photography, engineering, tomfoolery

Better Flash pictures

2005 legacy content

This page is about how to make flash pictures appear less "flashy" with cheap solutions. The main target is macro photography with Pentax dSLRs, but most applies to other cameras and even other subjects, too.

If this topic interests you, also check out

For my macro shots, I use either an external flash mounted on the camera's hot shoe or mounted at the side of the camera via a flash bracket. The larger the distance between flash and lens, the less red-eye.

This uses a cheap but sturdy bracket and a TTL extension cord. If you don't have a flash extension cord, your only other real choice is to use a hot-shoe to PC-sync adapter on the camera and a PC-sync to hot-shoe adapter underneath the flash and a PC-sync cable inbetween. Of course, there's no TTL, only Auto of fully manual flash exposure, if you go this way. Users with the D can take advantage of the wireless capability of the D. The internal flash of the D can wirelessly control an external flash. Users of the DS would have to buy two external flashes, with one acting as the control flash on the camera and one off the camera. That's quite some money...

Mounting a flash on a bracket is good against redeye, and it makes the light less head-on. But that's often not good enough for macros:

Sometimes the strong shadows are wanted, but mostly, you want less direct light. Using a ring flash like the Vivitar 6000AF with a single flash tube and a rather strong diffuser in front of the flash tube will create a very even light that may appear too flat.

You can see the white semi-transparent plastic. This is the diffusor for the flash bulb situated behind it.

Nuts shot with the Vivitar 6000AF and the Pentax DFA 100 macro.

This is how the even light works. It gets into holes and crevices very nicely, but due to a lack of shadows, there's also a lack of depth. For some subjects, this is ok, or desired. If you want to shoot stamps or jewellery, a ring flash may be your best bet. BTW, if the lens you mount the flash onto does not have a sturdy lens barrel, think twice if you'd like it to carry the weight of the flash. It's not heavy, but it makes me feel a bit uneasy...
Some ringflashes use several bulbs that can be adjusted in their power individually. The Olympus twin flash system uses two separate flashes that can rotate around the lens and include power adjustment. Very nice, very expensive. If you want a bit of directional light, John Bean recommends covering part of the light bulb with black tape. This will of course work, but you use less light than the flash puts out. Putting a white surface (paper) at the side of the flash will reflect some of the stray light back onto the subject. The effect is noticeable, but it's quite a hassle to set-up unless you attach it with velcro.

My current solution is a flash bouncer made of cheap Extrodur (similar to Depron or fine Styropor, a foamed Polysterene):

This was shot with the bounced flash mounted off-camera.
This is not absolutely necessary: I tend to shoot on-camera and bounced, the camera handles nicer. The flash is more direct, though, which may appear too artifical.

And the result is:

There are enough shadows to create depth, but the light is even enough to look nice - at least I think so.

Another design to bounce the flash is made of paper and designed by Brian Zimmerman and used effectively by Dieni, as shown in this post: There are also ready-made bouncers like the ubiquitious Stofen Omnibounce which can be bought for and adapted to a large variety of flashes. But if you like a bit of Do-it-Yourself, building your own bouncer is a simple and rewarding project, I think.
If you don't have an external flash, but want smoother light, check this onboard flash diffusor made from an empty film can by Soldbear:

Recently, I've been experimenting with a diffusor made of a plastic drinking cup:

Half of the circumference I covered with aluminium foil to reflect the light that would otherwise be lost.

This is the cup mounted:

Here's how it looks when the flash fires:

Compare that to how it looks with the bouncer plate:

And that's direct flash:

You can also point the cup-diffused flash downwards:

And a "real world" comparison:

Direct Flash, pointed downwards.

Diffused with plastic cup.

With the styrofoam bouncing plate

Note how the shadows become softer. You'll notice that the shot with the diffusor cup is darker. That's because the cup swallows a lot of light and the flash is actually maxed out here. Pointing the cup downwards rectifies that, at the expense of more uneven light and maybe a bit harshness. Also notice the change in colour of light:

Diffused with plastic cup, pointed downwards.

In the end, a plastic cup can be an interesting alternative to a large bouncing plate. It is less prone to get stuck in bushes when chasing bugs, less likely to blow away in wind and less likely to block light you might need for proper focusing. I think its image quality is very good, but not quite up to that of the bouncer, plus it can put quite a strain on your flash's batteries. Changing the angle of the flash head with the diffusor cup mounted changes its characteristics, so you can adapt it to the subject in question.
The following shot I'd not been able to take with a large bouncing plate:

copyright 2005..06 by Jens Roesner