Most modern cameras have a built-in flash, and it’s very handy for taking pictures indoors or when the light drops. Most camera flashes produce a harsh light, and it’s not suitable for flattering portraits. A flash shoots a beam of light directly at the subject, and often results in washed out faces and harsh shadows.

In spite of the drawbacks of shooting with a camera’s flash, the creative photographer can find ways to use it effectively. Using the correct techniques, a flash can produce effective portrait photographs and is a great tool for difficult lighting conditions. The following tips will guide you to taking better pictures using a camera’s flash.

Diffuse or bounce

The trick for getting a softer effect from a flash is to use something to diffuse the light. External Diffusers can be fitted over the flash to soften the light hitting a subject and reduce the harsh shadows. If you are using a small digital camera, a piece of tissue paper can be held over the flash unit to produce the same result. Larger flashguns can be tilted so that light is directed at the ceiling. Bounced light produces a very pleasant effect with minimal shadows. Always check the color of the ceiling before bouncing light from it, as colored ceilings will produce a color cast in the light.

Shooting outside

Shooting outdoor shots with flash is a great way to deal with difficult lighting conditions. Professional wedding photographers have been using this technique for years, adding light from a flash to reduce harsh shadows which appear in bright sunlight. Advanced digital cameras can automatically balance light from the flash unit with the ambient daylight. If you are using a more basic camera, keep a good distance from your subject and check the results in the viewfinder. If the light from the flash is too strong, the pictures will look unnatural. Adding a colored filter to a flash can create highly creative effects.

Exposure compensation

If you are using a camera with a basic flash unit, experiment with the camera’s exposure compensation settings to adjust the level of light. If you are shooting close to the subject, you may need to under-expose the image. Different creative effects can be developed by adjusting the balance between the flash and natural light.

Second curtain flash

Advanced digital cameras offer a second curtain flash setting. The second curtain setting fires the flash at the end of the exposure, rather than at the beginning. A range of highly creative effects can be achieved using this. Shooting moving subjects with second curtain flash enables you to capture motion in a picture as well as a frozen image of the subject. Slower shutters speeds work best for these effects.

Painting with light

If you have a digital SLR camera with a removable flash unit, you can experiment with advanced techniques. Shooting outdoors at night and painting with light can produce some amazing pictures. Mount the camera on a tripod, and use the bulb setting to open the shutter for around one minute. During the exposure, fire the flashgun onto different areas of the scene the camera is pointed at. Experiment with adding different colored filters to the flash. Check the picture in the viewfinder and adjust exposure settings as necessary to balance the light levels.