Beginner’s Guide to Achieving Better Flash Photos

Using a flash gun, such as a Nikon Speedlight or Canon Speedlite, is designed mainly to be used off-camera and fired optically or via a radio. However, there are situations when time or gear restraints force you to keep your flash on the hotshoe to be used as an overly powerful pop-up flash. Here is the quickest way to take advantage of your external flash when its stuck on your camera.

The Benefits of Bouncing Your Flash Off Ceilings

Most flashes will have rotating heads. It’s instinct to just point the face of the flash right at the face of your subject but resist! Instead, point your flash straight up at the ceiling. This is particularly effective if you have white ceilings.


Straight flash is good at one thing: illuminating your scene. It can illuminate to a fault, though, leaving washed-out faces and unwanted specular highlights. It’s also a fairly small source of light so the falloff is really quick – look at how dark the background is.


When I bounce my flash off of the ceiling, the light spreads farther and is softer. It is also less strong so you might need to either strengthen the power on your flash or strengthen the light sensitivity settings on your camera. I didn’t need to for this scene because my ceiling was low enough for my light to not have to travel too far before bouncing back. Notice that the background is better illuminated in this scene thanks to the light spread the ceiling provides when hit with flash. Also notice how much more pleasing the catchlights are in the baby’s eyes versus before.


The above demonstrates probably my favorite example of why straight flash should be avoided. See the shadow just behind the neck? I like to call this the “flash mullet”. Also, poor baby lost his eyebrows!


Bouncing my flash off of the ceiling gets rid of the flash mullet and the eyebrows are back (if barely – he is a fair fellow)! Also, again, notice the larger, more pleasing catchlights. However, dad is a little darker in this image versus the last one. I don’t mind it here. However, if you mind it, you can increase your power but you risk washing out the baby again. If I placed a white reflector across from dad and just out of frame, I’ll bet some of that bounced light would have hit him a little better.

How to Bounce Your Flash off Bounce Cards

What if my ceilings are too high? Or I am outside? Or my ceilings are black? HELP! This is where the bounce card comes in.

Screenshot 2014-04-19 17.34.04

Most larger flash guns have built-in bounce cards. Deploy it by leaving it up. It’s not as effective as a white ceiling simply because it is so much smaller – but it helps in a pinch! Alternatively, have a friend hold a piece of white board above your pointed-upward flash and angled toward your subject. Anything that allows the flash to hit a larger, white surface prior to hitting your subject.


In this photo, I went back to pointing the flash straight at the subject. It isn’t terrible. The dog is well illuminated and the falloff isn’t too stark. However, the specular lighting on the railing in the background is distracting and I dislike the little pin-prick catchlight.


Moving out of the nursery and into the larger living room means having to deploy my bounce card. The flash is still pointed upward but I am relying on that little card more to throw some of that reflected light back out onto the dog. The catchlight in the eye is bigger, though not as big as it would have been had I nice, low, white ceiling to work with but the specular lights in the background are gone without losing much exposure at all.

 Working with Straight Flash Only

“That’s nice,” you might be thinking, “but I only have a standard pop-up flash to work with.” That’s the pits but there are ways to improve it. For one, you can rent our Puffer, which slips onto the hotshoe of your camera and softens the unbounced blow of your pop-up flash. Also, a quick search for “DIY pop-up flash diffuser” will give you more than enough ideas for subduing that straight-on light using recycled materials. It won’t give the kind of “blanket of soft light” a large, bounced flash will give but it will decrease shadows, soften specular highlights, and increase catchlight size.

Alexandria Huff's photography and lighting tutorials can be found on 500px and her blog. See her lighting tutorials here. She is a Marketing Associate Manager at She learned about lighting and teaching while modeling for photographers such as Joe McNally and has since gone on to teach lighting workshops of her own in San Francisco. Before focusing on studio portraiture, she shot motorsports for X-Games, World Rally Cross, and Formula Drift. See her chiaroscuro-style painterly portraits on her website.

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