bounce flash photography – short lighting

bounce flash example – short lighting

Having just finished the second of the two workshops here in Cork, Ireland, I feel unusually energized after the two busy days.  Partly because the two workshops ran very smoothly, (courtesy of Liam Ramsell who coordinated these workshops), but also because I had two groups of genuinely nice people. On top of that, I am just enamored of the country and its people.  I love it here!

But back to the photography:
The image above is of our one model, Noreen, and was taken during the practical session at a photography workshop in Cork, Ireland, where we played with on-camera bounce flash. The challenge was to figure out how to give us light that emulates studio portrait lighting.  By being very specific where and how we bounce our flash, we can get short lighting with our on-camera flash.

The bounce flash technique hinges on the idea of bouncing my flash towards the area that I want my light to come from. I don’t think of my flash as being my light-source anymore. Rather, the wall or stuff that I bounce my flash off, now becomes a kind of softbox – a huge area giving me diffuse light. But since it comes from an off-camera direction, it is directional.  Soft, directional light.

But in “placing my light-source” to the side of my subject like that, I aim my flash slightly towards my subject. To remove the chance of direct flash on her, I flag it with the black foamie thing. That linked article will explain more clearly exactly how I go about getting this quality of light from my on-camera flash.

Flagging my flash like that, is key here in getting directional light. Then it becomes a matter of directing my model so that the light comes in over her shoulder.

To give you an idea of the effect that the flash had, and what the image would look like without flash.

As you can see from this ambient-only exposure, the lighting in the top image is predominantly from the single speedlight that I bounced into the wall to my left.  However, in positioning Noreen such that there is some available light from outside giving a very slight backlight to her, the portrait is given a little bit more dimension.

For comparison, here is the example where I bounced flash in the “usual” way, behind me. It does give much softer light than straight flash would have, but it is bland. Totally ‘meh’.  Below that is the image at the top again, where I used the black foamie thing to flag my flash, and get directional light on my subject.

And of course, with a touch of sweetening in Photoshop, this time using one of the filters in Nik Color Efex Pro 3, the lovely portrait of Noreen can be enhanced to make it pop even more.   But without good lighting, it wouldn’t have had as much impact.


on-camera flash modifier – the black foamie thing

I use the black foamie thing (BFT) as a truly inexpensive flash modifier to flag my on-camera flash to give me lighting indoors that truly look nothing like on-camera flash.The piece of foam (Amazon), can be ordered via this link. I cut the sheet into smaller pieces.

The BFT is held in position by two hair bands (Amazon), and the BFT is usually placed on the under-side of the flash-head.

The linked articles will give clearer instruction, especially the video clip on using the black foamie thing.


related articles:


video tutorials to help you with flash photography

If you like learning by seeing best, then these video tutorials will help you with understanding flash photography techniques and concepts. While not quite hands-on, this is as close as we can get to personal instruction. Check out these and other video tutorials and online photography workshops.

70 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 2 says

    Jeff .. I always touch up the photos for skin blemishes. I don’t think it is fair to anyone to show their photos in all the crispness that modern optics are capable of. ;)

    And I also added a touch of the Portraiture plug-in in the final version.

    Neil vN

  2. 3 says

    Just a note to say thanks to Neil for running such a wonderful workshop in Cork, Ireland. It surpassed my expectations for sure. Neil made sure that each attendee was given personal tuition on all the topics covered, and everyone’s questions were answered ( no matter how stupid they were ;-). The hands-on sessions were fantastic of course, and that’s when we were really able to put Neil’s techniques into practise for ourselves. I have a wedding coming up soon, in the same venue where the workshop was held, so it’ll be interesting to see if I get the same results as on the course :) !

    Thanks Neil,


  3. 4Ryan O. Hicks says

    All of that is ambient light?
    Is it coming from a window and what was providing the backlight? Still ambient for both?

  4. 5 says

    Ryan .. in that second image which is so under-exposed .. yes, that is just available light coming from the hotel lobby entrance.

    Neil vN

  5. 6Eileen says

    Lovely portrait Neil. The backlighting effect is quite subtle but works really well: I also love the way the light moulds her face – it all works to give a sense of depth. Amazing what you can do with just one flashlight (if you are sufficiently skilled – got a bit of practising to do yet myself).
    It was great to meet you: I hope we will see you on these shores again before long.

  6. 7Danny Johnson says

    All I can say is that if Neil comes to your town with his lighting workshop, do yourself a huge favor and do not miss it. This was hands down the best workshop I have ever been on. The techniques that you learn here will not only improve your images, they will force you to redefine the way you work and only for the better. Neil also worked hard to make sure everyone got his personal time and a solid understanding of the way he works himself, and the best part of it all was how it was delivered. Neil does what all great teachers can do, impart the information and make it seem simple when the truth is you are getting all his years of experience condensed into key areas that you can take and make your own.

    Thanks again to Neil for taking the time to create this obviously high quality workshop, it has made me realize that on-camera flash really is capable of creating truly amazing images, and now I know the secrets to getting them!


  7. 8Jayne says

    I really enjoyed the course at the weekend. I found the day just sped by and I think that that was due to the way the course was structured……talk……practical. You immediately got to put into practice what you had been told.
    Of course it was manily down to the ‘teacher’, you were entertaining and were able to simplify stuff (and perceptive to a confused face!!)
    It was lovely to meet you and I would love to do another course with you soon, so maybe ………………..

  8. 11Ray Connolly says

    I attened Neils 1st Cork session + I would totally recommend it to any photographer no matter what level you’re at, Neil has totally changed my way of thinking when it comes to using Flash I had veered away from it due to high ISO :) but now I’m back to Flash Flash Flash (subtle of course) Oh yeah + the way he explained the techniques even a 2yr old could understand, no high end tech jargon (nice + simple) + the models were true Pros (thank girls)
    Thanks Neil

  9. 12Thorsten says

    I did my first shoot with Noreen exactly one year ago and since then have had the pleasure of doing several shoots with her. But I have yet to capture an image that’s as captivating as this! A super image, Neil.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop, which reinforced much of what I already knew in theory but which I somehow never really put into practice myself, perhaps being somewhat of a disbeliever or maybe it’s because I tend to try and overcomplicate things when in reality, keeping things simple is often the best route to success. And it doesn’t get much simpler than the concepts you so clearly explained and illustrated during the workshop.

    I’m looking forward to putting what I learned into practice in future.

    – Thorsten.

  10. 13John Ahern says

    Had the pleasure of attending the Monday workshop, it was fantastic.
    I have read through Neil’s blog over and over again to help improve my flash photography. Neil’s blog has some brilliant information and advice, but attending the workshop is just a whole other level. He explains things brilliantly and then has you up shooting a model putting into practice what you have just learned. This is proven in lot of different disciplines as the best way to learn, you just can’t learn to the same way by purely reading about it.

    If you enjoy Neil’s blog, and want to improve your flash photography, then go on one of his workshops. Also remember that Neil has gone to a lot of effort to share his knowledge and skill via his blog, and gets little if anything back financially for this, attending his workshop, or at a minimum buying his new book is a way of repaying Neil for his blog work.

    Thanks to Neil for the work put into putting the workshop together, to Liam for the great organization and getting Neil over to Ireland, and finally to Noreen who showed great patience, she even comically pointed out a few times when we were doing something wrong!!

  11. 14Les says


    It is interesting to note the bluish-ness of the ambient light (which wasn’t immediately apparent to me until I saw the ambient-only photo and then went back to the first photo).

    Did you have any concerns about the slight variation in color temperature? To me, it looks fine but since you often adjust WB in post, I wonder if you had any thoughts about it.

    And also, was your flash gelled in this instance?

    Thanks! (…and I’ve got your book on order.)


  12. 15 says

    Les, I positioned Noreen there, hoping for some kind of subtle back-lighting from the ambient light, and hoping it would provide some separation from the background.

    So the intent was there, but the actual result was a bit of luck in how it finally appeared. The ambient light was from the overcast day outside. The reason for the blue tint is because I bounced flash off part of the wall next to her and the wall had brown-ish wallpaper and decorations. In getting to a pleasant overall color balance for skin tones, the available light had shifted to blue.

    I do like the extra dimension that the subtle colder hues added.

    The separation from the background was achieved with the way the flash was upwards to towards the wall, and slightly towards her, but flagged so that no light fell directly on her from the flash.

    So there you have it .. the results partially intended, and partially just serendipity.

    Neil vN

  13. 16 says

    It is amazing what one light can do.. I have been teaching young Photogs for years
    to use only one light before adding more to any people portraits…
    my set up is one main, one hair light..(sometimes)

  14. 17Noel says

    “upwards to towards the wall, and slightly towards her, but flagged so that no light fell directly on her from the flash.”

    This is exactly the part I was hoping and waiting you would provide. Thanks for your generosity in sharing your amazing skills. Any workshop coming to Los Angeles in the near future? I’m a very new photog and very eager to learn. Love your approach!

  15. 21Annamarie says

    I attended Neil’s Workshop in Cork on Sunday. As an amateur photographer in a room full of pros I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up, but Neil’s fantastic style of teaching meant that everything was explained so well and I came away from the day buzzing and impatient to try out all of the new techniques I’d learnt. Thanks Neil for a brilliant day and for being so generous with your knowledge. Thanks to the two charming and gorgeous models and to Liam for organising great day. As a previous poster said, if Neil is ever giving a Workshop in your town, don’t miss it!

  16. 24David says

    What an Incredibly beautiful lady Noreen is and what amazing eyes!!

    Wow Neil the lighting (yes I noticed the lighting this time! he he) is truly amazing! Plus it really looks like you’ve used a specially lit backdrop instead of it being a normal room, I can really see that your added dark vignette also helps provide a studio lighting effect by drawing the attention to the center of the shot.

    This would make a fantastic photo painting, I really love the warm tones and hues.

    Out of interest what f stop did you use and roughly how far away was the background?
    I’ve just started experimenting (last weekend) with a manual f/1.7 lens that I used at f/2 but think I might use f/2.8 and smaller instead for head and shoulder shots and save f/2 for near full length body shots.

    Kind regards,

  17. 25 says

    David .. my camera settings were:
    1/100th @ f3.2 @ 1250 ISO
    Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 zoomed to 140mm on a full-frame camera.

    Distance between her and the background was about 3 – 5 meters.

    Neil vN

  18. 26Jim Levitt says


    Could you explain how you arrived at the ambient exposure for this photo? The non-flash picture looks severely underexposed, more than a stop in any case. Or did you not worry about the ambient exposure at all, since the flash was going to be the main light source?

    Thanks for such an incredibly informative and education site.


  19. 27 says

    Jim … I think you’re on the verge of your own aha! moment here. :)

    The ambient exposure was randomly chosen, but still with common sense though. I wanted a wide aperture. I wanted a shutter speed that wasn’t too slow. I wanted an ISO which would still be quite clean on the Nikon D3 … and that’s how I ended up at:
    1/100th @ f3.2 @ 1250 ISO

    Others there at the workshop would’ve had different settings .. and from there nudged the settings to what they wanted or would look better.

    That the available light in this case was severely under-exposed, doesn’t matter all that much … TTL flash will take care of the exposure for me. However, photographs usually do look better when you take ambient light into account, or if ambient light registers to some extent at least.

    And in this case … there was a beautiful intersect between the available light and the amount of flash that was used.

    But others there would’ve gotten different results. Results that look equally good, even though different.

    And that is part of what is taught during the workshops .. that you have a fair amount of leeway, and that it essentially becomes *your* choice as to what you want and like.

    Neil vN

  20. 28 says

    Re: vignetting

    I should mention that I added NO vignetting during post-production. What you see there is all a matter of how the light fell at the time, combined with the natural vignetting of the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 when used wide open (or nearly wide open), on a full-frame camera.

    This brings me to another point. I’ve seen a number of photographers complain how this lens vignettes on a full-frame camera. I can see how it might bother some photographers if their work depends on a very precise depiction of what they see.

    But for the rest of us … the inherent vignetting of that lens when used at wide apertures, works beautifully for us. :)

    Neil vN

  21. 29David Amberson says

    I agree. Who uses a 70-200 f2.8 lens for landscape shots, and if they did for whatever reason, not at f2.8. And if you must use that lens at f2.8, then it was just the fact that you must have the shot period and any light fall off or vignette would be acceptable, at least you got the shot right. Perfect world would allow ISO 100 at f8 and enough shutter speed.

    I too hear a lot of photographers complain about this and cant see why its so important. I’m with Neil, I like it. I guess these are the technical review junkies who wish to be able to find every fault in product to define their abilities as a nerd. I enjoyed this entry. Thanks. Come close so I can attend one of these jewels Neil. I see the one in Atlanta. Hopefully…for the sake of my business, I have to work then, but if I can do without…I’M THERE!

  22. 32Jack McCarty says

    THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I bought your book and I suggest everyone do the same. I started looking for the book when I first read about it on this site. I preordered back in the spring when the release date was supposed to be August 3. Then I ran across the first in a B&N store in Kansas; bought it immediately and canceled my preorder. It cost more that way what with sales taxes etc., but well worth it. Great job, sir. It has opened a whole new way of taking pictures for me. Everyone out there reading this: buy the book. It’s worth every penny and then some.

  23. 35 says

    Hi Neil
    I would like to thank you from myself and from all of those that were privileged enough to attend your MASTERCLASSES in Flash Photography in Cork over the two days. The 11 hours+ each day went to fast, you have so much energy, patience, experience, understanding, knowledge and above all commitment to the delegates on your workshop.
    There were plenty of questions and all answered in a way that it made sense to everyone. The seminar section was amazing but to actually go and practice this for ourselves with the beautiful models, the great surroundings and have you there to look at what we were doing and helping us when needed was truly amazing. You provide so much information in a way that made us all look at flash photography in such a different way. You made flash photography not seem daunting anymore but a pleasure, which is such a compliment to you. Everyone there came away with knowledge that far exceeded their expectations of your workshop (and they were high going in). For those of you out there who have not gone on a workshop yet, take the opportunity when Neil is in your city. You will value every minute of it. I look forward to working with you again in organizing next years workshops in Ireland and beyond.
    Best wishes

  24. 36John Lewis says

    Neil, I keep coming back to this photo time and time again, I think it is just beautiful, thanks so much for all your efforts.

    If you fancy running a course in Northern Ireland next time you are over I would be more than happy to help with the organization and logistics


  25. 37 says

    John .. Liam and I have already discussed tentative plans for next year with another trip out to the UK and Ireland. So if Northern Ireland is feasible, we might very well be there with a workshop.

    Neil vN

  26. 38Paul Gallagher says

    Neil, if you could make it to Northern Ireland next visit over this way I would love to attend one of the course as your work is amazing.


  27. 40Jack McCarty says

    Neil: Hope my comment about your wonderful book didn’t confuse everyone in Ireland. This “McCarty” lives in Oklahoma. Mr. Amberson should try Amazon to get the book. Finished the book last night and feel that I ought to read it again. It was a fast read because I couldn’t put it down. Thanks again.

  28. 41Thorsten says

    For some reason (which I guess only the publishers can explain) Neil’s book won’t be released until 09.09.09 over here (according to the Amazon UK site). Having had the good fortune to be able to attend one of Neil’s workshops here, I wanted to get my hands on the book as soon as possible while the workshop material was still fresh in my mind, so I just ordered it from Amazon US! Seems to work out slightly cheaper that way too!

  29. 42Ray Connolly says

    Thanks Thorsten, yeah I just ordered from US now as I was waiting for UK. Hope you enjoyed the course as much as I did.

  30. 45Jim Nease says

    Neil thanks so much for taking the time to share your knowledge. I’ve just started reading your blog and can’t quite seem to “put it down” sort of speak. Learning a lot! You stated: And of course, with a touch of sweetning in Photoshop, this time using one of the filters in Nik Color Efex Pro 3, the lovely portrait of Noreen can be enhanced to make it pop even more. What filter did you use? And here’s a request to have a seminar in St. Louis. I’ll be the first to sign up.

  31. 46Jim Nease says

    Just saw that you had a seminar here in St. Louis in May. Oh well, sorry I missed it. Hope you’ll find your way back soon.

  32. 47 says

    Hi Neil,

    I am seriously considering attening one of your workshops this Fall… Your photos are incredible. Lighting is one of the areas that I have a few problems with, but I can see that you have mastered this (and every) aspect of photography…
    Where will the seminar in Atlanta be held at?


  33. 48 says

    Courtney .. thank you for the compliments.

    I only finalize the venue a few weeks before the workshop. Keep checking back. thanks!

    Neil vN

  34. 50Allan says

    Hi Neil,

    Beautiful photo and model.

    Can you tell me which Color Efex pro 3 filter was used on this and did you make adjustment to the filter controls or did you just use the filter at default settings?

    Also, are you considering any workshops here in Australia?

    Cheers, Allan

  35. 53Dwayne Zimmerman says

    Haven’t completed the book yet. Was hoping it would bring me up to speed before your class in Portland. Haven’t discovered how to determine flash setting. I guess the camera (my D200) meter determines the ambient reading. But then the distance from the reflective surface the flash will bounce off of would seem to be a factor in the flash setting. In any case I’m glad I found your site and have the book. I’ll be a faithful follower. Have a wedding in December I hope to use the techniques being taught here.

  36. 54 says

    Dwayne .. with TTL flash, the technology takes care of the exposure for you, with two limitations:
    1. you have to be reasonable as to what the speedlight can accomplish wrt distance;
    2. you have to realize that the tonality of your subject and scene will affect your TTL flash exposure, and you will have to use the Flash Exposure Compensation to nudge it.

    Other than that, in terms of exposure, there is not much more to “determining flash setting”. Allow the technology to take care of the exposure, and adjust it with FEC as need be.

    But then, as you can see in the photo at the top, the direction of the light becomes the more important concern.

    Neil vN

  37. 56 says

    I’ve had requests for the photograph where I bounced flash in the “usual” way, behind me. I’ve added it to the main article now.

    Neil vN

  38. 57Lars says

    Hi there!
    The result is verry impressive an inspiring to me. This is what i am trying to get every time i do portraits.
    What was the distance from Flash to Wall? and which setting did you on Flash and camera.
    jealous Greetings from Bremen Germany ; )

  39. 58 says

    Lars … I’d say the wall was about 3 meters to my left, and my camera was in manual mode as always. My flash was in TTL mode.

    Neil vN

  40. 61 says

    I love the lighting that you achieved with just a simple flash and a foamy thing.
    I don’t know if you said but did you have the flash gelled with a CTO?

  41. 62 says

    Todd, I can’t even remember if I had a 1/2 CTS gel on my flash like I usually do when working indoors. I usually do, but might have taken it off here. Since I was bouncing my flash off the wall to my left, and that consisted of a lot of wood paneling, which adds a warm color cast anyway.

    Neil vN

  42. 65Chris Radley says

    Good day Neil,
    Love the new setup of your site, it’s been a long time coming. I also had a similar experience with a Mac last year, now I find it hard to use the PC in our day to day office work.

    I’m really sorry I was not aware you were in Cork. I live North of Dublin and would have arranged to attend your courses. When will you be doing something similar in Ireland?

    I bought a SB-600 speed-light and could really do with some inspiration.

    Happy St.Patrick’s day 17th

  43. 66 says

    Chris .. There are tentative plans for me to visit the UK and Ireland later this year. I’ve been in contact with Liam Ramsell who arranged the workshops in Ireland in 2009. We’ll see. If it does get off the ground, I will post about it. : )

    Neil vN

  44. 67Eric Frazer says

    Neil, just want to thank you for the various articles regarding short light, model and pose. Greatly appreciated!


  45. 68Staj says

    I can’t stop looking at the first photo, what an amazing shot. You’re a Great Teacher Neil, and thanks a lot for TANGENTS. I’ve gone through chapters of your lighting book at the store: Direction & Quality Of Light and i’m buying it and the 2 others shortly. Hopefully you’ll write one on posing soon. Keep up the Great Work Sir.

  46. 69John Lozano says

    I think I read all the comments. but I am wondering about white balance. How do you keep good white balance if the walls are painted in other than white colors, like, say orange or blue?

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