The Pop-Up Flash is Evil! Or is it…

The Pop-up Flash is Evil – or is it?

The professional photographer in me despises the pop-up flash as Amateur and Evil. “What a horrible thing to do to a budding photographer, give them a light that is almost guaranteed to wreck their pictures!” However, if I am totally honest, I have to admit that it has a place, and can actually be a really useful tool. I cannot afford to ignore any tool available to me, even one as small as the pop-up flash.

First the disclaimer… the pop-up flash on your camera has some inherent issues: it’s weak, directional, front-lit and causes red-eye. If you’re OK with pushing through all that… keep reading!

Example Number 1

I was hundreds of feet underground in a salt mine, somewhere near the border of Austria and Germany. As you might expect, there is no sunlight hundreds of feet underground. This makes things rather dark. Rather than give up shooting, I just pushed myself to make it work. I adjusted my camera to ISO 1600, f/2.8, and 1/30sec to maximize the light I was able to capture from the tunnel lights. Next, I activated the pop-up flash. Finally, to take this shot, I timed it so that we were just passing a light when I took the photo. This combo of settings did 2 things for me, 1 – at 1/30 of a second I got some nice movement on the walls of the tunnel and 2 – the flash has a motion stopping effect on the faces of my friends so that they are less blurry than you might otherwise expect. This shot wasn’t possible without my pop-up flash.

Example Number 2

Good selfies are an important part of everyone’s life. Here I used a pop-up flash to make this one just a bit better. I wanted to see the background behind me and Jocelyn, but knew that it was quite a bit brighter than our faces would be in the shadow. Add the pop-up flash and I was good to go. Of course, this photo also illustrates another problem too: flash fall off, but I’m not going to deal with that today!

Example number 3

For this fun group shot I set up the camera in manual exposure mode, turned the pop-up flash on and handed it to an agreeable stranger on top of Grossmunster church in Zurich. You will probably look at this and say, “I don’t see the flash.” Yes!! That’s exactly what I want you to say when I use a flash. If you see the flash you are no longer seeing the subject! So, what’s the flash doing? On an overcast day like this one, all the light is coming from above. This means that there are often nasty shadows over the eyes, under the nose and under chins. In this photo, they’re pretty much gone. The flash has blended perfectly with the natural light to fill in those shadows, leaving us with nicely exposed faces.

Right now you should be asking, “How do I do this?” Two quick methods:

Method 1 – Find the night exposure mode on your camera. It is often an icon that looks something like this little icon. This tells your camera that you want to use the exposure settings to properly illuminate the background and also use the flash. Think “friends in front of nighttime cityscape.” Of course, you can use this anytime you want to! Try it in the tunnel, the selfie or the tower. Be careful with this setting, because it can give you a slow shutter speed which can lead to blurring.

Method 2 – Using the creative modes on your camera (Program, Aperture, Shutter, and Manual) set the camera as you normally would so that the scene is properly exposed, then just hit the little button to activate your pop-up flash. The camera will use an advanced metering method (through the lens) to adjust the amount of light the flash is outputting so that it balances with the available light.

For me, recently, it’s been the pop-up flash. What oft-neglected little trick have you recently discovered or rediscovered in your photography? Let me know below!


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