Techniques #5 – On-Camera TTL Flash

Using an on-camera TTL flash (aka “strobe”) properly is one of the easiest ways to take your photography to the next level.  Once you have a DSLR and a lens or two (or three), probably the next piece of photographic equipment you’re going to want to buy is a flash.

Many DSLRs come with a built-in “pop-up” flash right on the top of the view finder.  This flash can work OK in certain situations, but it can be limiting due to its low power and inflexibility.  Buying a larger hot shoe mounted strobe will drastically increase the creativity you can get out of flash photography.

Much, much, more on on-camera lighting techniques after the jump.

Let’s start with some vocabulary:

Flash – Also known as a “strobe,” “speed light,” or just “light” can come in many different sizes and styles, but I’m going to keep it simple and just talk about hot shoe mounted flashes on this post.

Hot Shoe – This is that square, postage stamp sized metal piece on the top of your DSLR.  It’s where you attach a flash.  These are standardized sizes on most manufacturers’ cameras, but that doesn’t mean that you can put a Canon flash on a Nikon DSLR and expect it to work very well.

TTL – Short for “Through The Lens” this is how you camera meters and evaluates the light of the scene that you’re shooting.  Just like your camera can decide on what shutter speed and aperture are best for the picture you’re taking, the camera and flash can communicate and decide what the best flash output is.

Flash Output (or Flash Power) – Your flash has different power settings that we’re not going to talk about in this post.  The light coming out of it can be brighter or darker.  It you’re using your flash via the TTL metering, it and the camera decide how much light you need. The pop up flashes that are already attached to your camera are very low powered.  A shoe mounted flash is much more powerful.  The extra power will get you faster recycling times (you can take pictures faster) and your subject can now be farther away from the camera.

OK, so you dropped some bucks on a nice flash and put it on your camera.  You’ve been blinding all your family and friends with it and have been having a great time.  It’s been really easy to put the flash on, set your camera to “programed” or “automatic” (or whatever) and get some nice pictures.  You’ve even noticed that you can take flash pictures faster and your subject can be farther away from you than with that old pop-up flash.  Is that it?  Not by a long shot.

At this point, we could start a class and meet 2 hours a day for the next few months to talk about all the different flash techniques that you can use.  I’m going to keep it simple (relatively) and talk about bouncing the flash while taking portraits or group shots indoors (never, ever, ever, ever outdoors).

Oh, shit!  I skipped a vocabulary term!  Bouncing the flash doesn’t mean taking it off and throwing at the floor when you’re angry at it.  It means tilting and swiveling the flash head to “bounce” the light off the ceiling or the wall.

Click for larger image

Direct Flash (Click for bigger image)

But before we talk about bouncing…  What’s wrong with direct flash?  The problem with direct flash is that all the light is coming from a small area just above the camera.  It’s just not natural.  (Unless you usually look at your friends with a mining lamp on your forehead!)  It also causes some ugly shadows on the wall in the background.

Another big problem with flashes is that the area that the light coming from it is very small.  What I mean is: The “window” part of the flash, where the light actually comes from, is very small.  This causes sharp shadows around the features of your subject and on the background.  We want that area to be bigger.

Bounced flash. (Click for bigger image)

Bounced flash. (Click for bigger image)

The easiest way to make that area bigger is to “bounce” the flash off the ceiling by tilting the flash head back.  Doing this makes the area from where the light is coming from bigger, therefore making the light softer.

Strobist has a good lesson on apparent light size so I’m not going to get too involved with it.  Although he talks more about using umbrellas to increase the apparent light size, the same goes for bouncing (umbrellas will be a future topic on this site).

You can easily experiment with this and the affect it has on your subject by looking on the back of your camera.  If you don’t like what you see, turn the head to a side and try again.  Still don’t like it?  Try zooming the the flash in or tilting more or less…

Strobist also talks about how to zoom the flash head in and out to get different effects, read that if you’re interested (I know, I’m just getting lazy at this point but this is one of his better articles)

Bounced with white card.  (Click for bigger image)

Bounced with white card. (Click for bigger image)

You can also try to use the plastic diffuser that (maybe) came with your flash (sorry Canon people).  And the white card that might be built into your flash.

One thing I would like to warn you about is to pay attention to the color of the ceiling or wall you bounce off of.  If it’s a white ceiling, BOO-YA!  If it’s colored, it will bounce that color onto your subject.  Sometimes, this works to your advantage, as beige or tan walls will reflect a warm light.  But a green wall will reflect green light, a blue wall will reflect blue light (see below).

And one last reminder: DON’T EVER, EVER, EVER turn your flash head and try to bounce unless you’re INSIDE!!! I can’t tell you how sorry I feel for people I see in the park with their flash heads turned up and white card out.  If there’s nothing above you but sky, the flash has nothing to bounce off of!  Just keep it pointed straight at your subject.


I really didn’t find a lot of links for bouncing flash.  Most photography-advice sites only cover the more complicated off-camera lighting (I’ll be covering that subject soon).  Strobist is a good one to start with.  Follow the links above or go to the main page and look for the “Lighting 101 Archive” drop down menu.

This is the best link that I found and it has some great diagrams (at the bottom).

I found one other site that talks about bouncing flash that might help here.

Below, I’ve also posted some pictures of my victim subject from the lecture at The Taiwan Photo Club.  Note that no post processing was done on these and we didn’t have the ideal environment. See each one’s caption for more information.

Thanks for reading!

Direct flash...

Direct flash - Good, but not ideal. Look at the shadows on the wall in the background, just below his ears and on his neck below his chin.

Flash bounced off the ceiling...

Flash bounced off the ceiling - Better. The shadow on the wall is gone an the light hitting him is much softer. Note that the light in this one isn't as warm (orange-ish) as the first one. That's because the ceiling was blue and cooled off the light coming from the flash.

Flash bounced off the ceiling and wall...

Flash bounced off the ceiling and wall - I swiveled the flash head for this one so that it would bounce off the ceiling AND wall. Note the color change again. Most of the flash was hitting the orange colored wall. The shadows in this one are the most pleasing, in my opinion.

Bounced flash with white card...

Bounced flash with white card - I pointed the flash back towards the ceiling and pulled out the white card. Note the shadow has returned to the wall in the background. That's because some of the light is bouncing off the white card even though most of it is bouncing off the ceiling.

Categories: PHOTOGRAPHY, Portraiture, Techniques | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “Techniques #5 – On-Camera TTL Flash

  1. You’ve been to the Joe McNally school of sketching lighting diagrams, haven’t you? :-)

    Nice detailed write up. Good stuff.

  2. Chris

    Thanks Neil.

    More reasons for me to invest in a flash.

    Maybe next time we can get a Hair and Make Up person, specifically Hair. (or should I just bring a comb?)


    • Thanks again for doing it and letting me post them here (Did I actually ever ask that?)

      I like them. You look all artsy and stuff!

  3. BigBald

    your sketches rock! waaaaay better than McNally’s

  4. -= Di =-

    Thanks for the lecture and the notes.
    It gives me more courage to pull that flash out of the bag next time :D

  5. Best

    First blog I read after wakeup from sleep today!

    Are you tension? panic?

  6. Pingback: photography flash technique

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