How to Use Your On-Camera Speedlight to do Bounce Flash Effectively


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.

All of these photos illustrate the two main factors I think about when shooting bounce flash: light direction and light quality (softness).


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).

Bounce sample 1

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).

Bounce sample 2

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).

Bounce sample 3

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.

In this situation, you can try a couple of different things to fix your problem:

  1. Ramp up your ISO as high as you can.
  2. Open your aperture up as much as possible.
  3. Zoom your flash head in as far as it will go, to narrow the light beam you are firing at the wall.

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.

Let’s look at some more examples:


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.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Dennis Drenner is a Baltimore-based portrait and event photographer and photojournalist. He has photographed over 350 weddings, completed thousands of portraits, and worked for a wide array of clients such as the New York Times, Washington Post, American Red Cross, Lululemon Clothing Stores, and JP Morgan Bank. His work has won awards in the Pictures-of-the-Year competition, three Maryland State Arts Council grants and two Fulbright Fellowships.

  • I always bounce my flash off ceiling – there aren’t many white walls available, especially in my apartment where (thanks to my wife, pictured) all walls look like they escaped from a Mexican resort. I put on a Sto-Fen diffuser that allows some direct light on the subject removing under eye shadows. Just don’t get your subject close to walls – you can still see wall shadows because of the diffuser.

  • Kathy Ashmore

    This is one of the best tutorials I’ve ever read. Thank you so much! I can’t wait to experiment with bouncing from the side.

  • Ahmad Siraj Fadloli

    Did you used the diffuser for your Flash?

  • yh

    Do you use TTL with flash compensation when bouncing flash? Or is it just easier to use manual flash settings?

  • Dennis Drenner

    Almost always TTL

  • Dennis Drenner

    Thank you! This made my day!

  • engelemca

    Dennis, This is one of the most helpful articles I’ve read. Thanks to your good explanation it really is actually quite simple as a technique, once you understand the concept.

  • David

    Dennis – a nice article, thank you. It seems you also follow a fairly well-known “bouncer” from New Jersey.

  • Dennis Drenner

    thanks, but not sure who you are referring to.

  • Dennis Drenner

    great to hear!

  • Dennis Drenner

    almost never

  • David

    Neil van Niekerk. he is a huge proponent of bounce flash.

  • Manuel Perez Cuevas

    Thank you for a well written article made better because it makes that which is rather complicated explain in simple words .

  • Richard A. Phillips

    Thanks for an informative article Dennis. Just have a couple of questions.
    How important is the black foam thing that Neil van Niekerk refers to?
    What shutter speed do you recommend to capture the ambient light without too much motion blur? The background gets badly underexposed when I use the bounce flash.

  • Ditto! and I dislike those “puffer” things that look like Tupperware

  • All those things depend on the ambient light in your given situation. I’m not familiar with the “black foam thing” or Neil van Niekerk. Can you explain what you mean?

    Shutter speed – again depends on the available light but I’ve gone as low as 1/15th of a second. You may get some motion blur if your subject is moving but it can make a neat effect also. The flash will freeze the subject and they will be sharp though.

    If your background is underexposed then either there is too much flash or not enough ambient light is coming in. If you shoot at say ISO 100, f/11 in a dark room you will capture almost none of the available light and the subject will be lit with the flash, and the background will be dark. But if you shoot at perhaps ISO 800 or 1600 at f/2.8 the ratio of flash to ambient light will be different – you are capturing more ambient light then and the flash doesn’t have to emit as much power when it fires. Does this make sense?

  • E. O’Bannon

    Well, at least it wasn’t the shoehorn collectors’ convention…

  • Narendra Bansal

    Thank you Dennis and DPS for a very useful article, especially for beginners like me. I always get confused reading complicated articles on flash photography, equipment and set up. This has inspired me to use my external flash which has been rarely used up to now. It is rare to find tutorials which are easy to understand and practice. Thank you for sharing.

  • Dennis Drenner


  • Michael

    Thank you Dennis for this one way indoor lightening technique. There is always one limitation with this wall-bouncing method and it’s the existing of suitable walls. Honestly, I’ve tried numerous time to bounce my Speedlite from some walls that were about 30 feet away from me and results were about at least 2 to 3 stops of underexposure regardless of FEC setting being high plus the color casts of these walls screwed up my white balance. Below is the photo of what I use instead and it always gives me excellent results. This DIY bouncer that was made from craft 2 layers of foams and the Velcro strips. I don’t have to rely on white walls around me and their distances from my camera/flash position. Most of the time I need a ceiling preferably white or even off white that reflects the flash light downwards combining with straight fill up reflection from the on-flash reflector giving that cute catch eye effect.

  • Dennis Drenner

    Thanks for your comment, Michael. A diffuser like yours will help a bit I think, but it is only modestly increasing the size of the light source. Sometimes I agree, there’s just not a suitable wall, but less often that you think. 30 feet should not be too far away if you open up your aperture, zoom in your flash head and crank up your ISO. I am assuming you are using a prime lens that you can open up to at least f/2.8. This makes a huge difference.

  • Michael

    Thank you for your reply Dennis. This DYI diffuser makes huge differences in terms of a soft light illumination. You see, the whole ides is the combination of ceiling bounce with the direct diffuser bounce creates smooth diffused light. The flash is positioned upward shooting light to a ceiling. In addition, I always use my Stroboframe Camera Flip flash bracket that positions the flash about 12″ above the lens axis making any back shadows below the subject practically invisible. I don’t have to use my prime lens with f/2.8 and high ISO as all that will give me unwanted very shallow DOF and grainy lesser quality images. I’ve got this idea from renown wedding photographer Mr. Chuck Gardener Here is the sample photo of my granddaughter taken using this diffuser in my home where the ceiling was about 10 feet high.

  • Dennis Drenner

    Yeah, that works in the situation with your granddaughter, though the light could still be softer. She looks great, but she’s a kid with perfect skin. Middle aged mom won’t be as happy.

    That direct flash technique would also result in lots of fall off if you’re shooting a wider scene (like at a wedding).

  • mobin

    Good article.. mail service is very important…

  • Amy Jenkins

    Thank you for this wonderful article – very informative!! How did you remove the grain from the 4000 ISO in your wedding pic without losing much detail/color? I’ve read this informative DPS tutorial ( but wondered if hi had any other tips. Thanks so much!

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  • Jerry Carree

    Thank you ! Awesome helpful information ..

  • oladipo


  • oladipo

    Please what do i do in a situation where , there is no wall to bounce the flash in a church during a wedding, not well lighted , do i just use a difuser and hit them direct or do i use people as my wall when they are standing ?

  • Akay

    I am a novice inspite of my 7 years with equipment. Beside many other facets this “bounce off’ has always bounced me off the scene. BTW I’m a 72 y.o.
    Like U said it’s a tricky ‘art’ to muster.
    I have Canon Speedlite 580 Ex II and 3 more of lesser brands.
    I have never understood the purpose n use of the white plastic extended card called “bounce card”?
    Have tried by pulling it out soooooooo many times but to no avail. With card out kept the flash horizontal, at different angles and so on . I have diffusers of a few varieties too.
    Need education desperately. Will someone help ?

  • David Barritt

    Hi Dennis, this is an excellent article, thank you. Can I use Lightroom to correct the colour cast that would result from bouncing off a non-white surface?

  • Jason Bodden

    I use bounce cards. They come in various shapes and sizes. The Rogue Flashbender XL Pro 2 is great, though a little pricey. But there are much cheaper ones out there. Or you can DIY one out of poster board or something like that and attach to your flash with a hair band, rubber band or anything like that. A bounce card is your only real hope for soft-ish, flattering light. Direct flash will not do that for you. Use a large-ish one that won’t weigh down your flash.

  • Jason Bodden

    Yes, that looks like a superbly crafted bounce card. Except I mount mine on the narrow end of the flash so as to be able to keep the bounce card at the same height when using both Portrait and Landscape orientation. Mounted on the broad side, like you have it here, would result in the light being way too low and way too far to one side. Love that bounce card, though. You’re making me wish I could have you make and send one to me LOL!! 😀

  • Jason Bodden

    Well, that’s just it. You can’t assume everyone has Primes at the time. So bounce cards are the only viable options when all else fails and you can’t go wider than say 4.5 or 5.6. We have to do what we have to do with the equipment we have, if it’s even possible at the time. And depending on the camera you have, the images at ISO 4000 or even half that will be noisy to the point of unusable. So this isn’t a one size fits all. It’s a great technique once your equipment allows for it but if not, alternative methods need to be employed. Great article, though.

  • Jason Bodden

    It’s important if you don’t want frontal light spill on your subject when you’re bouncing light from a particularly direction (light spills out of all sides of a speedlight, including directly towards your subject even when turned to one side away from your subject. The “black foamie thingie”(anything black that can be used as a flag really) blocks light spilling on to the front of your subject, ensuring the only light reaching your subject is the lighting bouncing from your chosen direction.

  • Thanks.

  • Alyssa Ferraioli

    What flash do you recommend for a canon?

  • Charles Rollins

    I agree. My camera’s ISO 3200 images are virtually unusable (Canon 77D) and increasing the flash power just sucks battery power, even at 1/30 and 3.2. I don’t like the extreme limited DOF at 2.8 wide open. So a bounce card is about my only option just because of the noisy 3200 ISO. I also use a black card under my flash because when bouncing off walls, your flash is also going to blind people that are in the path of the light from flash to wall so I point my flash upward one click and have a black bounce card under it to hide the light from straying into other’s eyes.

  • Charles Rollins

    Denis Reggie does the same bouncing and he is another master.

  • Charles Rollins

    When I have to use one I use the Spinlight360 system. Like I said, I have the Canon 77D (crop sensor) and at ISO 3200 images are virtually unusable due to the noise so I’m stuck at 1600 with F/3.2.

  • Charles Rollins

    I use a Yongnuo 685.

  • Charles Rollins

    Yeah, Peter Gregg’s abetterbouncecard in different sizes are great, I use the spinlight360 system but trying to get away from cards, too much trouble trying to get things consistent.

  • Jason Bodden

    Bouncer cards work for me. I have a couple of Peter Gregg’s bounce cards. I use the Large mostly. Bounce cards work for me for events. I don’t really use them for anything else.

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