When you see that pop-up flash built into your sexy new digital SLR, it’s easy to imagine that you’ve got your lighting bases covered. However, you’d only be half-right. A built-in flash, no matter how short its throw or arrow its angle of coverage, is better than no flash at all. Built-ins are useful in emergencies. They’re also great when you want just a touch of fill-say, a glint in a portrait subject’s eye-or for triggering slave-activated, off-camera strobes quickly and conveniently.

While built-in flash units serve a purpose, they’re not enough. Their shortcomings are many and completely obvious to anyone who’s shot with one for any length of time.

So what’s the good news? You can very easily make up for the deficiencies of even the best pop-up flash by throwing an accessory hot-shoe flash in your bag. Articulated shoe-mount flashes are not neces- sarily expensive, heavy, or any more awkward to use than a built-in flash. Moreover, they offer half a dozen clear-cut advantages over built-ins, including…

1. More power The extra light that’s thrown by a hot-shoe flash will reach more distant subjects and/or let you shoot at smaller apertures, thereby ensuring that more of the scene is rendered sharply.

2. Bounceability Being able to tilt a shoe-mount flash up toward a low ceiling or swivel it to bounce light off a nearby wall can easily make the difference between flat, harshly lit, unflattering people pictures, and real portraits-with subtle modeling of facial features, three-dimensional drape to clothing, more flattering contrast levels, and overall longer, richer tonal scales.

3. Less redeye Because hot-shoe flashes are raised high above the lens axis, they eliminate (or greatly reduce) the possibility of redeye in people pictures.
4. More lens choices Built-in flashes and large lenses don’t mix well. The popular 24-200mm and 35- 300mm superzooms, for example, are typically so large in length and girth that they block the output of built-in flash units, creating a dark semicircle at the bottom of every horizontal and on the side of every vertical picture, often regardless of subject distance or focal length. Because a hot-shoe flash usually sits high above the lens, your optical options grow exponentially.

5. Accessories A small industry is dedicated to producing accessories for shoe-mount flashes. Diffusers soften output for more attractive lighting; spreaders expand a hot-shoe’s output to eliminate or reduce light falloff; bounce cards provide fill for shadows and spectral highlights for the eyes in bounce-lit portraits; and colored filters offer the possibility of balancing light sources of mismatched color temperatures.

6. Increased exposure options Shoe-mount flashes offer exposure options built-ins can’t (or can, but usually don’t): High-speed syncing, second curtain syncing, and manual output, for example. The most important of these expanded options is the ability to move the flash off the camera­-either with an accessory TTL cable or even in a non-TTL manual mode-to light a background or a subject from behind or from the side. Try that with a built-in flash!

In fact, your hot-shoe flash doesn’t even have to be TTL-dedicated (that is, controlled by through-the-lens metering). With today’s digital SLRs, the exposure hassles that once complicated non-TTL flash operation are greatly minimized. Your DLSR’s monitor tells you instantly if you need more or less light. And what the LCD image doesn’t tell you about exposure, a histogram usually will.
The moral? If you’ve been sitting on the fence about adding a hot-shoe flash, jump.