I have heard a number photographer friends of mine complain about the pop-up flash that they have on their camera. Typically it’s a complaint about “what’s the point” or “that thing is useless”. In large part, I agree. That is the reason I own two external flashes (Canon Speedlite 580EXs). Actually, the pop-up flash on my Canon 20D is broken and I haven’t bothered to get it fixed in the 2 years I have owned the camera, when it tries to “pop” up, it just clicks three times trying to release the flash without the flash popping up and then displays an error message on the camera…which you can only get rid of by power cycling the camera. I have just gotten used to popping it open with my fingernail during the second click…much easier than living without my camera for 2-4 weeks to get it repaired.
The pop-up flash does have limited use. If you have a large lens, I mean physically large, the pop-up flash can leave a nasty shadow in your photo from the lens itself. You also don’t have the flexibility to bounce the light off of hard surfaces for more nature lighting or control as you can with an external flash like the 580. However, there are times when the that pop-up flash can be a life saver, like this past week while I was in the Caribbean. I was taking a portrait shot during the middle of the day when the sun was high in the sky. I didn’t have any reflectors available to create shade or bounce light back into the face of my model, but my pop-up flash came to the rescue.
The left shot was taken with no flash. The model’s face and shirt is very dark due to the shadow cast by the position of the sun. The right shot was taken with the pop-up flash providing fill in light. The shadow is largely gone and I think the color in the model’s shirt is brought out a bit more.
This is the perfect example of why you need fill in light. In an ideal world, I would have used a white or gold reflector to bounce light from beneath me onto the model (I have a great small collapsing one from Calumet for this specific purpose too…but of course I left it at home in favor of traveling light). Depending on the skin tone of the model, the white might provide a more nature look; or if they are light skinned in the first place, a gold reflector would provide better tone.
But, when you are in a crunch, don’t forget your handy pop-up flash. That is, if you have one…given the same situation but a different camera (i.e., Canon 5D or Canon 1D), I wouldn’t have had any good photos from this shoot.