Your pop-up flash is better than you think: Use these 20 creative techniques for stunning photos

Mar 20, 2024

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Your pop-up flash is better than you think: Use these 20 creative techniques for stunning photos

Mar 20, 2024

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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Most photographers will tell you that a pop-up flash produces unflattering and ugly lighting. And they’re right – unless you get creative! If this video from Newcastle Photography College doesn’t make you reconsider using your pop-up flash, nothing will. It shows as many as 20 different lighting setups using only your pop-up flash as the light source. You can achieve incredible results with an understanding of how light works and some simple objects.

Since the video is pretty long, I think it would be pointless to do a complete write-up. But here’s the list of lighting techniques and patterns you can create just as a teaser which will prompt you to watch the whole thing and try out at least some of these tips:

  1. Beauty lighting: using a reflector to soften the popup flash’s light for flattering facial illumination.
  2. Clamshell lighting: a combination of top light from the popup flash and a reflector below for even, soft lighting on the face.
  3. Rembrandt lighting: angling the light to create a characteristic triangle of light on the cheek, simulating classic Rembrandt paintings.
  4. Side lighting: directing light from one side to create depth and texture.
  5. Backlighting: placing the light behind the subject to highlight edges or create a silhouette.
  6. Soft light: bouncing the popup flash’s light off a soft surface to diffuse it and reduce harshness.
  7. Hard light: reflecting the light off a hard surface like a mirror to maintain its intensity and create sharp shadows.
  8. Colored lighting: using colored gels in front of the popup flash or mirror to tint the light for various atmospheric effects.
  9. Using snoots: concentrating the light on a specific area of the subject by directing the flash through a tube or similar modifier.
  10. Gobos for patterned light: blocking parts of the light with cutouts to project patterns or shapes.
  11. Using mirrors for directional light: manipulating the direction of light with mirrors to achieve desired lighting angles.
  12. Bouncing light for ceiling or wall effects: reflecting light off ceilings or walls to simulate a larger, natural light source.
  13. Full-length shots: lighting an entire scene, from headshots to full body, using strategic light placement.
  14. Using whiteboards for reflection: creating softer light by reflecting the flash off white surfaces.
  15. Smoke or haze effects: adding atmosphere by backlighting smoke or haze with the popup flash.
  16. Outdoor lighting adaptations: adapting the popup flash for outdoor use to enhance natural lighting or fill in shadows.
  17. Using a mirror to block direct flash: preventing the harsh direct flash from hitting the subject by blocking it with a mirror.
  18. Adjusting flash intensity: varying the popup flash’s power to suit the lighting needs of the shoot.
  19. Creating hard shadows with direct light: using unmodified popup flash or directed light for dramatic hard shadows.
  20. Diffusing light through an umbrella: softening and spreading the light by bouncing it off an umbrella or through a diffuser.

Additional DIY solutions to check out

We have covered several DIY pop-up flash diffusers over the years. Here’s one from a plastic headphones cover, or you can just use a simple white balloon.

As for bouncing light, you can go with the five-in-one reflector, but you can also get yourself a piece of foam board. You can also cut out your own gobo… Or use different household objects like plants, lace, a colander, a hat, etc.

I believe that this video is particularly useful for new photographers who are still buying their first pieces of gear. You may be low on the budget, yet hear all the time how “your pop-up flash isn’t even worth using.” Well, I think that this video proves that, even with limited gear, you can produce high-quality, creative photos!

[Shoot Amazing Images with your Pop-Up Flash: 20 creative techniques you won’t believe until you see. via ISO 1200]

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Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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2 responses to “Your pop-up flash is better than you think: Use these 20 creative techniques for stunning photos”

  1. Claude Campagna Lupien Avatar
    Claude Campagna Lupien

    It’ll drain the battery really quick and you won’t be able to shoot with standard studio settings such as 1/200, f8, ISO 100 with the popup flash. Not powerfull enough.

  2. El Cheapo Avatar
    El Cheapo

    If “on camera flash” also qualifies as “popup flash” (the one built into the body is typically quite flimsy and weak), I plead guilty of using it all the time.

    For fill of course, in those outdoor situation with harsh light. At some point you would be entering HSS or Hyper Sync terretory if your camera only syncs up to 1/250s, but it is what it is. Indoors you just point the flash at the ceiling or any other reasonable white surface, better than nothing.

    If you can operate the cam with one hand only (practise makes perfect) you could even use a cheap TTL cable for best of both worlds if remote/wireless flash triggers are too fiddly and/or complicated. Lee makes an extremely versatile filter swatchbook that you can get for free sometimes (other sell it for 25 bucks) which happens to be the exact size of a typical on camera flash diffuser. You can either tape it on or use some rubber hoses and get very creative with gels, custom white balance etc.

    Also, don’t throw away the polarizer foil that comes with such a swatchbook. You can use it in conjunction with a polarizer you stick on your lens and battle those nasty reflections you typically see in womens’ faces if they use too much skin care products and no matting agent. Try it out, it’s working surprisingly well. Yeah, eyes (specifically the iris) can get a little spooky at times, but in a pinch you need to do what you need to do.