Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bouncing the built-in flash on a Canon 60D

There's plenty of literature out there about on-camera and off-camera bounce flash techniques. But if you don't have a powerful external flash unit for your Canon DSLR, you can still play with bounce flash techniques using the built-in flash.

First, let me apologize for the quality of the photos below. This busy scene was where I happened to be when I was testing this out. And I don't have a tripod, sorry for the slight movement of the camera.

Here's the scene with existing light only. Shot on a Canon 60D, EF-S 17-55, at 23mm, 1/8 sec, f/2.8, ISO 1600. Notice that it is unevenly lit, with a light on the right side making that part of the image almost blown out.

And here's the same scene illuminated with the built-in flash on the 60D. This time the exposure is 1/5 sec, f/2.8, ISO 400. This is the built-in flash fired directly at the scene, exactly as it would normally pop up if we were trying to illuminate the scene more evenly. The result isn't terribly bad, but I wondered if I might be able to do better.

Here is my first attempt at bouncing the built-in flash. I am sitting on a sofa about 8 feet from this scene in a fairly small room. I help up a credit card sized scrap of off-white cardstock in front of the flash at about a 45 degree angle, causing it to reflect off the card onto the ceiling and wall behind me and then strike the scene. Remember that the 60D flash has a guide number of only 13 (compared to 58 for the big 580EXII that a pro would use in a church, for example!) The exposure is 1/4 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400.

The flash illumination is uneven since the cardstock had a crease in it and I was handholding it over the lens while handholding the camera at the same time, meaning I wasn't paying any attention to the angle. But already the shadows have been altered and I think the effect is somewhat more pleasing than the harder light of the preceeding image, even though it still leaves a lot to be desired.

And here's my final attempt. I held up a larger card (approx. 5"x7") in front of the flash at about a 45 degree angle this time. The exposure is 1/10 sec at f/2.8, ISO 800, so I had to double the ISO to capture an equivalent exposure, making me think the flash is at or near the limit of its power here. But I think the scene is the most pleasingly illuminated yet, with softer shadows behind the objects and no more reflection of the direct flash off the wall behind the shelf.

I case you're wondering exactly what my method was, above is a crude shot showing the basics. Just hold up a piece of paper (wedding program, whatever) in front of your flash.

My point is that in a pinch you can reflect the built-in flash in a small room to create a more pleasing scene. With a candid portrait, the subject is often not too far away, and using this tactic to bounce your flash off the ceiling creates an image that is immensely more pleasing that that captured when firing directly at your subject's face. Because you are frequently shooting at a few arm lengths away, the on-board camera flash will probably have sufficient power.

However, remember we are talking long exposures that require you to tell your subject to stand still! And with a more brightly lit scene you would probably want to rely on existing light or use the uneven illumination to your creative advantage. Or switch to the big guns and get an external Speedlite flash. But I think if you're on a budget, or just like playing around with your camera, this could be a fun technique to use. Let me know if you like it or don't like it in the comments!

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