Avoiding the Harsh, Direct Flash Look

This is a guest post by professional photographer Bryan Esler.


One of the biggest reasons why I don’t like pop-up flashes is that it gives uneven, harsh lighting directed at your subject. Even with an on-camera speedlight, the same effect can happen. While you can play around with the power output of your speedlight, there are other ways to avoid an unattractive look.

With a few tricks, you can create a softer light that spreads across the environment you’re shooting in. In turn, it creates a more natural photograph.

Bounce Off a Ceiling

I use this technique often at indoor events, and it involves pointing your speedlight up to the ceiling. This makes the flash lighting travel further in order to reach your subject and makes it spread out throughout your shot, therefore creating a more natural look.

Bouncing will also help to reduce glaring and reflections off of shiny elements, and will help to slightly soften any shadows in your photograph.

With no room to setup professional lights during this Latte Art Competition, I chose to bounce my speedlight off the ceiling. Doing so achieved a more evenly-lit photograph. While the shadows are still present, a direct flash would’ve caused some unattractive reflections on the mug and milk pitcher.

If the ceiling is too far in terms of height, try bouncing off a wall, or rotating the flash to point slightly behind you, above your head.

Use a Diffuser or Modifier

In addition to bouncing the light from your speedlight, you can use the diffuser that came with your speedlight to help to scatter the light a bit. This will create a softer light on your subject, which will in turn help level out the shadows.

You can also play around with some of the tools from MagMod. The MagBounce and MagSphere help to not only diffuse and spread the light to a broader area, it also helps to control the direction of the light that comes from your speedlight.

Utilize a Softbox

By utilizing a softbox, you can further diffuse and spread the light from your speedlight. I wrote about this briefly in my review of the Impact Quikbox Softbox Kit. Utilizing a softbox will also help to balance the shadows and create more depth to your photograph.

While still directed at the subject, having a softbox or shoot-thru umbrella can help to spread out the light, creating additional depth in your photograph.

You can also angle your softbox towards a wall, and bounce the light off of it in order to further avoid any harshness that the light may provide.

If you don’t have a large softbox and light stand setup, you can get a smaller softbox for your on-camera flash. You can also use a white umbrella to shoot through, furthering to help diffuse and spread out your light.


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