Non-Leica: DSLR Pop-Up Flash –
Controlling the power of a pop-up flash manually and getting creative with it
Matthew Osborne Photography
1-2-1 Photography Workshop
On Sunday I was providing a photographer with 1-2-1 photography tuition from my Coventry studio. The portrait photography workshop had a strong emphasis on lighting, using available light, on camera speedlights, off camera speedlights and also using the built in pop-up flash on the camera. Not all photographers own a speedlight so many people are limited to the pop-up flash on the top of the camera (assuming their camera model has this feature. My Leica M cameras do not have a built in flash however the Nikon D800 does). The photographer I was teaching, Deji, did not have a speedlight so I wanted to show how to control the power of the camera pop-up flash manually. When I teach I often describe a scenario to get students thinking in a practical sense as to how to solve the problem.
Scenario – Pop-up flash too bright
Local model Gina was modelling for me. The situation was that the pop-up flash was too bright on Gina’s face. The camera settings were ISO 100 (lowest on the camera), shutter speed 200 and an aperture of f2.8 to obtain a shallow depth of field. We are using a prime lens and want to retain the composition so cannot step back from the subject. We want the image straight from the camera so want to avoid cropping in post processing. We only have this lens and we do not have a ND filter or polarising filter.
How do we reduce the pop-up flash power?
If you want the pop-up flash to be 1/3 power output then cover 2/3 of the pop up flash with you finger, half power, cover half of the flash and so on. It sounds simple but it works. I rarely use pop-up flash but if I was in the same situation with say my Nikon D800 freelancing for a wedding (where I am often asked to use the Nikon) and my speedlight batteries failed and my replacement batteries happened to be in the car 5 minutes walk away then this is how I do it.
Taking it one step further
If you want the pop-up flash light to illuminate the top half of the photo you need to cover the bottom half of the camera pop-up flash. For example a model’s face. If you were taking a photo of a flower with the subject in the lower half of the frame then you would cover the top of the flash to light the bottom half of the image.
Getting Creative – What else can you do with a pop-up flash?
Hold a piece of tissue paper between the subject and the pop-up flash. The further the tissue from the camera the more diffused the light. Here is an example from Poland a few years ago when my speedlight was damaged in my bag so all I had was the pop-up flash for an entire weekend of model photography. Model – Agnieszka.
There are lots of ways to make a diffuser for a pop-up flash. An empty 35mm film white plastic pot used to be an easy DIY fix. Nowadays eBay is full of cheap light modifiers so you can pick one up there for very little money.
In a low light situation you can bounce the pop-up flash onto a white or silver card held in front of the flash and angled at a wall or ceiling to create in direct lighting. You can even just bounce it off your hand but you need to remember that bounced light will take the colour of the surface it is being bounced off.
You can use a sweet wrapped or speedlight flash gel to colour the light output of your pop-up flash. Why would you do this? For example if you are shooting in a hotel that has tungsten lights (orange colour) you may want to match the colour of the flash to the room light. By gelling the flash you can do this and then either leave the photo the same colour or adjust your camera white balance to the desired setting, such as “indoor”, “tungsten” or manually setting the camera white balance.
Photography workshops and tuition
I teach group photography workshops in London and 1-2-1 photography tuition from my studio in Coventry on out on location. I specialise in portraiture, lighting and how to operate a Leica M camera. If you think you could benefit from one of my photography courses then feel free to get in touch – Photography Workshops
Sample images from the Coventry workshop using one off camera speedlight to give different effects