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.

Bounce flash 100

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.

Bounce flash 101

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.

Bounce flash 102

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.

Bounce flash 103

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.

Bounce flash 104

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.

Bounce flash 105

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.

Bounce flash 106

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.

Bounce flash 2

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.

  • Bob

    Both the Canon 430 EX and the 430 EX ii have swivel heads, not just tilt. You have to push the button on the side in and they will swivel for bounce.

  • MandyREverson

    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. http://num.to/79-62-53-20-89-87

  • Zoe Samborsky

    Don’t know about your Canon 430 ex II, but mine tilts, and swivels

  • That’s what the author has said also, thanks

  • vikceo

    you are talking about using 1000, 1600 ISO along with flash for portraits. I used to understand that lower the iso better it is from the noise perspective. what’s your opinion?

  • JvW

    My guess is that Mandy is a spammer. I won’t click the link to prove it though.

  • Will

    Did you have the flash off camera? You said for one photo you had the light behind you.

  • Joe Quinn

    Nice article. I’ve been using bounce flash and a diffuser for several years, but still learned a couple of things. But what do you don when you’re in a large place (like a church) and there are no low ceilings above, or walls behind you to bounce the flash?

  • manicdee

    My understanding is that it’s a trade-off.

    You need fast shutter to freeze the subject (especially if they have long hair), aperture adjusted to get the eyes in focus, then ISO adjusted to allow proper exposure given the constraints imposed by shutter, aperture and available light … where “available light” means you have as much flash lighting available as you can afford 😉

    If the image is in focus, well exposed and decently composed, there are any number of miracles you can pull through post processing: remove noise, reduce chromatic aberration, crop, stretch, correct for pincushion/barrel distortion, etc. The image won’t be as pristine as the equivalent perfectly captured at a lower ISO, but you’ll have the right image.

  • vikceo

    hmm makes sense. so whats your recommendation for full body portraits in terms on ideal lens assuming you can get close enough?

  • manicdee

    Can’t help you there! I’ve used a 105mm macro lens for portraits, but it requires the photographer to stand well back from the subject.

  • Christos

    Thank you for the very informative article!

  • pincherio

    Get a reflector and an assistant. Have the assistant go where you want to have the light source bounce off and hold the reflector there. If you don’t have an assistant, get a reflector with a handle and hold it out as far as you can and direct the flash towards it. You can also take the flash off the hotshoe and use one of several methods of triggering it remotely (IR, RF, cable, optical, etc.).

  • pincherio

    18-35 1.8 for crop sensors. 16-35 2.8 or 24-70 2.8 for full frame. 35 1.4 prime for full frame. I’m assuming we’re talking about weddings where you intend to freeze action in dimly lit situations.

  • No he has it on camera, bouncing off the wall behind him

  • I deleted it

  • good to know thanks!

  • Garry Chung

    That is correct bob, my mistake, the 430 does have swivel and tilt but I guess the point was that some flashes don’t.

  • Garry Chung

    Very welcome !

  • Garry Chung

    As a last resort when I have absolutely nothing to bounce off is a large bounce card on the flash, you can use anything even a large peice of A4 paper but make it big. Also the range of the bounce is more than you may think.

  • Garry Chung

    Darlene is correct, it is on camera

  • Garry Chung

    There is a always a trade off between ISO and noise but modern cameras deal with it quite well and for me it’s about dragging in that ambient light rather than relying on flash, so I go for high ISO

  • Garry Chung

    It all depends .. some good recommendations here on thread but also think about how much background you want

  • I have the Nikon SB 700 flash and it came with colored filters. How do you know when to use the colored filters in your photos?

  • Garry Chung

    Schoff thats a whole new article to answer your question

  • Guna M

    Hi Garry,
    Understand the part of bounce but when you use such high iso with flash, would not the trade off be quality of the pict.
    Thanks
    Guna M

  • Dave Pearce

    Nice article. Bouncing flash can be very creative. I never use any of those modifiers but i do use, and love, a black foamie thing. This gives a lot more control over where the light can be made to come from. and its free.

  • Barry E Warren

    Nice read Garry, that is great where the walls are close. But would bounce flash work it the white walled church using a 70×300 f/4-5.6 AF, When standing back by the pews catching a few shots of the ceremony from several different directions ?

  • nektarios

    hi guna
    it depence on the body, image size and light. usualy noise apears to dark areas of the photo.if you over expose, a litle bit , the noise will be lower. full frame bodys have low noise at hight iso . i use 5000 iso in nightclubs.
    sorry for my english..
    thanks

  • Garry Chung

    It really depends Barry in the flash you are using etc but I suggest you experiment, I have often been surprised at how far I can bounce the flash.

  • Garry Chung

    yes I have a rogue flash bender which I used to shape the the light and control the spill

  • mary

    When using TTL flash, I thought that changing ISO and aperture did not change the exposure. If u change one or the other, the TTL just puts out more or less power depending on the changes u made. If you use manual flash then changing ISO and aperture do affect the exposure. That’s my understanding anyway.

  • Robbie

    I was gifted a sunpak auto 422 d thyristor when my father passed away. I’m wondering if it is able to work on my Nikon D5200? I have not had any success in getting it to work but won’t bother trying to get it to work if it won’t work on my dslr. Suggestions? Don’t have tons of money right now to put into a new bounce flash. I do have a slave flash with that work as well? Thanks in advance.

  • Keith Starkey

    Bit confused about what you said regarding how you took the shot of the groom (speaking into the mic). You said, ” 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.”

    First, what do you mean by “behind me about 45 degrees”? How is the flash behind you (unless it is off-camera, which I thought wasn’t what you were doing here)?

    Second, you apparently bounced the flash camera left, to the groom’s right, but with the angle of the wall, couldn’t you have bounced it on the groom’s left and gotten more light on the side facing the camera?

    Thanks much.

  • Keith Starkey

    Yeah, I understood the same, but I’ve heard well-known photographers say that they widened the aperture for more (not much, I would imagine) ambient light. I can actually see that making some sense because that’s what opening an aperture does, does it not: lets in more light. To what extent—based on all the other settings—this works I guess is up to some experimentation.

  • Keith Starkey

    Modern cameras, exceptions being my D3200: doesn’t like high ISO at all; it squawks, squeels, commplains, gripes and bit….(well, you get it) every time I go above 800 ISO. Even then it starts glaring at me!

  • Garry Chung

    Hi Keith, the swivel head of the flash can be pointed behind me even on camera. If you look at the picture the light hits the subject on the left side. I am shooting from a low angle so I adjusted the flash to bounce pointing at camera left hence it would bounce back and hit the subject on the right side if that makes sense?

  • Keith Starkey

    Yup, thanks.

  • Michael Owens

    Ahh, my flash gun doesn’t have a swivel head. I can only angle upwards. Shame. Though, perhaps I can use a small reflector (A4 white sheet lol) to bounce the light to a wall and back.

  • Mark

    > even a large peice of A4 paper but make it big

    All A4-sized paper is the same size – A4 (210mm x 297mm) 🙂

  • Bernard

    Your are right. Changing the ISO and aperture wouldnt change the exposure of……. The TTL Flash. The camera would just compensate. It does effect however, how much ambient light (the ceiling lights, lamps etc.) the camera picks up in the room. That is what is meant by “dragging the shutter”.

  • I would really like to know the flash and camera settings somebody would use if they didn’t have ETTL. I was playing with a friend’s Canon Speedlight and it turns out it doesn’t play well with non-Canon cameras. To me it’s like somebody saying “Just use the Auto mode, the big flash+ expensive camera will make the picture look great!”

    How about a writeup on Flash Photography that is Non-Canon, Non-Nikon specific? Pickup an off brand flash an pair it with something besides a CanNikon and lay down some raw flash education.

  • Garry Chung

    maybe it will work manually with PC sync cord?

  • Garry Chung

    Not really sure where you are going there, this is raw flash education, my article is about bouncing and shaping light and balancing it with ambient, the flash output settings would be irrelevant unless you recreated exactly the same ambient and all flashes are different 1/2 power for you is not 1/2 power for me.

  • KatyBell

    This is a great article! It had me going “ohhhhh” several times. It makes sense to bounce off something in the direction someone is facing so you can light their whole face. I love learning new things, thanks!

  • Hari Raj Koroth

    Or if you have a zoom function in ur flash gun… set it to the max and try bouncing.

  • sama

    It was more than helpful.I’ve just ordered my own TG850 and cant wait to test it out.
    ???? ??????????? ????????

  • tore

    this site is very beautiful.
    ?????? ???? ? ????????? ??????? ??????????? ???????? ???? ??

  • Michael O

    I now have a swivel head flashgun (Yongnuo’s yn560 iii).

  • Holly

    What if there is no wall to bounce off of? In a situation where you are in a large room with high ceilings or outside at night.

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