Using flash is a great way to add light in low light situations or enhance your images in bright sunlight, but it comes with a few challenges. Light can be too bright, too harsh, or too direct. Fortunately, avoiding the dreaded "red eye" and that washed-out look is possible with a few key tips.
Diffuse Your Pop-Up Flash
If you've ever used your camera's pop-up flash, you know it can have a pretty negative effect on the quality of your image. The light comes right from the front of your camera as a sudden burst, wiping out shadows and throwing harsh highlights onto faces. This look is easy to recognize and especially unflattering.
You can solve this problem by diffusing the flash. This means you are covering it with a semi-transparent material that makes the light softer and more flattering. You can either buy a product like the Neewar Hot Shoe Soft Pop-Up Flash Diffuser, which retails for about $7 on Amazon, or you can make your own. A quick, free DIY option is to cut a piece out of a plastic milk jug and tape it to your pop-up flash. Either way, your flash pictures will be instantly better.
Add a Softbox to Your Speedlight
If you are using a speedlight on your camera instead of your pop-up flash, you can diffuse it in a variety of ways. However, one of the most flattering options is adding a miniature softbox. A softbox is a box-shaped unit with reflective material inside. It fits over the light source and has a large panel of sheer material through which the light passes before reaching your subject.
A miniature version, like the LumiQuest Softbox III, available for about $50 from Adorama, is simple to set up and easy to store in your camera bag. The only downside to this type of product is that it can block the autofocus assist light that your camera may use in low light situations. You can solve this by focusing first and then putting the softbox on or by using your camera's through-the-lens (TTL) focus.
Use a Snoot
Whether you're using your camera's pop-up flash or a speedlight, the beam of light is coming straight from the camera and hitting your subject head-on. This leads to a washed-out, deer-in-the-headlights look that doesn't flatter anyone. Fortunately, you can use a snoot or a flag to help.
A "snoot" is a modifier, often shaped like a tube, that contains and directs the light from your flash. It gives you more control over where the flash goes and how it hits your subject. You can make a simple snoot by taping a toilet paper tube to your pop-up flash, lining it with aluminum foil to make it more reflective. You can also buy a modifier like Impact Strobros Snoot for On-Camera Flash that will fit any speedlight; it retails for about $28 from B&H Photo. Experiment with aiming the snoot in different directions to see how you like its effect.
Add a Flag
A flag is similar to a snoot in that it controls the direction of the light coming from your flash; however, it only controls it on one side, leaving the other side open. You can adjust which side is blocked, depending on how you want to light your picture.
You can make a flag for your pop-up flash by simply cutting away part of the toilet paper tube you used as a snoot. Instead of lining it with aluminum foil, line it with black construction paper to absorb some of the light. You can make a similar version for your speedlight by taping a six-inch-wide piece of black cardstock around three sides of the speedlight, leaving the other side open.
Try a Gel
Most light has a color, and that color can affect the feel of your image. A bright flash of white light from the front of your camera can wash out skin tones and ruin the ambiance of your picture. Fortunately, you can control the color of your flash with a gel, a transparent piece of plastic that gives your flash a specific tone. Warmer colors like rose or orange will give your image the look of golden hour sunlight, while cooler tones like blue will create a twilight look.
If you're using your camera's pop-up flash, you can use a product like Sticky Filters, available for about $30 from B&H Photo. The set of five colored gels stick directly to your flash. For a speedlight, you have many more options. One of the most convenient and affordable is the Neewar 20-Piece Gel Set, which sells for about $10 on Amazon. It comes with 20 different colored gels, a wide black rubber band to attach them to any speedlight, and a little storage pouch to keep them in.
Use It as Fill
Lighting a dark scene isn't the only reason to use your flash. In fact, you may have even better results using it as fill light when you're shooting in harsh sun. Bright overhead sunlight creates really dark shadows and is unflattering for portraits. It also reduces details in shots of flowers, insects, and other subjects. You can fill in those dark shadows and reveal the detail by filling in some of the light with your flash. Done right, this can create a soft light that is flattering for outdoor portraits.
To use your flash this way, you only want it to give a little bit of light. Too much light will overexpose your image or make your highlights too bright. Set your flash exposure compensation to -3 or -2 EV to start out and see how it looks on the back of your camera. If you don't feel like the shadows are lightened enough, try -1 EV.
Understand Distance and Light
The effect your flash has on your subject varies dramatically depending on how far it is from the subject. The closer the flash is to the thing or person your are photographing, the brighter and harsher the light will be. As you move it farther away, the light becomes dimmer and more diffuse.
If you're using your pop-up flash or a speedlight on your camera, experiment with different distances. Try backing up and then zooming in or using a longer focal length. This will give softer light. However, you may need to increase the flash output to provide a bit more light. This can require some trial and error and is situation-dependant, but playing around with distance can really improve the overall look of your flash photos.
Bounce the Flash
You may have heard of "bouncing" the flash. This is a great technique for photographing artwork or other subjects where you don't want highlights that are too bright. In most cases, you'll need a speedlight to do this so you can direct the light. Point it at a neutral colored wall next to your subject or behind you, or aim it at the ceiling. The light will bounce off the large surface, eliminating the harshness typical of flash.
You can also purchase a product designed to go right on the flash and help bounce the light, such as the Rogue Flashbender. This bendable product allows you to shape the light the way you want, bouncing it off the reflective material to control the light. It retails for about $35.
If you're using your pop-up flash, you can create a similar effect by holding a piece of white cardstock on one side of the flash. It's a little tricky to shoot one-handed while doing this, but the results can be worth it.
Get Your Flash Off the Camera
Ultimately, the very best results come from taking the flash off your camera. This gives your images dimension and allows you to sculpt the light. When the flash is on the camera, all the light comes from straight behind the lens, destroying all the shadows that would give your photo a three-dimensional feel. When you take the flash off the camera, you can direct the light from a different angle than the lens and create flattering shadows.
Obviously, you can't do this with your built-in flash. However, it's easy to get started with any speedlight. Simply purchase a product like the Neewar Off-Camera Speedlight Cord, available for Canon and Nikon. It retails for about $15 from Amazon. You simply attach one end to the hot shoe on your camera and the other end to your flash. Then you can hold your flash in your hand and direct the light as you shoot.
Set Up a Light Stand
If you want to take things to the next level, you can actually place your speedlight flash on a stand and use a simple white umbrella to diffuse the light. This is a starter set-up for a home studio. You sacrifice portability and spontaneity, but your images will take a giant leap forward. You can experiment with the placement and angle of the light, as well as the power of the flash, to create exactly the type of photo you want.
A good starter kit is the Westcott Compact Collapsible Umbrella Set, which comes with a light stand, umbrella, and bracket for your flash. It retails for about $75. If your speedlight is capable of working in "slave" mode, you can use your pop-up flash to trigger it. Otherwise, you'll need a wireless flash trigger system, such as the $75 Yongnuo Flash Trigger Set, available for Canon or Nikon from Adorama.
Practice and Experiment
No matter whether you're working with your camera's built-in flash, using a speedlight on the camera, or trying your hand at off-camera flash, the key is practice and experimentation. Every situation is different, and the more you play around with lighting, the more you will know about how it works. Ultimately, it's this knowledge that gives you great results with flash photography.