Tips and tricks to avoid using the on-camera flash on your DSLR Camera

Shooting indoors in low light or outdoors near evening can be challenging and our first instinct is to use the on-camera flash.  While this is an easy way to light up the subject you are photographing, it is actually the worst thing you can do to a photo.

Using the on-camera flash will certainly brighten up the scene, but it will also create an unnatural light spot on your subject and cast shadows in other areas of your photo.  Examples of this can be seen in the photo below. As a note, all the photos below were taken indoors on a sunny day around 4 pm.

Tips and Tricks to avoid using the on-camera flash on your DSLR Camera

How to Avoid Using On-Camera Flash

1.  Change your aperture, shutter speed, and or ISO settings

Choosing the right camera settings to use is a delicate balancing act.  Your choices of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all interact with each other to produce the exposure depending on the light available.  Here are some tips to help you choose which setting to change and which direction that setting should go to allow more light into the camera.

  • Increase your ISO.  Increasing your ISO allows you to keep your current aperture and shutter speed settings the same while increasing the amount of light on the camera sensor.  Typically for low-light situations, you want to start with an ISO of 600 and increase from there. Remember that the trade-off for increasing your ISO is that your photo will have more noise in it.  The noise presents itself as graininess, but this may be okay depending on the type of photo you want. The photo on the left is shot with the flash and an ISO of 200 while the photo on the right is shot with no flash and an ISO of 1600. You can see that the photo with the raised ISO has more natural light and the bright spot on her face is gone.
  • Decrease your aperture or f-stop.  Remember that the lower your f-stop number, the more light will be allowed into the camera.  There are two downsides to lowering your aperture. The first is that doing so will start to blur the background of your photo.  You may be okay with this. The second is that your camera lens may limit your ability to lower the f-stop enough. Kit lenses that come with most beginner DSLR cameras only allow a lower f-stop value of f4.5.  This may or may not be low enough for you. A prime lens will allow f-stops as low as f1.4 which will more than adequately allow more light into your camera. The photo on the left is shot with the flash and an f-stop of f6.3. The photo on the right is without the flash and the f-stop has been lowered to f3.2. You can see there is more light in the scene and the skin tone is more natural because there is no bright spot being created by a flash.
  • The final setting you can adjust is your shutter speed.  Lowering the shutter speed will allow more light onto the subject.  There is a tradeoff though. When you lower the shutter speed, more light is being collected over time on the camera sensor.  At certain shutter speeds, i.e. below 1/60, you will start to see motion blur in anything that is moving. So this might not work with say a kids birthday party or a sports game.  Again the photo on the left is shot with a flash and a shutter speed of 1/100. The photo on the right is shot without a flash and a shutter speed of 1/15. You can see there is a little bit of blur, probably because I did not use a tripod. But the lighting in the photo is much better.

2.  Diffuse the flash with a napkin

If you just can’t avoid using the flash, you can diffuse the harshness of the flash by covering it with a napkin.  See the images below for how to do it and the effect this trick has on the photo.

Tips and tricks to avoid using the on-camera flash on your DSLR Camera

The top photo is the camera with a paper towel folded and affixed to the flash. The photo on the left shows the photo with an uncovered flash. The photo on the right shows a photo taken with the covered flash. You can see that the image is still dark in the background but there is not a bright spot on her face as in the photo on the left. Diffusing the flash allows there to be warmth in the photo, not spotty brightness.

I hope this helps you find ways to avoid using the on-camera flash or ways to mitigate the bright spot effect. Just remember to get creative with your shooting and don’t be afraid to change settings.

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