Direct flash is harsh and unflattering. And off-camera flash can be expensive and difficult to set up. But, there is a way to get some of the looks of an off-camera instant without actually taking the flash off-camera: bounce flash.
Instead of taking the flash off the top of the camera, bounce flash redirects the light to bounce off an object and back to the subject. The result is soft, dimensional light without the complexity of taking the flash off-camera.
And unlike direct flash, no horrible harsh shadows either.
Bounce flash is an excellent technique for those just starting to use a flash — but there are a few essentials to understand before trying bounce flash.
Here are seven bounce flash tips for beginners, whether you're a wedding photographer photographing wedding receptions or doing portrait photography. Looking for the best Wedding Photographer in Melbourne? Check out our ultimate list here.
Table of Contents
- 1 What Type of Flash Can You Use for the Bounce Technique
- 2 Look for a Large, Neutral Colored Surface
- 3 Experiment With Distance to Increase the Strength of Your Flash
- 4 Try Manual Flash
- 5 No Bounce Surface Handy? Use a Reflector
- 6 Try a Bounce Card for Soft Lighting Anywhere
- 7 Balance the Bounce Flash With Your Shutter Speed
- 8 Basics of Bounce Flash Photography
- 8.1 Tip 1: to Change How Shadows Appear, Bounce Light in a Different Direction
- 8.2 Tip 2: Take Note of the Colour of the Ceiling/wall You Are Bouncing Light Off
- 8.3 Tip 3: the Optimal Distance from Walls and Ceilings Is 1 to 2m
- 8.4 Tip 4: Produce Softer Light Through the Use of a Bounce Adapter
- 8.5 Tip 5: to Add Life and Sparkle Into a Subject's Eyes, Use the Catchlight Panel
- 9 Working With Flash – How to Use Bounce Flash for Better Photos
- 10 Bounce the Flash
- 11 Benefits of Bouncing Your Flash
- 12 Considerations When Bouncing Your Flash
- 13 Conclusion
What Type of Flash Can You Use for the Bounce Technique
Pop-up flashes can't be used for the bounce technique (excluding some bounce cards) because those built-in flashes are fixed to digital cameras.
To use a bounce flash, you'll need a hot shoe flash with an adjustable head. Most hot shoe flashes allow you to move the head to redirect the light. Some will have a broader range of motion than others. Make sure the moment in your kit has an adjustable chair.
Look for a Large, Neutral Colored Surface
Bounce flash requires something to bounce the flash off of. Usually, this surface already exists. A wall or ceiling bounce surface works great. You don't have to bring any extra gear with you. Look for a character that's large to create a warm, soft light.
Flash photography is harsh because the size of the flash head is small. By directing that light into a large wall or ceiling, you quickly increase that light's surface size. This creates softer, more flattering light.
Just turn the flash head until the light is pointing directly at that surface.
The bounce flash will appear to be coming from the direction of the object you bounce the light off. You can't pick up that wall and move it. But you can often adjust the subject's placement to get the light falling in a way that flatters them.
For a portrait, for example, try bouncing the light at a 90-degree angle or a 45-degree angle from the side of the subject.
There's more to an excellent bounce surface than just size, however. The colour of the bounce surface will leave a colour cast on the subject. If you bounce the flash off a red wall, the light will have a pink tint.
Unless you want that coloured tint, look for a neutral coloured wall or ceiling, like white or beige.
Experiment With Distance to Increase the Strength of Your Flash
While bounce flash creates excellent, soft light, the technique significantly reduces the power of your moment.
If the bounced light isn't strong enough in the image, try moving either the flash or the subject closer to the bounce surface (or both).
The closer the light or the subject is, the less power the flash will lose on the bounce.
Try Manual Flash
Another way to perfect the art of bounce flash? Use manual flash photography. On TTL, your camera is automatically calculating the distance to the subject. All you have to do is set your camera settings, no flash settings.
If the flash is pointed somewhere else, that's not the correct distance. Using manual instant will allow you to control just how much light the moment emits.
Unlike the meter on your camera, your flash doesn't have a built-in meter to guide you. But thanks to the ability to instantly preview a digital photo, it's easy to take a test shot and adjust the flash based on the results.
A 1/1 flash is at full power, the brightest that your moment can get, while a 1/2 is half power, a 1/4 is a quarter power and so on.
With bounce flash, you'll likely use camera settings that are higher than manual flash photography on-camera or using an off-camera flash system.
Try starting with 1/4 and adjust up or down as needed.
Are you terrified of manual flash? Ease your way with using flash compensation. This allows you to turn up or down your flash power like you'd use exposure compensation to lighten or darken an image.
No Bounce Surface Handy? Use a Reflector
Sometimes, the scene doesn't have an excellent bounce surface. Maybe the ceilings are too high, the walls are painted a bold colour, or you're outside.
But that doesn't eliminate the possibility of bounce flash photography.
Instead, point your flash into a large reflector. Reflectors are photography accessories explicitly designed to bounce light back into the scene, whether that's sunlight or a bounce flash.
Unlike bouncing the flash off a wall, you can change the reflector's position to get the right angle of light on the subject.
While reflectors are an excellent option for flash photography, you'll need an extra person — or a stand — to hold the reflector in place. This is why using a wall or ceiling is often the easier option.
Try a Bounce Card for Soft Lighting Anywhere
A reflector isn't the only tool that will allow you to use the bounce flash technique anywhere. A flash bounce card attaches to the back of your flash and bounces the light back into the frame.
Usually, the flash is pointing up with the bounce card strapped to the back of the moment. Some seconds have a bounce card built-in. This is the solid-coloured piece that slides out at the top of your flash.
More extensive bounce flash accessories can create softer light or allow for more control.
Unlike bouncing the flash off a wall, this won't create directional lighting because the bounce card is so close to the moment. However, this technique does create excellent soft lighting, eliminating that harsh direct flash look.
Bounce cards also aren't limited to where you are and what's around you, but you also don't have to struggle with a large reflector either.
Balance the Bounce Flash With Your Shutter Speed
In flash photography, the shutter speed determines how much ambient light is in the image. Set the shutter speed too high, and you'll block out all the ambient light. This will leave the background dark and only lighting with the flash.
Sometimes, however, you want to use only your flash as your light source. Mixing the flash and the ambient light can leave your photo with two different colour temperatures.
Or, maybe the ambient lighting is terrible, and you only want to light with the flash. Whatever the case is, the answer is shutter speed.
If you see too much of the shot's existing light, use a higher shutter speed (don't go above your flash sync speed, which is often 1/200 or 1/250).
If you see too little of the existing light in the photo, lower the shutter speed.
Bounce flash photography uses an external flash unit (also known as hot shoe-mounted flash) to reflect the appropriate amount of light onto your subject so that your shot appears bright and sharp.
The Speedlite has a rotatable head that can be adjusted to face a wall or ceiling. When the flash is triggered, light is reflected off those surfaces, diffusing and softening the light from the Speedlite.
Bounce flash photography is beneficial, especially for indoor photography. Read on to learn the basics and techniques to photograph portraits and accessories with hot shoe-mounted flashes such as Canon's Speedlites.
Basics of Bounce Flash Photography
Speedlite facing 90 degrees up, Speedlite facing 7 degrees down, Speedlite facing 90 degrees left, Speedlite facing 90 degrees right
A: Facing 90° upwards
B: Facing 7° downwards
C: Facing 90° left
D: Facing 90° right
The key to achieving good results in bounce photography is the bounce angle. The angles at which you can adjust the flash head differs depending on the model of Speedlite being used. For the above Speedlite 600EX II-RT, the flash head can be positioned to face up, down, left or right. Varying the angles of the flash head will result in light illuminating the subject in different ways.
The Speedlite 470EX-AI features AI (Auto Intelligent Bounce), which automatically measures and sets the optimal bounce angle for natural results.
For other Speedlites, practice makes perfect. Try rotating the head of your Speedlite to change the angle of your bounce. Changing the angle at which you position your Speedlite can change the final image significantly as well.
Pointing the flash head towards the ceiling or a wall creates a softer light, especially adequate indoors where ceilings and walls are present. This reduces the glare from your subject's skin, hair, and clothing when taking photos of people. Check out our extensive list of Wedding Photographers in Melbourne to help capture your special moments.
Tip 1: to Change How Shadows Appear, Bounce Light in a Different Direction
There are two ways to bounce flash:
- Ceiling bounce, where you shoot with the flash head facing the ceiling, and
- Wall bounce, where the beat faces sideways towards a wall
The main difference between both is in how the shadows appear. When a ceiling bounce is performed, light comes from above. This results in clouds appearing below the subject, making the issue look flat. Conversely, when a wall bounce is performed, light comes from one side and casts shadows on one side of the subject. This makes your subject look more three-dimensional.
Tip 2: Take Note of the Colour of the Ceiling/wall You Are Bouncing Light Off
Bounce flash photography works well with white ceiling and walls.
If the bounce surface is coloured, your subject will end up having a colour cast. In the example above, when the light was reflected off the brown door, the entire photo became tinged in brown, and the original colour of the subject was not reproduced accurately.
Tip 3: the Optimal Distance from Walls and Ceilings Is 1 to 2m
The optimal distance between the ceiling or wall and the Speedlite should be between 1 and 2 metres. Any further than 2 meters, it becomes harder for the light to reach the bounce surface, resulting in a weaker bounce effect. This produces an underexposed photo.
Tip 4: Produce Softer Light Through the Use of a Bounce Adapter
A bounce adapter is an accessory used to scatter light. When attached to the flash head during bounce photography, it further softens the already soft light so that the light on the subject is more even. It can also mute or eliminate the shadows on the subject. The Speedlite 600EX II-RT and Speedlite 430EX III-RT models each come equipped with their unique bounce adapters, and they may also be purchased separately. It is, however, incompatible with the Speedlite 270EX II.
Bounce adapters are particularly effective for scenes where the distance from the flash head to the bounce surface is short and robust shadows are quickly produced. When an adapter is used, the shadows and skin tone of the subject look more natural.
Tip 5: to Add Life and Sparkle Into a Subject's Eyes, Use the Catchlight Panel
The catchlight panel is stored inside the flash head when not in use and is pulled out from the front when you want to use it (as shown in the red box). The panel helps to reflect light into the eyes of your subjects when taking photos of people. The Speedlite 600EX II-RT and Speedlite 430EX III-RT come with one, but not the Speedlite 270EX II.
Since using bounce photography for portraits usually means pointing the flash head towards the ceiling or a wall, it can be hard to get some catchlight in your subject's eyes. In such cases, you will want to use a catchlight panel. As the board can reflect light into your subject's eyes, it can make your subject look livelier and is particularly useful for shots where facial expressions are depicted clearly, such as in chest-up photos. It is especially effective when the flash head is facing 90 degrees upwards—you may not obtain the same effect if the flash head is rotated left or right.
Working With Flash – How to Use Bounce Flash for Better Photos
In this section, we're going to focus on a few ways that you can get the best results when working with the flash mounted in the hot shoe of your camera. Specifically, we're going to take a closer look at how you can bounce your flash for improved results.
If you're starting with flash, most likely, you've begun your Strobist journey by purchasing your first flash. Congratulations! You're on your way to adding another skill to your arsenal to equip yourself with the tools and knowledge to create great photographs under any lighting situation.
If you haven't purchased a flash just yet – don't worry. Hopefully, after reading this article, you'll learn a few tips to help you narrow down your buying decision.
Despite what you may have heard, size does matter – mainly when we're talking about light. For this article, I'm going to assume that you are looking to start photographing people.
The light source's size, relative to the subject you are photographing, will determine how hard or how soft the light is (i.e. the quality of light). If the light source is small relative to your subject, the light will be somewhat harsh and generally less flattering. A small light source tends to be more specular and will result in more complex shadows.
Conversely, the larger the light source about your subject, the softer it will be and therefore more flattering.
Think about the sun for a moment.
Although it's a giant ball of fire in the sky – relative to a person, it's pretty small due to its distance from the earth.
If you were to go outdoors at midday in the middle of summer, the resulting light from the sun would be very harsh and would produce hard shadows on your subject. The addition of clouds helps diffuse the morning, but they also increase the light source's size (it's now the sky, not the sun), which results in softer light that is much more flattering.
Take a look at the front of most flashes, and you'll notice that the surface area of the flash head is not very large – mainly about a typical human being (compared to head size). If you've ever taken a photograph with a point and shoot camera or a DSLR with a built-in or pop-up flash, you've likely been less than impressed with the resulting image.
Besides being a direct light source, these are both minimal light sources that produce very unflattering light.
Now, if you progress up to using an external flash that mounts into the hot shoe of your camera, the surface area is a bit larger but still relatively small compared to a person. The resulting light from an external flash is still going to be less than ideal.
Take a look at this example where direct on-camera flash was used to illuminate the subject.
Notice that the direct flash creates some specular highlights on the subject's forehead and the harsh shadow cast on the wall behind due to using direct, on-camera flash.
So what can you do to improve your results while still working with one flash on your camera?
Bounce the Flash
Just like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh, learning to bounce your flash is the first step towards creating more flattering light when working with a single flash on-camera.
Before you can start to think about bouncing your flash, you need to look at some of the moments on the market that have some limitations and may not be the best choice if you're only going to purchase one flash to start.
Canon has a couple of entry-level Speedlites in their lineup that might seem attractive at first if you're only basing your buying decision on price. However, they all have one thing in common that makes them a poor choice if you're looking to get better flash photography results. Specifically, the flash heads on these entry-level flashes can't be turned or tilted, which means you can't change the flash's direction to bounce it off another surface.
In the current Canon lineup, this would include the Speedlite 90EX and the Speedlite 270EX. These flashes do support wireless capabilities and maybe a good choice for working with multiple speedlites and off-camera flash. Still, if you're only planning to buy one second to start, these are probably not going to be your best choice.
If you're shopping for a flash, look for one that allows you to tilt and turn the flash head so that you can bounce the flash off another surface. Here are some options (there are many good third party brands available at lower prices, read the reviews and get the one that's right for you).
Benefits of Bouncing Your Flash
Bouncing the flash is going to do two things that will immediately improve the quality of the light:
- Increase the relative size of the light source (making it softer)
- Change the direction of the morning, which in turn changes the direction of the shadows
If you're able to bounce the flash off a larger surface like a wall or ceiling, this will effectively turn the small light source (your on-camera flash) into a more significant light source and make it a bit softer.
Considerations When Bouncing Your Flash
When bouncing the flash, you have a few things to consider:
The Direction of the Flash
The first is going to be the direction of the flash.
Bouncing light is a little bit like playing pool (billiard). You have to figure out your angles to determine where the light will fall on your subject. Most speedlights allow you to rotate the flash head 180 degrees and tilt the flash head up and down.
This enables you to point the flash towards a ceiling, for example, and bounce the flash off there. Be careful when bouncing your flash off the top to produce dark shadows under the eyebrows and the nose, and chin.
Colour of the Bounce Surface
The second thing to consider when bouncing flash is the colour of the surface you're bouncing off.
Ideally, you want to try bouncing the flash off a white or neutral-coloured surface. Otherwise, you will introduce a colour cast on your subject. If you don't have a neutral character nearby, try submitting something like a piece of white foam core, a reflector or an umbrella on a light stand, and bounce the flash off that.
If you have an assistant with you (or you can solicit one), get them to hold the reflector in the area where you want to bounce the flash.
A bounce flash can create impressive, directional lighting effects — and all you have to do is turn the flash head towards a large, neutral-coloured surface. Because of that, bounce flash is an excellent technique for photographers who are new to flash.
While off-camera flash offers the most flexibility, bounce flash offers creative lighting effects simply while keeping gear and accessories at a minimum.
Bouncing flash is a great way to start getting better results using an external Speedlight mounted on your camera. It takes some practice and experimentation, but hopefully, you'll begin to see some better results the more you do it. At Vogue Ballroom we have compiled a list of the Best Photographers in Melbourne to help you choose who captures your magical day.
To get the best results with bounce flash, make sure you understand a few essentials, like finding a neutral-coloured surface to bounce off and adjust the shutter speed for the best results.