Christmas Eve Eve…swivel head external flash tidbits

Right before Christmas I got a lot of requests to do some pointers concerning using a flash for indoor pictures. I have some great equipment for setting up all kinds of flash lighting scenarios, but I’ve never invested the time into really learning it all. Most of my life involves a lot of motion so studio lighting doesn’t really come in handy for what I do. I’d love to learn one day, but for now I just manage with my external flash on the fully automatic mode.

Most dslr cameras come with a built in flash (mine does not). If you take a lot of pictures in settings where you must use a flash I recommend investing in an external flash that swivels up and down and side to side a full 180 degrees both directions. I have a Canon 430EX speedlight and a 580EX Speedlight. Unless you want to really dive into flash photography I would recommend buying another brand like Vivitar instead of Canon or Nikon. With a flash you really just need a burst of light and the ability to swivel the direction it points in. In my not so professional opinion, buying a Canon or Nikon flash is really only necessary if you want to do more complicated flash photography…which I can’t tell you anything about but I recommend checking out The Strobist.

Most dslr cameras have the ability to attach an external flash. There is a little metal bracket on the top of the camera (on top of the built in flash) this is called a Hot Shoe Mount. This is where the external flash connects to your camera.

This is what an external flash with a swivel head looks like:

Christmas Eve Eve (the night before Christmas Eve) my family sleeps together under the Christmas tree. It is dark and necessary for me to use a flash. I thought I’d share a few examples in regards to using an external flash on automatic mode & your camera on automatic mode.

The first three examples are related to how a flash can ruin the ‘setting’ of an indoor photo. The first photo is too blurry because once I turned off my flash my camera slowed down my shutter speed. This meant my hand was not steady enough to take the picture without getting a blurry shot. The second photo is with the flash and it is just all around yucky. The third photo I turned off my flash, manually chose a slow shutter but set the camera on a chair for stability to prevent blur.

On these three photos I will show you how using an external flash with a swivel head yields a totally different result depending on where you point the flash. A major thing to keep in mind when you change the direction of your flash is that it will reflect whatever color it is pointed towards. If you point it towards a taupe wall, you will get a taupe feel to the photo. If you point it at a blue wall, your photo will have a blue hue. It is best to point towards a white wall, sheet, poster board, etc. If something white is not available you can use a diffuser (ask about it at your local camera store).

Secondly, keep in mind where you point your flash determines which parts of your subject receive the most light. Since most ceilings are white, it is common for people to point their flash up at the ceiling. This can result with a great photo, but it can also result in ‘racoon eyes’ or eyes that have dark circles around them because they aren’t in the direct path of the light coming down after it hits the ceiling. You can see the difference if you pay attention to my son’s eyes in these three photos.

Though the first photo of my son has great color and clarity, the direct flash took away the background and makes it a harshly lighted photo.

Well those are all the example photos I took because coming up with a photo tutorial for my blog was not my priority….eating popcorn on my bed with 5 other people watching a Christmas movie was much more important. Hopefully those few photos and tips will help you a bit.

Here are a few other random photos from the night:

After bath curls….makes my heart melt.

Her dainty ladylike ways of eating…makes her brother’s hearts melt.

I know this photo is completely blurry. I am a quick photo deleter at most signs of blur, but this one I just don’t have the heart to delete. Could be my favorite Christmas Eve Eve 2010 photo.

And yes….my 4 year old cuddles Lego Luke Skywalker at all times….cuddles and chews that is.

I’d love to hear your feedback on if this post made sense!

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  • Kirsten - It makes perfect sense! Thanks so much for sharing. I just got a Nikon speedlight before Christmas – I tried taking pictures of the dress rehearsal of my kiddo’s Christmas program with it, but the pictures I took without flash came out so much better. I was a little disappointed – obviously I still have a lot to learn. πŸ™‚ Thanks for the tips!!

    P.S. Those after-bath curls would make my heart melt, too – and the “dainty eating” pic literally had me laughing out loud. Love it. πŸ™‚

  • Margie - Totally made sense…thanks for the info! I have been wanting to get an external flash for a while so this post helped! Great pics :0).

  • megan - Great post. What’s funny is that growing up, my family always slept under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. I did it up until I got married. To be honest I don’t miss the aching back, but I do miss the tradition a little. Maybe we’ll have to do something like that with our kids.

  • Jen - save that pic of firecracker eating popcorn FOREVER! that face is SO perfect!

    I have a flash built into my camera (which i just got for Christmas!!! Ay Ay Ay) so I don’t think I have the capabilities to point it in different directions to get the different effects you mentioned. But for a pretty dimmly lit house, no flash and a high ISO turned out pretty well!

    I’m now going to rummage through all your past pic posts and try and school myself in the art of memory catching…photography style. Thanks for sharing all your wisdom!!

  • ashley jensen - I think it was helpful. I like the suggestion of using a poster board is great. A foam one would be best so it could be propped up easily.

  • Sarah - Great post, I think the light bulb just went on for me on how to use flash, it was frustrating me before. Now I need a swivel!!

  • Raechel - Thanks for this, it was really helpful! I’ve been considering purchasing an additional flash for my rebel as recently as last night. This post came in perfect time! Thanks for all the example photos.

  • TidyMom - would it be weird if I said I LOVE YOU?! hahaha……..were you reading my mind? I’m dying that I didn’t get an external flash before Christmas, (I just tried a coffee filter over my on camera flash)… an external flash is on my must have list! and I’ve been worried because I have no idea how to use it!!

    You also have me excited about trying out the Vivitar brand instead of the Nikon….so I can save a few bucks and buy one sooner!!

    Thanks again and have a very happy new year!!

    PS……….I’m NOT weird, I promise! haha

  • Kimberly - GREAT post! Thanks for going over external flash and giving us a look at your family’s Christmas Eve Eve =)

  • Mandy - thanks so much – I have an external flash but don’t know much about what to do with it – –

  • Kelly - Totally made sense! We had a sleepover by the Christmas tree on Christmas night and I tried to get a good shot of all my boys in their sleeping bags with just the tree for light and it didn’t work very well. Now I know for next time. πŸ™‚ Thanks!

  • Tricia - This was a great post, Ashley. I am a visual learner, so this is the kind of tut. that I love!


  • Tricia - This was a great post, Ashley. Visual learning tuts. are right up my alley. I got an external flash as an Anniversary gift this year and it was much needed at Christmas.
    Merry (belated) Christmas to you and the family.


  • hearttypat - well, i rented a canon flash before just for funsies, and i never figured out how to use it. I tried poiting it in all directions and sometimes i just don’t see a difference.. and then there’s the exposure setting to garner a headache over.. maybe I’m better off with steady hands.

  • Melissa - Great tips and very timely. I’m considering using some Christmas money for an external flash. Thank you!

  • Liz - Thank you!

  • Katherine - Thank you for posting this! I received a speedlight for Christmas, but it only rotates up and down. If you decide to do another flash tutorial, I’d love to know how to compensate for that to avoid the raccoon eyes!

  • Lacy M. - I just wrote down everything you posted!!! All your tips are easy to understand for the not so savvy photography, aka ME!!! Thanks so much!!!

  • Amy - It totally made sense… and even for someone who’s not liking to get an external flash any time soon, the takeaway was so easy to remember!

  • Caroline - Great post! Very helpful!

  • Anna - I always wondered how people got such good indoor photos that weren’t blurry! Now I know to invest in external flash! Thanks for the tips!

  • Tammy - Yes, perfect sense! The photos help so much. And other tutorials never have the adorable subjects in their shots. Please, when you can, keep those mini tutorials coming! πŸ™‚

  • Marykay - This makes total sense, thank you! I have been putting off getting an external flash because I had no idea where to start, so this is very helpful for me. I really like your Christmas Eve Eve tradition too. I want to do something similar but so far have not been brave enough πŸ™‚

  • caro - Thanks for share, but I know nothing about pics, i don’t understand about “f” or about ISO, when can I use it?, i’m beginer about pics and cameras. Love, love, love, the last picture.

  • caro - Thanks%20for%20share%2C%20but%20I%20know%20nothing%20about%20pics%2C%20i%20don’t%20understand%20about%20%22f%22%20or%20about%20ISO%2C%20when%20can%20I%20use%20it%3F%2C%20i’m%20beginer%20about%20pics%20and%20cameras.%20Love%2C%20love%2C%20love%2C%20the%20last%20picture.

  • Mariah - Thanks for posting this! I’m a scardey cat of the flash… I don’t have an external flash yet, but my pop up flash… ick. An external flash is on my wish list. Maybe it will help me be a bit braver. πŸ™‚

  • ria - thanks for sharing. it was very easy to understand. you are the best.

  • Kimber - This was SO helpful! I never really understood why people got those expensive flash attatchers that changed directions! And these pictures showed chrystal clear why they could be useful and how to use them. Thank you!

  • Kimber - This was SO helpful! I never understood why people got those expensive flash attatchers that changed directions! And these pictures showed crystal clear wy they could be useful and show how to use them. Thank you!!

  • Simone - This is a great post. I have been trying to decide whether or not to buy an external flash and you have convinced me. I never use my in-built flash because the pics look terrible. I prefer to live with the slightly blury, the slightly more orange pics you get in very low light without use of a flash. Seeing your pics side-by-side with the external flash let me see what it would do so thanks!

  • colleen - Every time i read one of your posts about photography, i realize how much i have to learn… i really know NOTHING! What is sad is that i took a class on photojournalism in college and did EVERYTHING on manual. Cannot remember one iota of it now! I think i too will read all of your camera related posts as a tutorial and try to get back to shooting manually. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

  • margaret - It makes perfect sense. My husband is a photographer and I’m always bugging him about taking pictures, so he’s been trying to show me how to use his camera. He showed me how to put my hand up over the pop up flash when the camera is on automatic to get something similar. Great tips! Thanks!

  • Dani - definitely made a lot of sense, and im excited to now try some things out with my flash, as it has been kept hidden by my fear of trying it! thanks!

  • Hannah - Makes total sense. I used my external flash pointed toward a white wall with most of my Christmas pics…it was a necessity.

    I never realized the importance of a speedlight flash until I borrowed one from a photographer friend for an indoor party. After that, I realized it was going to have to be a staple in my camera bag. Can’t live without it.

  • Kristin - Very nice post. I like how you showed the different options – it makes good sense, and is helpful if I ever get a swivel flash – which I really do want now! Great photos – Firecracker is so sweet!

  • Robyn Farmer - Makes total sense. Thank you so much for the tips. All of my Holiday pictures came out with a yellow tone to them because I didn’t use a flash and had bad lighting. I just edited them with a vintage feel so the yellowness seemed somewhat intentional but I hope I can soon get a flash so I wont have to do that. Always love your photo tips.

  • Amy Sargeant - Thank you. I just actually broke down and bought a speedlight just for our low-ly lit Christmas morning and I don’t know why I dragged my feet about it. It helps so much. I’ve been playing around with bouncing the flash too and it makes all the difference. Thanks for the tutorial and for your time.

  • D'On - Thanks for the tip. It was extremely helpful. I see a new investment in the near future.

  • Carrie Rosalind - So sweet! Thanks for the tips – makes me want an external flash now! πŸ™‚

  • Leah R. - Gosh thanks for that post! A fresh reminder of what to bounce my flash off of! I was diappointed in some of my Christmas photos this year, but everything happens so fast I really didn’t have to time to pay attention to my settings as much!

  • giozi - I loved this post. Thanks thanks thanks for thinking about us in this moment πŸ™‚
    I shared this link in my facy. Thanks again. Happy New Year.

  • Nicole - Good post, quote timely as well! Would you mind sharing the type of bag you use to carry your gear as you’re also wrangling the kids?? Really having trouble finding something that will let me do both!

  • Lauren - Thank you SOOO much for the tips! You are so great at giving examples and spelling things out in laymen’s terms so that it makes sense. Christmas Eve Eve looks like a lot of fun! Thanks for taking the time out of your fun night to take these pics to share. You’re the best! BTW, love the pic of FireCracker eating popcorn. That’s my kind of girl!

  • Laura - Ashley–Thank you for your tutorial. I read your blog daily and just yesterday was thinking I needed to look around online for some handy tutorials for using my new external flash. Shazaam! you delivered!

    Your photography tips and all your bloggy inspiration have encouraged me to take tons of pictures and have been a big part of the nudge I needed to start my own blog. Thank you!


  • Laura - Just in case you want to visit πŸ™‚

  • Laura - Just in case you want to visit πŸ™‚

  • kari - This makes great sense. I was using my speedlight this past weekend, and didn’t really know what I was doing…now I feel a little bit better using it. XOXO

  • Liz R. - Absolutely made sense!! Thank you!!!

  • Jen Helbert - wonderful! now how much would you typically spend on a flash? i know i researched it and they seem a bit pricey. is there a good way of buying one refurbished and still get a good deal?

  • pattilouwho - thank you so much for posting this. it is very fitting that you wrote about this since i just got an external swivel flash for christmas and i’ve been practicing with it since i took it out of the box. i have a lot to learn since i have always just used natural light.

  • Elisabeth - It made perfect sense. I just posted about the same thing, but without nearly so much expertise (or helpfulness). More like reflections on trying an off-camera flash for the first time:). I love natural light, but I was actually surprised (in a good way) at the quality of the flash pictures. For now, though, I’m much more excited about having a new lens with a larger aperture. I love being able to take nice pics indoors without that slow shutter speed blur!

  • Kristy - so, so, so very helpful!

  • Wendy - thanks so much! very helpful, and perfectly timed…i, too got/bought for myself an external flash for my nikon d5000 for Christmas…and i, too, LOVE the dainty eating and after-bath curls shots-priceless! :))

  • jeny - yep, understandable. on a side note … you should probably start stocking up on pink lego’s. my daughter is almost three and demands to be put in the mix (but with pink lego’s). i tell her lego’s are for b’s and g’s; she isn’t buying that!

  • Stef - This is absolutely perfect thank you!

  • Brooke Whitis - I have been really wanting a flash to add on to my camera….and I had no clue the first thing about that…other than I ‘needed’ one… πŸ™‚ Thanks so much. I even had my hubby read your post, because we have both been trying to understand more about cameras…

    Thanks friend….
    and I love your sweet little Firecracker’s long curly hair….it’s getting so long! So cute!!

  • Jenny B. - OH MY GOODNESS! I am so excited! I need to go back and read the whole post, but I just had to tell you that when I saw the picture of the flash at the beginning and read your paragraph about getting a cheaper Vivitar, a lightbulb (or maybe a flash bulb – hee hee) went off in my head, and I realized that I OWN ONE! Tucked away in the tip top of my closet inside a very dusty case that holds my 30-year-old (c. 1980, so it really is 30 years old) Olympus OM-F fully manual old-school film SLR, is a Vivitar external flash! I went to get it just now. Would you belive that it actually fits on my Nikon D40, and the batteries are still good?!? I am overjoyed!! It’s fixed (it doesn’t swivel or tilt), but I can adjust the brightness, and it is WAY better than the pop-up flash. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! πŸ˜€

  • Maueen - conceptually it makes sense, I have a problem with my speedlight, when I use it, it just doesn’t seem to work. I get the whole bounce thing, but how do you set the camera to work with the flash, I feel like my camera doesn’t know the flash is attached.

  • ALVN of WhisperWood Cottage & Junkologie - So extremely helpful! Thanks for the comparison photos!! Amy

  • pam heggie - it made all sorts of sense! thanks so much for taking the time. this is my first comment ever on your blog though i’m an avid follower…i am in love with it!!!
    pam from canada. πŸ™‚

  • Jill - Love the pics! My daughter has the same after bath curls and I just LOVE them! Too cute!

  • Meghan - Ashley, I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, and have just ordered my first speedlite flash. I knew I needed help with lighting in my photos-especially now that I am going to start working in newborn photography! I am so thankful I saw this post you made to help me start learning how to correctly use my flash. Thank you for the time you take to give wonderful and beautiful photography tips!

  • kristen - OMG you need to take the photo of her tearing up that popcorn like that and submit it for something! πŸ™‚ with the title “LIKE A BOSS” haha! She is adorable. So is he, obviously. I just bought my first camera but i don’t have anything fancy. I just want to learn a simple tip or something on how to edit or blur acne on someone. πŸ™‚ cute fam! cute tradition!

  • Katie Wierenga - I love your blog! When I grow up I want to have a blog just like this that shows a happy family through photography. Great job!

  • Ame - I am a new photographer and the thought of using a flash pretty much scared me for fear of all my photos turning out like your first example! I have read a lot about an external flash but never in such a clear manor….with step by step examples too! This was great! Now I am excited about getting my flash! Yay!