Many if not most DSLR cameras come with built-in flash unit. It certainly is convenient for snapshots and most of the time the results are decent for casual photos. The limitations of the built-in flash are well known to many especially the very flash-look photos caused by harsh lighting. 

To illustrate the limitations of built-in flash, I used the following two set of photos. In each set, the one on the left was taken using built-in flash of a Nikon D200 and the one on the right was taken with the same camera but with a SB-600 Speedlight bounced off 60-degree angle to 8′ celling. I also attached a Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce Diffuser to soften the light further.


50mm. Left: Built-in flash; Right: SB-600 bounced off celling at 60 degree.


105mm. Left: Built-in flash; Right: SB-600 bounced off celling at 60 degree.

The problems of the built-in flashes are clearly visible: With the built-in flash, the photos have a overall very obvious flash-look to them. There are hot spots due to strong reflections and very dark shadows just behind the subject. On the other hand, the photos taken with a bounced flash unit are much better with a  more natural look. The shadows aren’t as harsh and are casted lower on the wall.

Is there any way of improving the shots using on-board flash without spending hundreds of dollars on an external flash unit? Yes, there are some options. For example,

  • Professor Kobre’s Lightscoop. What it does is to reflect the light from built-in flash unit so it can bounce off the celling. Direct light appears to be completely blocked, which will cause significant loss of flash power. Obviously this will not work if you have no celling or high celling.
  • Lumiquest Soft Screen. This is a diffusion screen you attach to your camera to soften the flash light.
  • Flash Softbox Diffuser. A mini softbox for built-in flash.

There are many products like those mentioned above. When choosing one for your DSLR camera, you may want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will it fit the camera I have?
  • What does it do? Bounce, diffuse, or both?
  • Flash power loss. If the power loss is too great, you will be forced to shoot high ISO and wide aperture, which would increase the noise and reduce depth of field (DOF).
  • Does it affect white balance? Some of them have variants to produce natural, cool, or warm colors.
  • Is it easy to use or carry?
  • Does it have good build quality?

One good way to find answers to these questions is to read the user reviews on Amazon. You may also ask the manufacturer directly but it may not be their best interests to tell you the shortcomings of their products.

If you can afford an external flash, it is certainly a better option. It is more powerful and flexible. It also allows more creative lighting when used off-camera.

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