How to Take Better Pictures Using Just the Pop-Up Flash

In Photo Basics, Portrait by Dustin Olsen

The dreaded pop-up flash. For many photographers, the thought of using only our built-in flash makes us cringe – and for good reasons. When not carefully altered, the pop-up flash gives off a harsh, direct light that is unnatural. Your photographs will turn out flat every time because the head-on direction of the light erases any shadows that would have added depth or texture. Many times the pop-up flash will overexpose the subject if it is too close in range and the flash intensity is not adjusted accordingly. Such shortcomings are especially apparent when shooting portraits.

These kinds of negative results have given the pop-up flash a bad reputation, but there are many situations where this feature can improve your photography significantly, and even be a lifesaver. If you are a beginner photographer you may not be ready yet to invest in the flash gear that professionals use. In this case, you will want to get the most out of your pop-up flash until you are ready to make that investment. But even for professionals, there are unexpected situations where we are caught unawares without our equipment, or Aunt Nelly hands over her camera at the family reunion and a quick improvise is necessary. Knowing how to use your pop-up flash properly will not only improve your photography, but will help you to get the most out of your pictures in a pinch. Below are five tips that will help you take better pictures using just your pop-up flash.

1. Know Your Limits

Unlike an external flash unit, your pop-up flash gets its power from the camera battery itself. Because it is sharing this power source with the other functions of the camera, its power is severely limited. In order to not consume the camera’s battery life, the built-in flash is not nearly as bright or far-reaching as one from an external flash would be. Because of this limitation, you need to be aware of the working range of your pop-up flash.

Most pop-up flashes have a range of around 2 to 12 feet (.5 to 4 meters). Check with your camera’s manual to know the specific range of your camera’s flash. Without being aware of this range, you may be taking pictures in which the subject is outside the range of your flash, causing it to be underexposed. You can increase this range by increasing your ISO, or altering the flash compensation.

For extremely distant subjects, such as at concerts or sporting events, it is best to turn the flash off completely, bump up the ISO, and let the ambient light do its work. Using your flash in situations such as this will only make the group of people in front of you bright and sharp, while everything you wanted correctly exposed is poorly lit or not lit at all. Know the limitations of your flash, and when it is best to let the camera’s other functions step in.

2. Use Flash Compensation

This is different from exposure compensation. Exposure compensation makes your photograph brighter or darker by altering the exposure that was automatically selected by the camera. Flash compensation is similar, but makes your photograph brighter or darker by adjusting the intensity of the flash rather than the exposure. Using flash compensation will help you achieve the proper exposure and assist you in getting around the many limitations of your built-in flash.

Your camera does not always choose the optimal flash power when firing the pop-up flash. Once in a while you may want to increase or decrease the amount of light from your flash from what your camera finds suitable. If your photos are coming out with an overexposed subject, adjusting the flash compensation can change those blown-out highlights into a photo with correct exposure.

The amount you adjust it will depend on the ambient lighting and the results you hope to achieve. In general, when shooting close to a subject or in a dark or shady location, you will want to turn the power down so as not to over expose. However, if you are shooting outdoors in bright sunlight or far from your subject, you will most likely want to turn the power up.

To adjust the flash compensation, you will need to be in Manual, Aperture Priority, or Shutter Priority modes (M, A, or S on Nikon; M, Av, or Tv on Canon). The flash compensation setting is usually marked by a lightning bolt along side the +/- symbol. Refer to your manual for finding the flash compensation settings on your particular camera. Once selected, you will be able to adjust the flash power up or down. Play around with the settings until you achieve the exposure that you are looking for. Knowing this feature on your camera is a great asset for taking better pictures with your pop-up flash.

Flash Compensation 1Flash Compensation 2

3. Your Flash Isn’t Nocturnal

Your flash isn’t for using only when it is dark. One of the most useful functions of your camera’s pop-up flash is the ability to use it as a fill flash, especially in broad daylight. It may seem strange using your camera’s flash when the sun is high in the sky, but that is when you will most need to use it. Using a fill flash can really make a difference in your images by lightening dark shadows, brightening colors, and creating depth. It is one of the easiest techniques to master, and will give your photos an edge without having to spend hours in Lightroom or Photoshop.

If you have ever shot a portrait outside in full sun, you know how difficult it is. Standing in direct sunlight causes harsh shadows to fall across your subject’s face, creating dark shadows beneath the eyes and hiding important facial details. Rather than moving to the shade or spending hours post-processing, try turning on your camera’s pop-up flash. By adding some light from your flash, those once harsh shadows become softened, adding in much of the lost detail. As a nice bonus, the flash also adds a bright ‘catch light’ effect to the subject’s eyes.

Play around with various strengths of the flash until you get the correct exposure. In especially bright situations, try dialing up the flash compensation one or two more stops. This can give you the additional effect of darkening the background behind the subject, giving your photo some drama. You can also try combining two exposures – one using natural lighting and one taken using the fill flash. This technique will allow you to vary the strength of the flash, and alter the background independently of the subject during post-processing.

Your fill flash is also a lifesaver when it comes to backlit portraits. Try taking a picture of someone in front of a window on Auto mode and you’ll end up with a silhouette. This is because your camera thinks that the scene has enough light and your subject is well exposed. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Override these settings by turning your flash on. This will give you a properly exposed subject rather than a dark shadow.

Using a fill flash is great for taking portraits, but can be used in nature photography too, adding greater color and depth of field. Try using the flash the next time you are shooting in the great outdoors, and notice the difference just a little light makes.

Fill Flash

There are many uses for the fill flash, so many that not all of them can be covered here. Using your pop-up flash as a fill flash is an easy technique to learn, and will make a significant difference in your photos. Try it the next time you are taking photos outdoors and you will be glad you did.

4. DIY Diffusing and Bouncing

One of the main disadvantages of your camera’s pop-up flash is the harshness and intensity of the light. This is due to the fact that the flash originates from such a small area. The smaller the area that the light originates from, the harsher that light source will be. Because your camera’s flash is designed to fit compactly inside of the camera, it is one of the harshest light sources you can come by. There are special tools designed to alter and diffuse this light, but you may not always have these tools at your side. In this case, it is useful to know a few tips and tricks for creating a softer light using just your pop-up flash.

One of the ways in which you can soften the light is by diffusing it. A diffuser works to increase the size of your light source, thus softening it. This is why you will see photographers shooting with umbrellas or softboxes. But these tools are cumbersome, and not always at our disposal. In cases where you are stuck with just your camera, you can improvise a diffuser using tissue paper, thin cotton, velum paper, or any similar material. Hold (or carefully tape) the mock-diffuser to your flash, and fire away! You should notice an instant difference when shooting with a diffused flash as opposed to a direct flash.


When shooting with diffused light, it is important to note that because the light is being decreased, so is your range. Any diffuser you use will dim the light, so you will need to experiment with the flash compensation to get the results you want.

Another way to soften the flash is by bouncing it off of the ceiling, turning the room into a giant softbox. The light from the flash hits the ceiling, which softens the light by spreading it throughout the room. Note that this technique will only work indoors and in smaller-sized rooms.

While the pop-up flash on your camera is stationary, you can still bounce the light using a small white card. Hold the card at a 45 degree angle in front of your flash, and take your shot. The light should hit the card, bounce to the ceiling, and spread out into a nice soft light. Experiment with the light intensity and card angle until you get the best results. This technique isn’t perfect, but most times will do in a pinch.


5. Using Slow Sync Flash

We have talked about using a fill flash for shooting subjects during the day, but what about when shooting at night? When taking photographs in low light, you usually have two options: use the flash, or decrease your shutter speed. Using the flash illuminates your subject, but will often leave it washed out, overexposed, and feeling very flat. When firing the flash, your camera also defaults to a faster shutter speed, giving no time to collect ambient lighting, thus making the background very dark. The other option is to turn off the flash and slow down your shutter speed. This may be an acceptable solution if you have a tripod and a stationary subject, but if your subject is moving or you don’t have a steady hand, your shot will be entirely blur. So how can we achieve a balance?

Slow Sync flash is the happy medium. With Slow Sync flash, your flash will go off along with a slower shutter speed. This means that the flash is fired, exposing your subject well, but the shutter stays open so the ambient light has time to go in and fill in the rest of the image rather than leaving you with a dark background. If you are using the flash and your images are turning out flat and boring, try Slow Sync flash. Using this setting will give your images dimension and color. Try adjusting the settings to see what kind of results you can get by decreasing the shutter speed, or changing the flash compensation. Once you become familiar with this setting, you will never want to go back to Auto again.

Slow Sync

So there you have it, five simple ways that you can take better pictures using just your pop-up flash. Whether you are a beginner or a pro, knowing these techniques will give your photography an edge, and can help you out in a pinch. Though the pop-up often gets a bad reputation, if used properly it can be a valuable part of your camera. We’d like to know, what situations do you use your pop-up for?

About the Author

Dustin Olsen

Dustin Olsen is a professional photographer living in Boise, Idaho.