On Assignment: On Camera, On Axis, On Budget

Ever notice that the on-camera flash shots from your point-and-shoot camera can actually look … kinda good?

That's because those cameras are so small that an onboard flash acts more like a ring light than a DSLR-style on-camera flash. Here is how to get that look with your DSLR, some gaff and an OCF cord.

On-camera direct flash for DSLR is located just about the worst position possible. Move it a little further away (with a bracket) and it looks better. Move it a little closer and it looks better.

The on-camera flash totin', celebrity-shootin' paparazzi know this. That's why you'll usually see them with either vertical flash brackets or the side brackets made popular by Terry Richardson. The side brackets get the flash very close to the lens for a look that is a little more brash (and, oddly, glamorous) than your normal, on-camera flash.

I like to do that one better and put the flash adjacent to the lens. The light looks decent by itself (better if you warm the flash) but I prefer it as fill as it was used above. Plus, it is more powerful than a speedlight-based, passive ring flash adapter. So it can work for you in full sun. (It won't replace a ring, as that has a different look.)

Here is the fill setup as used on pianist Daria Scarano, above. I photographed her for the cover of her new CD of selections from Franz Liszt. (Photographing a Liszt album cover is especially cool to me, as long-time readers will know.)

Here, the speedlight is being used as fill. It's pretty cheap as mounting systems go. I used gaffer's tape and an old TTL cord. The SC-17 TTL cord, used, is about $20 on eBay. Although, probably not this week.

Lighting ratio for using an on-axis bare flash as fill is pretty much add-salt-to-taste. I establish the fill exposure first, crank the aperture down to where I like the legibility, then add in the key with the power adjusted to get a full exposure form that. In this case, the key was a dish at upper camera left.

On last tip: even though the flash is right next to the lens, location matters. Ideally, you'll be on the opposite (or near opposite) side as your key light. In this case I shot with the camera rotated to place the flash on the bottom. That allowed the full-exposure key light from above to eliminate the tiny little hairline shadow this setup can give as fill.

Next: Antonio Beverly


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OpenID tagofabic.com said...

That is one mean-looking contraption! hehe. Super cool tip, thanks! :D

July 03, 2012 7:20 AM  
Blogger Fettaugraphy said...

Great post David. Something else to try during vacation. I would love to see what the picture would look like without the fill for comparison.

July 03, 2012 7:30 AM  
Blogger Yugo said...

I'm so glad to have validation of something I've occasionally done intuitively - handhold my corded SB600 right next to my lens barrel!

Question: Why place the flash so that its fresnel sticks out horizontally further? I'm not sure I'm expressing this well, but I would have laid the flash "flat" against the lens barrel. Is that too much shading from the lens hood?

July 03, 2012 9:36 AM  
Blogger Wallace said...

I thought this looked familiar. I remember seeing a similar setup used for macro photography of insects. This version looks like it uses a couple of shelf brackets and a zip tie.

July 03, 2012 9:41 AM  
Blogger Scott Nelle said...

I have an off-brand TTL sync cord that I got for under $20 on Amazon that's been great. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003UDFMO8/

July 03, 2012 10:05 AM  
Blogger Mike McClelland said...

i'm curious, i would think this would result in red eye to the n'th degree. am i missing something?

July 03, 2012 10:10 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I wonder if this would also work with two or three flashes to simulate a ring flash.

July 03, 2012 11:33 AM  
OpenID Victor said...

This is so cool and ultra simple I had to try this straight away. Awesome! On axis fill without the fuss, (especially after trying a way too small macro ring flash and a passive DIY 'ring' failing miserably). Just when you think you've learned a lot from Strobist up pop's simple genius like this!

July 03, 2012 11:44 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Working from behind the lens hood keeps any flare from happening. That flash is super bright on a relative exposure basis an inch from the front fresnel.

July 03, 2012 12:05 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


When working that close, on subjects that small, even a bare flash appears mjuch softer, like a soft box.

July 03, 2012 12:06 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


In theory, yes. But remember I am using this as fill, so any red-eye would be two stops down. When using it as key and the subject is looking right at you, you'll get a lot of red-eye. But that may be *the* single easiest thing to fix in post that there is. So I don't worry about it.

July 03, 2012 12:07 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Yep, but you will get multiple shadow lines unless you unify the light sources with some common diffusion between them.

July 03, 2012 12:08 PM  
Blogger Philipp Boehm said...

I love the tape, but have you considered building a small adapter using an l-bracket to attach your flash to the tripod mount of you lens? Could give you an easy way to (dis)mount and to swivel around the lens to adjust the flash position...

July 03, 2012 1:37 PM  
Blogger markleethephotographer said...

I have been doing the same thing but I didn't go through the effort of taping the flash to the lens. I did it on location with too much overhead sun. It worked great and helped me balance the ambient without lugging a lightstand around.

July 03, 2012 1:44 PM  
Blogger markleethephotographer said...

I have been doing the same thing without taping the flash to the lens. Beats lugging a lightstand around on location.

July 03, 2012 1:46 PM  
Blogger Jan Fredrik Leversund said...

Great, now all you need is a scantly clad Lindsay Lohan, and you're basically Terry Richardson...

(Yeah, yeah, I know he uses the on axis light for key and pretty much nothing else, but that thing seems to work for him.)

July 03, 2012 2:30 PM  
Blogger Laurence Filo said...

Hello... Newbie here so bear with me if my post sounds like I do not quite know what I'm talking about... I have been playing with the Commander function on my D70s and 2 SB-600's. Reading and looking at your setup (i do not see any teansmitter) I must ask how You get your other light to fire... Thank you

July 03, 2012 2:32 PM  
Blogger Barak said...

I don't think you answered Yugo's question, which was also mine.

How about rolling the speedlight so that the flash looks like it's underlining the lens (from the point of view of your subject) rather than making a lollypop (with the bright bit as the stick and the lens as the candy)?

July 03, 2012 2:55 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Ah, okay. And good question. Coupla things to note here.

First, the flash is shown on top of the lens for clarity. When shooting (verticals, for this shot) I held the camera rotated so the flash was beneath the lens. So any hairline shadow left by the fill was erased by the key.

Second, re the underline vs lollipop: Remember that the flash's pattern is rectangular, just like the 3:2 35mm frame. So you want to orient it in the same orientation (i.e., vertical to vertical when shooting here) to get full coverage over the entire frame.

July 03, 2012 3:17 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I've loved this technique since you first mentioned it a while back, but since not all my speedlights have optical slaves, I've struggled with the logistics of getting this to work on a multi-flash setup.

After watching enough PW videos, I finally realized you can do this with Pocket Wizards as well. If anyone is in the same boat, you can stick a PW in the hotshoe to remote-trigger any off-camera strobes/speedlights (which don't have optical slaves) then use a cheap stereo 1/8" "miniphone" cable from the on-camera PW to the held-against-the-lens-barrel flash to trigger it.

July 03, 2012 4:04 PM  
Blogger Ed from Ohio said...

@Brian - I believe one of the points to David's display was simplicity and how one fill flash can be used. I'm sure you could strap 5-6 Speedlights around a lens using whatever trigger you prefer and make a bug-melting setup.

There's always a point where things have gone overboard. Why am I always well beyond that point? :)

July 03, 2012 4:36 PM  
Blogger HPocius said...

Nice post David! I've often seen the paparazzo around town and wondered about that technique. They can use it as either key or fill and come away with saleable images.

July 03, 2012 9:47 PM  
Blogger Senorito<- Ako said...

What's the difference between going barebulb vs using the Orbis ? Doesn't the orbis give you a more omnidirectional on-axis fill ?

July 03, 2012 11:46 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm amazed again by your creative simplicity. Gotta try it out...thanks!

July 04, 2012 12:34 AM  
Blogger Mike McClelland said...

contrary to what my brain was telling me would happen, no red eye. thanks for the very handy tip! http://www.flickr.com/photos/61600018@N02/7499283976/in/photostream

July 04, 2012 1:46 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

'other thing you want to consider is to orient the flash on the lens so you can manage the +/- control ie don't strap down the unit so the buttons mash up against the lens body.... just sayin.

July 04, 2012 11:34 AM  
Blogger derek said...

I thought this sounded familiar


July 04, 2012 5:32 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Over the course of 2,000 posts, I will occasionally write about some things more than once.

July 04, 2012 5:53 PM  
Blogger JimDonahue said...

Have tried this out and it works..it works...IT WORKS!!!

July 04, 2012 10:11 PM  
Blogger JS said...

First, un-ironic use of the Fongster; now on-axis fill and Terry Richardson?! Alright, pal. Step away from the blog and show us where you stuffed David's body.

July 05, 2012 9:34 AM  
Blogger Matt Murphy said...

----And after several years, Hobby is now trying to tape the flash back on his camera as close to the lens as possible.. I don't even know what to believe any more. ;)

July 05, 2012 10:19 AM  
Blogger dougstroud said...

Would you mind posting a drawing of your entire light setup, similar to what you provided on your "Lighting in Layers" Dvd?

July 05, 2012 10:48 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Other than what you see in the pic of the camera, it was a beauty dish, white, upper camera left. Maybe three feet away. It's really not that complicated.

But it was the barrel-mount flash that gave it the snap in the shadows.

July 05, 2012 11:17 AM  
Blogger Maksim Stepanov said...

from like two years ago:


good post though!
DIY is for the win here! $50 for flat bracket is over - kill IMHO. Sorry.

July 05, 2012 3:47 PM  
Blogger konax said...

I did this few years ago... just multiplied http://i.imgur.com/nDc8e.jpg

July 10, 2012 11:13 AM  
Blogger RFS said...

You can also put your flash lenside using a Manfrotto magic arm with a camera mount on one end and a cold shoe on the other. It also gives you something to hold onto. But it's not as hardcore as gaffer tape.

July 11, 2012 11:28 PM  

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