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An on-camera flash (or speedlight) is the tool many photographers own, but few know how to use. Every day I see this amazing piece of equipment go to waste, slamming harsh light into a subject, when it could be caressing it with soft, directional illumination. The flash is a sculptor’s chisel, not a sledgehammer. You just need to know some basic technique.
In the 400-plus weddings I’ve photographed over the years, much of what I shoot indoors is lit with a speedlight. I have a trunk full of studio lights that I’ll set up and use sometimes at events, but more often than not, I end up preferring the photos from my little on-camera flash (not to be confused with the built-in one). You can create beautiful light bouncing your flash off of walls, ceilings, mirrors, professional wrestlers or herds of sheep.
Let me illustrate with a few examples, using my favorite model, my wife Karen. Every photo below is taken with the same lens (50mm), shutter speed (1/180), and aperture (f/4). We also don’t move at all. We are about 10 feet in front of a gray paper backdrop, white walls to the left and right are about seven feet away. The ceiling is also white. The only thing that changes in these photos is that I am spinning my flash head into different positions.
In our first example, I’ve photographed Karen with direct flash. (She is laughing because she thinks I’m incompetent for having my flash in that position).
This is harsh, flat light. There is a nasty shadow on the background. This is the opposite of bounce flash, and typically a last resort flash position. Let’s move on.
Here I’ve improved things a bit by bouncing my flash off the ceiling. This has softened the light, but it is still coming from overhead, creating unattractive shadows under her eyes, and a lack of catchlights. We can do better!
Here I’ve pointed my flash to the side, so it bounces off the wall to my left, giving me some softness and better directionality and volume of light. I think this is a keeper!
Just for fun, I turned my camera upside down here and pointed the flash at the floor, so the light is coming up from below. We call this Franken-light (monster lighting). Not something you are going to do a lot, but if you ever get hired to photograph a vampire, this is a good one to have in your toolkit.
This just refers to the direction the light is coming from, something that is very easy to control with a bounce flash. If you point your flash up at the ceiling, it will hit your subject coming from above. If you bounce your light off a wall to the right, the light will come back from the right, etc.
Check out this simple portrait of a wedding guest (above). She was looking to her right in the photo, so I bounced the light off a wall on that side to get some beautiful light into her face. If the next person I want to photograph is facing the other way, all I have to do it spin my flash 180 degrees and bounce it off the opposite wall. This sort of versatility is wonderful when shooting live events.
In this photo of a just married couple walking down the aisle, I bounced my flash off a wall to the left again, to get some wonderful light on them. If you look at the people in the background, you can get an idea of the ambient illumination in the room.
The nicest light often comes more from the side than from above. If you fire your flash 90 degrees to your left, the light will come back from the left at 90 degrees. Incidentally, this is a similar angle to the great light you can get at dusk and dawn.
The softness of your light is mainly affected by the size of your light source. With bounce flash that is the section of wall or ceiling illuminated by your flash. I think this is the hardest concept for people to get with bounce flash. Just think of your light source as the surface that is illuminated by your flash (rather than the flash itself).
The bigger the light source, the softer the light. In other words, the larger the area you cover with your flash, the softer the light coming back. To cover a larger area with bounce flash, simply move farther from your bounce surface, to allow the light from the flash to spread out more. A lot of flashes also allow you to zoom the flash head in and out, creating a narrower or wider beam (a wider beam allows the flash to spread out faster, and vice versa).
This can be a little hard to visualize, so I’ve taken a couple of photos to help illustrate how it works. In the first photo (above), I have my flash head zoomed all the way out, to create the widest beam possible. I then fired it at a wall in my studio about 10 feet away. As you can see, the flash lights up most of the wall. This would makes for some nice soft light bouncing back towards us.
In the second photo (below), I have moved my flash closer to the wall with the same amount of zoom. As you can see, it is lighting up less wall now, meaning the light source is getting a bit smaller (more harsh/hard – less soft).
In the third photo, I’ve kept the flash in the same position, but zoomed in the flash head all the way. So the light source is now smaller still (the area on the wall which is reflecting light is the light source).
What you may not realize is that you can send your light all the way across a massive hotel ballroom, for example, and have it come back nice and soft. In the photo below of adoring parents listening to a wedding speech, the light from my flash is traveling 20 or 30 feet to the wall and back. The farther it goes, the more it spreads out, and the softer the resulting light. Beautiful!
Now there is a limit to your flash power, and therefore, to how far away you can be from your bounce surface. Fortunately with digital cameras it’s easy to do some quick tests to see what you can get away with.
For example, let’s say you find yourself in a huge convention space photographing the keynote speaker at the annual prune sellers convention. The lighting in the room is from horrible overhead spotlights, and if you don’t improve upon it you’ll never get another job from this plum client. So you try bouncing your flash off a wall to the speaker’s left, but your flash just isn’t powerful enough. Your image is underexposed and your camera batteries are straining to recharge the flash.
If nothing works, you may have to resort to shooting direct flash, but that should be a last resort.
Off course you won’t always be in white-walled rooms, but you can usually find something to bounce off if you look around. White ceilings and dark wood walls? Bounce off that ceiling (but try to point your flash slightly to one side or the other to give some better directionality to your light). You can also bounce off of darker surfaces. If the surface isn’t black, that means it is still reflecting some light and you can bounce a flash off it.
I’ve bounced off of everything from brick to wood paneling, though admittedly these surfaces do suck up a lot of your flash output and drain your batteries faster, so they aren’t ideal (they will also add a color cast to your image).
When I walk into a space where I’m going to use bounce flash, I immediately look around and think about what my bounce surfaces (light sources) could be. I’ll identify the surfaces that look good (generally light colored/reflective things), and position myself so I can use them to my advantage.
This wedding couple is having their first dance at the Peabody Library in Baltimore, a very large space that doesn’t even have complete walls to bounce off, just columns, because of the way the library stacks are arranged. But I cranked my ISO up to 4000 and was able to bounce my flash and get some nice light for the photo.
I’ve also included a photo above showing the entire space so you can get a better idea what I was dealing with.
This sleepy little girl was photographed at a wedding reception at a country club in Virginia. I bounced my flash off a wall about 30 feet to my left, and got a little help from the purple lighting in the background.
This wedding portrait was made at night at Camden Yards baseball stadium in Baltimore. This was outside and there was nothing to bounce a flash off, so I had an assistant hold a white reflector behind me to camera left, and I bounced my flash into that.
As I write this article, I’m sitting in a dark restaurant with a black ceiling, dark walls, dark carpet and dark furniture. It’s a real light-sucking pit, but there are a bunch of framed photos on the wall, and also a mirror. I’m pretty sure I could bounce a flash off of those and get some decent light if I needed to.
You can get really good at bounce flash fast. Once you are aware of the possibilities, it’s just a matter of experimenting, and refining your technique. Look around your environment and ask yourself what you can use as a bounce surface. Look at your subject and think, “Where do I want the light to come from?”
Then experiment, point your flash to the right, to the left, behind you. Before you know it, you’ll be a bounce flash master!
Please share your bounce flash tips and images in the comments below.