A Quick Guide to Using Bounce Flash for More Natural-Looking Photos

A Quick Guide to Using Bounce Flash for More Natural-Looking Photos

Creating a portrait using flash is a whole lot more than just pointing your flash at your subject and taking the shot. Learning how to use flash creatively opens up a variety of new lighting options – which you can use to make the picture you envision in your head show up on your camera’s LCD screen. In this article, we’re going to look at using bounce flash.

Bounce flash is a handy trick you can use in a pinch to improve both the quality and amount of light in your finished picture using a flash unit right on top of your camera.

A photo taken using bounce flash to light the subject

The soft lighting for this image was created using a single flash, positioned on the camera and pointed directly up at the ceiling.

What is bounce flash?

Bounce flash is exactly what it sounds like. You aim the flash unit on your camera at a ceiling or nearby wall so that the light reflects off it and then back towards your subject.

This may seem like a really roundabout way of providing illumination, but there are a number of excellent reasons why you would want to bounce your flash, such as:

  • It quickly creates soft light.
  • It can be used to create directional light.
  • Helps you avoid the drawbacks of direct flash.

Let’s go through each of these points in more detail to get a better sense of how to use bounce flash to improve your photography.

Left: On-camera flash rotated to bounce off a wall to the side. Right: Built-in flash that cannot be rotated or bounced.

1. How does bounce flash create soft light?

One of the most important factors in determining how soft the light in your image will be is the apparent size of the light source. Notice I said “apparent size” – not “actual size”.

Your pop-up flash or attached speedlight are small light sources – so if you aim them directly at your subject you get harsh lighting. This is why photographers often use softboxes, umbrellas or other modifiers to create a larger source of light – which makes the light softer.

You can use this same concept to quickly create a larger apparent light source by bouncing your flash off a roof or wall and spreading out the light.

Direct flash is that which is aimed right at the subject.

Direct flash – not flattering to the subject and creates a harsh shadow on the wall behind.

Flash aimed at the ceiling to bounce the light and soften it.

Flash bounced off the ceiling – much more even and softer lighting.

2. How can bounce flash create directional light?

Understanding the direction from which the light is coming – and using that to your advantage – can have a huge impact on the quality of your photos.

Without flash, you’re at the mercy of whatever ambient lighting is available. When you are indoors in a dimly lit room, that ambient light is often rather unpleasant as the light usually comes from the ceiling overhead. This casts deep and dark shadows under people’s eyes – not at all a flattering look for a portrait.

By setting up near a wall, you can bounce your flash off it and effectively create a new light source that sweeps in from the side. Think of it as creating a new window to add more light to the scene. This new light will fill in those ugly shadows for a much more pleasing look.

The result of the flash being bounced off the wall to camera left is more directional light as seen here.

3. How does bounce flash improve on direct flash?

Sometimes a direct flash can significantly improve an image. Sometimes it results in redeye, awkward shadows, and a deer-in-headlights look.

Using bounce flash solves the red-eye problem since that is caused by light reflected directly back at the camera from the back of the eyeball. When your main light is bouncing in from overhead or from the side, you can also say goodbye to large shadows cast by your subject onto the background.

Lastly, direct flash creates boring lighting that flattens facial features and textures. Bounce flash results in more sculpted light that can be used to accentuate features and show depth.

Example of a photo taken using direct flash as the key light

This portrait was taken with direct flash, causing a harsh shadow on the back wall and a bad case of red-eye (Settings: 1/80th, f/3.2, ISO 500)

Example of photo taken without using any flash, high ISO

Without using flash, I had to bump the ISO up to 6400 in order to keep the right exposure. The colors are dull and there is a lot of noise in the shot (Settings: 1/80th, f/3.2, ISO 6400)

Example of a photo taken with bounce flash

With bounce flash, the light on the model is soft and even. There is a glimmer of catch-light in the subject’s eyes and no shadow on the back wall. (Settings: 1/80th, f/3.2, ISO 500)

What do you need to get started with bounce flash?

In order to shoot bounce flash, the bare minimum you will need is an external flash unit with a head that can swivel and tilt.

If you are planning on buying a new flash, make sure to research how it can be maneuvered. Some cheaper models will provide more flash power than your standard in-camera pop-up flash, but if they can’t be adjusted to tilt and swivel then you won’t be able to use them for bounce flash lighting.

Get a flash that can both rotate (swivel) and tilt (up and down) in order to do bounce flash.

Balancing the light

When shooting with flash in a bright room, you need to perform a balancing act in order to keep the light looking natural. This is the case with bounce flash as well.

A flash picture essentially has two exposures:

  1. The ambient, or available light, which is all the light from windows, light bulbs, candles, chandeliers, etc.
  2. The light from your flash.

As the photographer, you need to balance these two exposures to create the image you want. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that you need to go around flicking light switches until you get the exact amount of brightness needed for each shot – your camera settings can control how much light will be in the final shot.

In this image, the flash is too strong and the exposure is not well-balanced with the ambient light in the room. Exposure here was: 1/125th, f/4, ISO 250, flash was ETTL with +2 Flash Exposure Compensation.


Opening up the aperture will allow more light in, effectively increasing the flash power and also making the camera pick up more of the ambient light


Increasing your ISO means the sensor “collects” more light. Again, this effectively increases the power from your flash as well as the influence of the ambient light.

Shutter Speed:

Here’s where a lot of control comes in. As long as you stay within your camera’s maximum sync-speed, your flash will influence the final shot regardless of the shutter speed. On the other hand, a long shutter speed will collect a lot of ambient light, and a short shutter speed will collect less, often drastically affecting the final image.

It may take some time to get used to this balancing act with aperture, ISO, and shutter speed so that your bounce flash shots give you well-lit subjects with natural-looking lighting.

The inside of a car, lit by bounce flash

Firing a flash into the roof of the car creates soft, bounced light that really makes all the surface details shine.

Other details to keep in mind

Flash Power

Since the light from your flash has to travel the extra distance to bounce off a wall or ceiling before reaching the subject, you can’t use your camera’s ETTL metering as is to determine the amount of power needed. Your camera assumes that you are using direct flash, so if you don’t make any adjustments, the flash power will always be a bit too low.

Increase your camera’s flash exposure compensation depending on the distance to the surface you are using to bounce the light. For a typical ceiling in a home, this might be an adjustment of +1/3 or +2/3. If you are photographing in a hall with high ceilings, you may need to boost your flash by +1 or even more.

A young man photographed using bounce flash

A seamless background and soft light from bouncing the flash off a slanted ceiling gives this picture the type of quality you might expect from multiple flashes and a studio setup.


Important question: What color is going to be reflected back at you if you shoot a flash into a pink wall?

Yup, you guessed it – it’s gonna be pink. The light from your flash is going to take on whatever color it bounces off. So unless you’re going for that funky, unnatural pink look, you’ll want to make sure you bounce your flash off neutral-color surfaces like whites, grays or blacks. (Alternatively, you can shoot or convert to black and white.)

Don’t blind people!

As you start to discover how fun it is to swivel your flash around and create dramatic and interesting light, it can be easy to forget where your flash is pointed. If an unfortunate passerby steps between the wall and your flash just as you fire off a shot, they might get an unwelcome blast of light. It’s a good idea to check and make sure the coast is clear before snapping each shot.

Give it a shot!

Bounce flash is a handy trick in your arsenal to help you land that perfect shot when the situation allows for it. So tilt your flash up and give it a try!

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Frank Myrland is an avid photographer from Toronto, Canada. Many years ago he picked up a camera on a whim, and he's been hooked ever since. As an active and independent learner, Frank likes to continuously explore ways to make his images worth a second look. You can see more of his work by visiting his website, or by connecting with him on Instagram and Facebook.