! Sounds like that biz card is somewhat of the same concept as bouncing. This is the basis of the “beauty dish” light modifier….but without the “dish” part. In effect, you cover the main bulb and bounce the light.

  5. Great tute thanks! I haven’t gotten to a speed flash yet but I got a nifty silver diffuser/bounce combo from the UK last year for the occasional awkward indoor night photo. What is Lightroom? Easy for a beginner/dabbler?

    1. Hey Tahnee…Lightroom (made by Adobe) is super easy. Poke around the blog and you’ll see some intros to it. We go a bit more in depth into it in the members program. But yes, great for beginners and pros alike!

  6. Which speed light would you recommend? I am not interested in investing hundreds of $. Is that bad!?!? :/

    1. Hey Tatum! I hear ya about the budget. You can always find a slightly used one, but you’ll probably need to think about spending $150-$200. What system are you shooting (Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc)?

  7. Great tips! Haven’t been able to splurge on a pivoting flash yet, but one time we were in my in-laws’ dark den and my husband crafted a bounce flash with aluminum foil! Ha! It helped a ton. I hate using the flash that comes with the camera too. What awful shadows. I will get a bounce flash soon.

  8. Hipsters brought back the coolness of on camera flash – check some of the most famous young commercial photographers , and one of the highest paid celebrity photographers uses on camera flashes almost 100 percent . Times changed well before this was written. People should learn bounce flash though , it’s important .

    1. Agreed that many can rock on camera flash – with the proper training. For the average mom or dad looking to avoid the ‘deer in the headlights’ or washed out look on their kiddos, though, bouncing is still the way to go for a quick win. Thanks for the feedback!

  9. I use pop up flash all the time, but not for portraits. To set off my strobes, off camera flash or to balance high contrast scenes. Also for emergency snap-shots when the light is too dim. Just because you don’t know how to use it doesn’t mean you should not use it at all !

    1. We would agree with you but the spirit of the post, aimed at a typical parent, was to get them away from using their pop up flash in they typical fashion and help them use flash in a better way.