Home FLASH AND LIGHTING How to Get the Best Out of Your Pop-up Flash

How to Get the Best Out of Your Pop-up Flash


If you are using an entry-level or a semi-professional DSLR, your camera most likely has a built-in pop-up flash unit that can be used to add some additional light on your subjects or even trigger another flash. The problem with built-in flashes, however, is that they fire harsh, direct light that does not look very good, especially on people. In this short article, I will show you how you can get the best out of your pop-up flash.

1) Diffuse or not to diffuse?

There are plenty of products on the market that let you diffuse the light coming out of your pop-up flash. I personally think that those products are worthless for the following reasons:

  1. Your pop-up flash is pretty weak as it is and you will lose plenty of light while trying to diffuse it.
  2. Redirecting the light from the pop-up flash is too difficult and often impossible.
  3. Why waste money on something that is not going to give you considerably better results than direct flash?

Before you waste your money on a pop-up flash diffuser, try doing some simple light bouncing with a piece of paper and see whether your images truly look better or not. When shooting indoors, simply hold a large A4/letter-size piece of paper (or any other thin white material) in front of your pop-up flash and take a picture. You will most likely get an underexposed image, in which case try increasing the flash power by using flash compensation on your camera. Another thing you can try is increasing your camera ISO to a larger number, which will also help with the exposure.

2) Use pop-up flash as fill-flash

Where find the pop-up flash to be somewhat helpful, is using it as fill flash outdoors. In situations when you shoot against bright backgrounds, you might end up with a properly exposed background, but an underexposed subject. In those cases, using your pop-up flash might yield some good results, since the flash will help lit your subject’s face and the background will also be properly exposed (as long as your subject is relatively close, within 3-10 feet). I typically shoot in TTL (through the lens) mode, which works quite well for these types of situations. Every once in a while, you might need to adjust the flash power by using flash compensation on your camera. Here is an example with and without fill flash:

As you can see, I was able to lift some of the shadows from Lola’s and Omar’s faces, but since the pop-up flash is so direct, there are some harsh shadows on the second image – look at the shadow behind Lola’s nose and Omar’s head. Watch out for those types of problems when using flash like this. What I should have done instead, was increase camera ISO and lower flash power, so that the effect of fill flash was not so obvious. The image was shot in Aperture Priority mode, 1/200, f/8 and ISO 400. Camera flash was set to TTL mode.

I only use pop-up flash when I don’t carry my speedlights with me and I don’t bother with setting up flash power manually – TTL works well for most situations like these. When shooting with speedlights, however, I typically shoot manual for consistent results and better control of light (more on that in other articles later this week).

Watch the below video for a more detailed explanation of TTL and how it works:

3) Front Curtain Sync vs Rear Curtain Sync vs Slow Curtain Sync

Most DSLRs can control the way the pop-up flash fires during an exposure. Nikon and Sony DSLRs, for example, give you at least three options – front curtain sync, rear curtain sync and slow curtain sync. If you shoot Canon or other brands, the rear curtain sync is typically called “2nd curtain sync”. Let me explain these in detail, so that you can understand what exactly they do and how they affect your images.

  1. Front Curtain Sync – the default setting of all DSLR cameras. Flash fires a pre-flash to understand what flash power should be used, then immediately fires the main flash at the beginning of the exposure.
  2. Rear Curtain Sync – the camera fires a pre-flash at the beginning of the exposure, then fires the main flash at the end of the exposure. If shot in Auto or Aperture Priority modes, Nikon DSLRs automatically decrease the shutter speed to expose for the ambient light.
  3. Slow Curtain Sync – the camera fires a pre-flash and the main flash at the beginning of the exposure, similar to front curtain sync. The difference between slow curtain sync and front curtain sync, however, is that the camera slows down the shutter speed when using slow curtain sync in Auto and Aperture Priority modes.

If you still do not understand what the above means, watch my video below where I explain all three settings in detail.

At 6:35, where I say “Slow curtain sync and rear-curtain sync are not going to work in manual mode”, I simply mean that the camera will NOT automatically decrease the shutter speed when shooting in manual mode. The rear-curtain sync still works in manual mode.

4) Use pop-up flash as a flash commander

If you own a semi-professional camera body like Nikon D70/D80/D90 or a professional one like Nikon D200/D300/D300s/D700, you have an advanced pop-up flash that can work as a flash commander. What does this mean? It simply means that you can control other Nikon speedlights directly from your camera! Nikon has been years ahead of the competition when it comes to this particular functionality – something we Nikonians have always been proud of 🙂 But the competition is catching up pretty quickly and Canon has already introduced the Canon 7D with a similar functionality in its built-in pop-up flash.

Why would you want to use your pop-up flash as a flash commander? If you own one of the Nikon speedlights, you most likely have been mounting it on top of your camera. While there is nothing wrong with using the flash on top of the camera, no matter how much of the flash you diffuse or bounce off different surfaces, it is still sitting on top of your camera. By utilizing your pop-up flash as a commander, you can take your speedlight off the camera and take your flash photography to the next level, for more natural and professional-looking images.

So, how does this technology work and what’s behind it? Nikon calls their implementation of communication between flashes “CLS”, which stands for “Creative Lighting System”. Think of CLS as a flash system developed by Nikon that provides a number of features for complex wireless communication between flashes. I will go into more detail about CLS later this week and will certainly provide more information in our accompanying videos, but for now, there are only a few things you need to know about CLS. The beauty of the system, is in Nikon’s implementation of “i-TTL” (intelligent Through The Lens), which fires monitor pre-flashes before the main flash, in order to calculate the correct amount of flash power. If you remember from the second video, I talked about how in TTL mode, the pop-up flash fires a pre-flash on the subject in order to evaluate the light that gets bounced back from the subject. The bounced light travels “through the lens” into the camera, where it is evaluated in a matter of milliseconds and then before the main flash fires, the camera already knows how much flash power it needs for a balanced exposure. If you change your camera exposure, whether it is the shutter speed, aperture or ISO, the changes are quickly communicated to the flash system, which adjusts the flash power based on those changes. i-TTL’s task is not to let flashes fire too much power (which would overexpose the subject) or too little power (which would underexpose the subject). Nikon understands that “too much” or “too little” can be very relative, and in some cases, the flash might not yield the best results. For those situations, Nikon came up with a few options to manually override the flash output by increasing or decreasing the flash power, directly from the commanding unit. This manual override in TTL mode is called “flash exposure compensation”.

Let me now apply the above information on your camera’s pop-up flash. When the camera pop-up flash is used as a commander or “master”, it can be configured in many different ways. The pop-up flash itself can be configured as a flash unit (in addition to being a commander), or it can be turned off to simply be a commander to trigger one or more slave speedlights. In order to be able to use the pop-up flash as a commander, you need at least one Nikon speedlight. Any of the Nikon speedlights that have the “Remote” or “Slave” mode will work just fine, so if you have a Nikon SB-600, SB-700, SB-800 or SB-900, you will be able to do this (I will go through differences between Nikon speedlights in my upcoming articles).

4.2) Setting up pop-up flash as a commander/master

Let’s start with just one speedlight and your camera. The first thing we need to do, is set up your camera to be the commander. Open up the camera menu, then go to “Custom Setting Menu”, then pick the “Bracketing/flash” submenu. Next, move down to “Flash cntrl for built-in flash” and then pick “Commander mode”. Within the Commander mode screen, pick double dashes “–” for “Built-in flash”, which will basically make the pop-up flash only the commander (by firing only the pre-flash, but not the main flash). Under “Group A”, set the mode to “TTL” and leave “Group B” whatever is already there (we won’t be using it for this example). Keep the default “Channel” 1, then press the “OK” button to save the changes. What have we done above? First, we set our built-in pop-up flash to not fire any flash (double dashes), then we set the Group A of flashes to “TTL” mode. Don’t worry about Groups and Channels for now – we just need to make sure that the Group we pick and the Channel we pick is going to be the same in the speedlight as well.

For those who are wondering what each of the mode settings on this screen do, here is a very brief overview:

  1. TTL – i-TTL Mode. Like explained above, the “intelligent Through The Lens” mode that fires pre-flashes to determine the flash power.
  2. AA – Auto Aperture Mode. Don’t worry about this mode and skip it every time. It is the older implementation of the TTL system that is not very accurate.
  3. M – Manual Mode. Allows you to set the flash power manually.
  4. – Disable Flash. For the built-in pop-up flash, selecting the double dash will turn off the main flash, but the pre-flash will still fire. If you stand too close to your subject, the pre-flash might actually influence your image, so use it with care and step back, if necessary. When selecting the double dash for Group A or Group B, it will disable those groups completely.

The right “Comp.” column represents “Flash exposure compensation”, which allows you to increase or decrease the flash power on your built-in flash or on speedlights.

The camera is ready to go. Now let’s move on to the speedlight. This part is a little tough to describe, because the setup will depend on the type of speedlight you are using. The Nikon SB-900 is the easiest to set up as a “Remote” or “Slave” unit, because it is a simple switch on the right hand side of the flash. The Nikon SB-800 requires you to go into the Speedlight menu to select the Remote mode. Let’s go through how you can change different speedlights to be slave units.

4.2) Nikon SB-900 Speedlight Setup

It is easy – all you have to do is rotate the the power switch/dial on the right side to “Remote” and the speedlight is ready to go! You just need to make sure that the Group and the Channel are set correctly. You can change the Group by pressing the top left button and the Channel by pressing the second top left button. Once Group is set to “A” and Channel is set to “1”, you do not have to change anything else on the flash.

4.3) Nikon SB-800 Speedlight Setup

Here is how to set up the Nikon SB-800 as a Remote/Slave unit:

  1. Turn the SB-800 on by pressing the “ON/OFF” button.
  2. Press and hold the “SEL” button for about three to four seconds, which will open up the speedlight setup.
  3. Inside the setup menu, use the up/down (+/-) and left/right (three trees/one tree) buttons to get to the submenu that shows two flashes with arrows. On the right hand side you will see text that says “Off”, “Master”, “Master (RPT)”, “Remote” and “SU-4”.
  4. Press the “SEL” button once again and use the up/down buttons to select “Remote”. Press “SEL” to save the selection.
  5. Now hold down the “SEL” button for another three to four seconds to return back to the menu.
  6. Once you do the above, the main screen should now have been changed to say “REMOTE” with big letters. On the top of the menu you should see “CH” with Channel 1 selected and on the right bottom side you should see “Group” with Group A selected. If the Channel is not 1 or the Group is not “A”, you need to press the “SEL” button once to choose the right Channel and then press it again to choose the right Group. To change a Channel or a Group, you can use the up/down buttons to toggle between different channels and groups.

The main thing is to use the same Channel and Group as in your camera.

To return the speedlight back to its normal state, simply hold down the “SEL” button for 3-4 seconds again, and set it to “Off” inside the speedlight submenu. Then press “SEL” again for 3-4 seconds to return to the normal screen.

4.4) Nikon SB-700 Speedlight Setup

Setting up Nikon SB-700 as a slave is as easy as setting up the Nikon SB-900 – it is done through the power switch/dial on the right side of the speedlight. Simply select “REMOTE” and the speedlight will switch to Remote/Slave mode. Now all you have to do is check and make sure that your Channel is set to “1” and Group is set to “A”. You can change the group by pressing the “SEL” button, then rotating the large dial in the center to pick “A” under “GR”. The channel is also changed the same way by pressing the “SEL” button once again, then rotating the large dial in the center to pick “1” under “CH”.

4.5) Nikon SB-600 Speedlight Setup

Here is how to set up the Nikon SB-600 as a Remote/Slave unit:

  1. Turn the SB-600 on by pressing the “ON/OFF” button.
  2. Press and hold down the “ZOOM” and “–” buttons together for about three to four seconds.
  3. Press the “MODE” button to turn the remote mode on. Here is how the screen should look like when the flash is in the remote mode:

  1. Press and hold down the “ZOOM” and “–” buttons together again for about three to four seconds. The flash will now switch to the remote screen.
  2. Now you need to make sure that the Group is set to “A” and Channel is set to “1”. You can do this by pressing the “MODE” button to toggle between groups and channels. Once in “CH” or “GROUP”, press the up/down (+/-) buttons to switch to different channels and groups.
  3. Once you are finished, press the “MODE” button again.

To get back to the normal mode, hold down the “ZOOM” and “-” buttons together for about 3-4 seconds again and then press the “MODE” button once to change remote to “OFF”. Then press “ZOOM” and “-” again for 3-4 seconds to return to the normal screen.

Your speedlight should now be ready to be used as a slave unit! Fire a test shot with your pop-up flash opened up on the camera and the slave unit should be triggered.

#FlashPhotography #PhotographyTips #TipsforBeginners


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