It's been said that as far as the pop up flash is concerned, you get what you pay for.... And you don't really pay extra for a pop up flash.
In other words... They kinda suck.
Now for certain things, I totally agree that they do! Here are some examples of how.
Fireworks... A while back I was at a public fireworks display for Canada Day and I thought I was planning and doing everything right... I had the tripod, I had the remote, I even brought an extra baseball hat so I could do long exposure "Hat Trick" photos. I lock the shutter open on bulb mode and keep the hat over the lens. When a firework goes off, I remove the hat for a few seconds and then place it gently back over the lens. Doing this multiple times creates a fun multi firework shot without anything overexposed...... Well in theory.
What I didn't plan for was the people sitting behind me with their camera's on auto mode and their pop up flash firing and hitting the inside on the hat on my lens and therefore flashing into my lens and ruining photo after photo.
**People, please do not use a flash at a public fireworks display!**
Concerts... How many times do you see flashes going off from the seats at a concert? Well, I guarantee all it will do is illuminate the bald head of the guy sitting in front of you and making anything more than 15 feet away dark.
Portraits... If you've used the pop up flash to make portraits, you should know what I'm about to say. For the most part, a built in flash only fires a short distance and is a very small light source. This means you are projecting a small blast of light directly at your subject. This looks harsh and generally unappealing.
However, there is a big world of photography out there and this post will hopefully shed some light on where this little on board gem can really come in handy!
My wife Shelli and I have been able to meet many pro wrestlers over the years, here Shelli is in a photo with former WWE Superstar Ken Anderson. I was using Mr Snaps (My Nikon D700) and a 24-70 F2.8 lens. I brought the best camera of the day for high ISO and the brightest lens that I could for low light. I was so proud that I had awesome gear and felt like I was so smart and prepared until I showed this photo to my colleague Martin Ingles and the first thing he said was "Why didn't you use the pop up flash to fill in under his hat lid?"
I felt kinda sick and definitely stupid for not even thinking of that. And since then, I always remember that it's there. A good tip for this is to use your flash exposure compensation. Dial it down a bit and it won't blow out the photo but would give a nice glint in Anderson's black eye.
Using the pop up flash as fill flash is also helpful for shooting a subject in front of a window. If your subject is mostly shadow, using the pop up (Hopefully not at full power) can add enough light to make the photo interesting.
My favorite use of the pop up flash is the creative lighting system. I've used this for years on my Nikon DSLR's but now it's also found in most Canon DSLR's. At least the ones with a built in flash made within the past few years. Many other DSLR's (Sony, Olympus, etc..) also have a creative lighting system.
This system uses the built in pop up flash to send a signal to off camera flashes. On my D700 and D7100, I can control as many flashes as I want.... As long as their is line of sight between the pop up and the remote flash. Even better than that you will be able to not only fire it, but choose if it's in TTL or Manual power. AND I can also control 2 separate zones of flashes and up to 4 separate channels.
So in the photos above I used 5 total flashes.
1 flash with a blue gel firing towards the back of the gym and 1 flash with a red gel firing on to the ring mat. These two were on Group A
I also fired a flash with a Lastolite hot shoe softbox on the left, through a shoot through umbrella on the right and then a rear flash on a monopod in the back. These three were on Group B
Doing it this way, I can control the coloured flashes separately from the regular flashes. OR, if I wanted to group the left from the right, or any other combinations of groups to have full control of my light.... All from the pop up flash and in camera controls.
Below are the menu's to get to this function on a Nikon DSLR
When I set out to make these in ring action photos, I used lessons learned at a Joe McNally seminar in Toronto that I had attended.
While at the seminar I was making out the plans on how I'd do this. My main goal was to fire all the flashes I needed to make the photos I envisioned all only using the pop up flash as the trigger for each.
It was fun to finally get to try it and with a little help from my friends... aka Voice activated light stands .... I learned a lot and made some pretty cool photos.
I've since taken this technique to a different level by using an sb700 on camera as a trigger to fire an sb910 as a remote flash to add backlighting in my wrestling photos.
So, the point of this post is to show how the pop up flash can really become a handy tool if you know how to use it and understand what you want from your photos before you make them.
Understanding how light influences your images and how to control it with your camera and settings can help you visualize your results before making them.
Instead of going out to buy more kit to "make better photos" try using the kit you already have to it's fullest. Including the lowly pop up flash you already own.