Bounce Flash Secrets – Bouncing Your Way to Better Photography

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If you have ever seen a professional photographer using flashgun on top of their camera, and wondering why the flash is not pointing directly at the subject, that’s because they are bouncing the flash. In this article I will reveal to you the secrets of bounce flash, which I have learned over the years working as a professional wedding photographer. I will unveil my killer techniques that will allow you to bounce your way to better photography.

If you are new to photography you may be apprehensive about using flash. I understand. A lot of it has to do with when you first buy a point-and-shoot camera the flash on it just creates a horrible direct flash look and that is what you associate with flash photography. Once you master the art of bouncing however, I promise you will never look back.

Garry Chung Photography 100

The image above is lit by bouncing flash off the wall on the right side, just out of frame. Notice how it doesn’t look obviously flashed.

What is bounce flash?

Bounce flash is when, rather than firing your flashgun pointing directly at your subject, you point it elsewhere typically up or at an angle, bouncing off a wall or ceiling. The objective is to “bounce” light to soften it before it hits your subject.

Why bounce it and not point directly at my subject?

Because generally speaking direct bare flash, pointing at your subject, is terrible for two reasons:

  1. The light is “hard” and can cast horrible shadows on your subject. It just generally is not very nice light for portraits. The definition of hard and soft light if you are confused is simply the transition the light makes between shadow and highlights. A gradual transition is called soft light and a sudden transition where you have a strong shadow edge is called hard light. Portrait photographers talk a lot about nice soft quality light and that is why they use light modifiers such as soft boxes and umbrellas.
  2. Direct flash produces “flat lighting” which gives that deer in the headlights look and also does not give a 3-dimensional quality to the photo

It is probably easier to show you in pictures so here are a few images of my friend Theresa, that I took just to illustrate the point. Just to set the scene, below is the area where I took these photos. This is a shopping center in Hong Kong and I have chosen the area because of the white walls.

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This was shot with the flash pointed directly at the subject. Because there were a lot of white walls surrounding Theresa, there was a lot of wrapping light and it didn’t turn out too bad. But, there is a hard shadow in the neck area and the lighting is flat.

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Manual Mode, 50mm lens, f/4, 1/80th, ISO 800, flash in ETTL Mode

This was shot with the flash tilted upwards towards ceiling. The light is much softer and you can see that the shadow on her neck is softened. It’s OK but could be better.

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Manual Mode, 50mm lens, f/4, 1/80th, ISO 800, flash in ETTL Mode

This is the way I would light this portrait. The flash is tilted, in this case aimed to bounce off the wall to the left, and bounce back. The result is a nice soft light, and also notice the eyes have better catch lights.

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Manual Mode, 50mm lens, f/4, 1/80th, ISO 800, flash in ETTL Mode

But wait, I think I can do one better. I want a more dramatic and contrasty image so I cut out the ambient light by setting a faster shutter speed and stopping down to f/8. Still with the flash pointed to the left I now have my nice professional high key headshot, one flash on camera, no light modifier shot in a shopping mall.

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Manual Mode, 50mm lens, f/4, 1/200th, ISO 800, flash in ETTL Mode

When do I bounce my flash?

Indoors when there is ceiling or wall, preferably a white wall so there is no colour cast in the light, or outdoors if there is a surface nearby to bounce off. I see so many “professional photographers” have their flash pointing upwards when shooting outdoors when there is nothing to bounce off and I assure that does nothing other than sap power from you flash as it requires more power to light your subject.

How do I bounce my flash?

Firstly you will need a hotshoe flashgun (speedlight) that allows you to both tilt and swivel the head such as a Canon 600EX-RT, Phottix Mitros+ or if you are a Nikon user a SB900. Some flashes allow only tilt such as the Canon 430EX. This is not ideal as I like to bounce the flash in all directions.

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Phottix Mitros+ with swivel head

Which direction to bounce the flash?

Most people just point the flash upwards, which is fine, but I actually seldom do this because I always want to light a portrait using directional light if possible. So most of the time I am pointing the flash to the side, or tilted behind me to one side to give that nice slimming shadow on the face.

There is a simple formula to achieve this look that I learned from Jerry Ghionis – just point your flash head in the same direction as the nose of the subject so you are bouncing. So you are normally pointing the flash away from your subject, to one side. This is of course assuming that you have something to bounce off within a reasonable distance. The other way is to think of your walls as the light source itself, position your subject, frame your shot and then adjust your flash to target the walls.

Remember if you ware shooting events and weddings to readjust your flash direction when shooting from portrait to landscape. For me I am always looking at ways to bounce my flash. One final tip is to crop out the wall or ceiling that you are photographing, that way you don’t end up with a distracting bright wall in your photo.

Camera settings

In terms of camera settings I rely heavily on the Auto TTL system which works for me, so all I do is set the camera in manual mode so something like 1/60th of a second, ISO 1000 and let TTL do the rest. If you have a light subject and dark background, you can bring in more ambient light by:

  • Increasing ISO
  • Have wider aperture, lower F number
  • Slowing down the shutter speed

The more ambient light you drag in, the less “obvious” the flash effect. When it is a really dark scene, and most of the light is actually coming from your flash, I will drag the shutter down to 1/20th which sounds crazy because you could never handhold a shot at 1/20th in daylight. But, as you know the flash helps freeze the frame and hence helps get rid of camera shake. You want to be dragging in as much ambient light as possible if you don’t want your subject to be lit and the background very dark.

One method I use to see what Manual settings to dial into camera is to just take a picture with no flash and if it is totally black then I will increase ISO or switch to a faster lens. One I have the camera dialed-in with my Manual settings for the scene, I will use the flash exposure compensation to properly expose my subject.

You can see from the below image taken of the best man at a wedding reception, there is no obvious harsh shadow behind him, there is nice light falloff and modelling on his face which adds to 3 dimensional quality of the picture, and the surrounding area is properly exposed. I was kneeling down at the time shooting at 1/30th, 1600 ISO, f/4, 50mm lens with the flash pointed camera left tilted upward behind me about 45 degrees.

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Some people put a plastic diffuser on top of their flash what is that for?

I should mention this, many photographers use diffusers on top of their flash to spread the light out in all directions, below are the two most popular products on the market, the Gary Fong Lightsphere and the Stofen Onmi Bounce. There are many more cheaper products, and copies, that essentially do the same thing.

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Gary Fong Lightsphere

Bounce flash 3

Stofen Onmi Bounce

I have actually owned, and tried, most of the diffuser products and I have nothing against them but I don’t use any of these any more. I prefer more bare bulb bouncing for more directional light and what the diffusers do is the opposite because they spread light in all directions.

Conclusion

Practice makes perfect and I have photographed many wedding receptions in the UK in the winter where it can be pitch black by 5 p.m. Mastering bounce flash technique really improved the quality of my work. Now when I know that there is not enough light and I have to use flash the first thing I do is look for surfaces to bounce off. Remember you have to be adjusting the direction of the bounce dependent on each frame if you are recomposing. So go ahead get a flashgun if you haven’t already and start experimenting with bouncing flash.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Garry Chung

is a wedding photographer and portrait photographer based in Hong Kong who shoot weddings and portraits internationally, capturing the magic moments of the day and turning them into memories. Visit his website, Garry Chung, to see more of his work. Please like his facebook page for more wedding photography inspiration.

  • Mahesh Savale

    can i bounce my units without flash or streger ..Help me

  • Jerry Mathers

    One option is a light disk reflector. You can bounce of those, they are relatively cheap and you can even control the light color. Also you can bounce off almost any surface. Just be aware that that depending on that surface, you can lose light (example: dark surfaces) or get a color cast (brown or red walls for example) from the bounced light on your subject.

  • Te Kuaka

    Hi garry. I am not sure I understand your description of what you did in the final shot of the lady: ‘cut out the ambient light by setting a faster shutter speed and stopping down to f/8’. Does this mean that because of the faster shutter speed managed to avoid capturing the light from the wall light above left of the models head or does it mean that you actually turned that light off, hence the faster shutter speed? Thank you!

  • BloodSteyn

    “Does this mean that because of the faster shutter speed managed to avoid capturing the light from the wall light above left of the models head… ”

    That’s how I understood it. Faster Shutter would only let the really bright flash blast in, instead of the Ambient light that would’ve been weaker by comparison.

  • BloodSteyn

    I have the same SB-700, those filters are for different types of man-made ambient light, the Green one is for Florescent light (energy savers) and the Amber one is for Incandescent bulbs (the old energy inefficient tungsten ones).
    What they do is depress a small nib where they click onto the underside of the flash head, which then sends a signal to your camera that automatically changes the white balance to match.

    The Amber one – When you use this indoors, it looks great, instead of having bluish people against an orange background.

    The Green one – Use it when shooting in parking garages and offices with fluorescent lighting, so everything should look great, instead of the subjects looking a little magenta and the background looking all green.

  • Swasti Chandra

    So does the camera, canon in my case , has to be on 1st curtain or 2nd surtain if using flash? Could anyone please advise

  • Seb

    in the wedding photo, is not clear how far the wall was from the subject. Apparently it seems way too far

  • pass or fail

    black foamie thing works best!

  • FunkyDiva

    I mostly shoot event parties where there are very high ceilings or the party is just outdoors so finding a ceiling or wall to bounce off of is virtually impossible if I want to capture the dancing and so forth. So without a ceiling or wall, what is the best way to use a diffuser to spread the light?

  • Jerry Carree

    Wow ! Thank you for sharing your wonderful helpful information .

  • oladipo

    THANKS

  • PARIJAT SARKAR

    Nice write up , to the point and I found it extremely useful.
    One thing I wish to have some idea about, the direction of flash head in outdoor photography at night as point headwards up , does not give any results.
    Cheers.

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