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Quick photography hack: Softening your built-in flash

An external flash unit with an adjustable head is a great addition to any photography kit. With it you can bounce the light off the ceiling or a wall nearby or even use it off the camera to soften and change the light and reduce red eye. But compact camera owners are usually stuck with the built-in flash which is fixed in position next to the lens. Here’s a quick tip to help soften that built-in flash: try holding a piece of semi-transparent paper or white plastic (like from a milk jug) in front of the flash. It will act as a makeshift diffuser and help soften the light hitting your subject.

In these examples, I used a white 3×5 card and just held it about one inch in front of the flash as I shot. But experiment with different materials with varying thickness and transparency (even different colors) to find what works best for you and your camera. All of these examples were made with my compact Canon S50 and have not been altered except to resize them.

Available light. 1/20s @ f/4.5
Test scene with available light, no flash. 1/20s @ f/4.5

While available light looks great, sometimes there’s just not enough of it, especially indoors. The shutter speed in the example above is too slow for hand-holding the camera and the image quality suffers.

Full flash. 1/60s @ f/4.5
Test scene with flash, no diffuser. 1/60s @ f/4.5

This is a typical on-camera flash shot. It’s easy to see why many people prefer not to use flash at all. The harsh shadows and underexposed background create a very unnatural look.

Diffused flash. 1/60s @ f/4.5
Test scene with flash, 3×5 card diffuser. 1/60s @ f/4.5

Finally, the same scene with a white paper 3×5 card held about 1 inch in front of the flash to act as a diffuser. Notice that the exposure settings are identical to the previous shot but the shadows are softer and the lighting is more even. It’s closer to the available light shot but with a much better overall exposure. In wider scenes, the light spreads out and lifts objects in the background.

John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you’re interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.

  • Cool idea. I’m really interested in trying this out. I recently saw an advertisement in a photo magazine for a small, cheap attachable flash screen. My concern with holding a card in front of the flash while taking a picture is the stability I would have with just one hand. But its worth a try.

  • I personally use a coffee filter and cut to to just fit over the flash on my Canon A410. I then make it 1 to 5 filters thick depending on how diffused I want the flash to be. Then I just use some scotch tape to hold it in place. Works great!

  • Holly

    I have found that a tissue also works good if you have nothing else available to you at the moment. And you can fold it or not depending on the amount of light you need/want. Great for when you are are out and maybe don’t have all your equipment!!

  • Ben

    As always a glass of beer does the job just fine, especially if all you got is the built in flash and feel like it’s needed. I’ve also just used my cupped hand and got a similiar effect.

  • This is a good idea, another thing to try is a tissue or napkin. If held just right (no fingers) in front of your built in flash, it can help alot with making the flash look more natural.

    Ben, you have to be careful with that though, if you put your finger over it, it’ll give the photo a red tint. (Because it goes through your finger and bloodstream.)

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