Nikon DSLR with pop-up flash

Pop-up Flash

This article, though primarily intended for DSLR users, would be just as useful for any digital camera user with a built-in flash. I will mark out the sections (if any) that are inapplicable for Point & Shoot users. This article deals with the right use of a built-in pop-up flash, the kind that all professional photographers would tell you not to use. Because? This is a flash that is direct on the face, produce harsh light and you have little control over how it fires except for a few limited options.

Don’t Hesitate to use your Pop-Up Flash

Don’t always fire the flash at its full power. Yes, your built-in flash can also be controlled so that you can limit the intensity at which it fires. Compact cameras have options like red-eye correction, ambient light option etc. which are very useful.

For DSLR users you will find a very interesting option known as fill-flash in your camera menu. Activate it when you are shooting in broad day light. That flash mode will eliminate any shadows on the subject’s face.


DSLR users have a lot more option as they can control the intensity of the flash output much more than just the fill-flash option. My Nikon allows me to press the flash button on the camera and then choose between different intensities at 1/3rd stop increments. It also allows me to choose whether I wish to shoot using the rear curtain sync technique.

Rear Curtain Sync

Fire Dancers at a Red Cross Fundraiser using a pop-up Flash
Fire Dancers at a Red Cross Fundraiser by D T

Rear curtain sync is a technique where the flash fires right before the second (or rear) curtain of the two shutter curtains is about to close. That helps to freeze the motion right when the flash fires. You will be able to tell whether a scene has been shot using the rear curtain sync technique because there’s always going to be a trail (or blur) right before the subject apparently freezes. I have already discussed this technique in detail on this website.

Don’t use it when it is meaningless

Don’t fire the flash when it is meaningless to do so. Let’s say you are photographing a seascape or a cityscape or even a fireworks display. Turn of the flash. On a DSLR you should be out of the Auto mode or the scene modes because those tend to activate and fire the flash automatically. On a compact camera you will need to dig deep into the menu and find a way to switch off the flash. Else use gaffe tape.

Follow the guide number

Every flash, even those which are built-in comes with a guide number. The guide number is a handy piece of information that tells you how powerful your flash is. It is expressed as a number and is always calculated by first selecting the ISO number at 100. The formula is aperture value multiplied by subject to flash distance.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA with a pop-up Flash by Brian Eager
MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA by Brian Eager

If the guide number of your flash tells you something like 80, it only means that your flash will be able to perfectly illuminate a subject standing at 20’ when your aperture is f/4 or a subject standing at 10’ when your aperture is f/8. When you know the guide number you can easily ask your subject to stand at the appropriate distance and use the corresponding aperture value for the right exposure (provided ISO remains at 100).

Make sure you take the lens hood off when using the pop-up flash

This is a very silly mistake and one that I have made myself. Beginners specially do this more often. They use the pop-up flash with the lens hood on. The problem is unlike an external flash which sits quite high up, a pop-up flash sits lower on the top of the camera. Thus when you fire the flash it invariably catches the broad lens hood mounted on the lens. The result is a circular shadow in your images.

Free Videos on using your Pop-Up Flash

Tips for Using Pop Up Flash: Exploring Photography with Mark Wallace: AdoramaTV

CNET How To – 3 ways to use your dSLR pop-up flash