bounce flash portrait – a consistent technique

bounce flash portrait – a consistent technique

WPPI 2012 took place during the past week – as always, a crazy-hectic and exciting event. I once again presented a Master Class at WPPI. But I also took time to present a private mini-workshop to the first 3 people that signed up. We went over a condensed version of my full-day workshop, covering most of the material in the 4-hr long mini-workshop. Like last year, I called on my favorite model in Las Vegas, Shawna. Actually, she has since moved to L.A. but she was quite happy to make the trip back to Las Vegas to be our model.

The start of the practical part of the flash photography workshop is always on-camera bounce flash. For this article, I thought I’d use some of the demo photos, to show that there is a consistent technique here.  A consistent approach that guarantees at least a successful basic portrait with nice light and a pleasant background.

The pull-back shot to show where we were shooting during this part of the mini-workshop – my hotel room. Nothing extraordinary there.  But by eliminating everything you don’t want in the frame, and choosing a specific background, a simple flattering portrait is easily achieved.

1. Find your background

One thing I’m particular about, is that my background should be complementary, or non-intrusive. A fast telephoto zoom is an indispensable lens for me in compressing the perspective when shooting a portrait.

2. Base your ambient exposure on your background,
assuming your subject is under-exposed, and you can pick up the exposure of your subject via additional light such as flash.

I wanted the background to not blow out (via over-exposure), or be too dark. So I metered for the background, zero-ing my exposure meter in my camera, while looking at just the background.  The turquoise tint here is due to the green-ish tint to the windows of the MGM hotel.

3. add light to your subject – in this case, on-camera bounce flash

If I hadn’t based my exposure specifically off the background, but chose random settings, the TTL flash exposure would still give me correct exposure for my subject.  This is important to realize – TTL flash exposure will follow your camera settings.

1/80 @ f3.2 @ 800 ISO

Back to the final image – having metered for the background, I set my camera to:
1/250 @ f4 @ 800 ISO … and the TTL flash exposure adjusted for the change in settings to still give me correct flash exposure.

For the light, I used on-camera bounce flash, which I flagged with the black foamie thing (BFT) to give me short lighting. (I didn’t use the Spinlight 360 here, but used the BFT, because it would be unfair to expect someone attending my workshop to have to make the additional purchase. So we used the BFT.)

Just to make a note about the background again – I framed tightly, and I crouched slightly, so I could avoid the bland rooftop areas which were industrial looking, and not attractive. So I specifically framed Shawna against the out-of-focus fake-New-York skyline there in Las Vegas. The colors and shapes aren’t intrusive, and helps in giving the final photograph even more color.

There isn’t much more to add about the flash photography itself since I used TTL flash. The TTL exposure mode, as controlled by the camera & speedlight, helps considerably in making flash photography easy where I can concentrate on the final image. If there had been under- or over-ecposure, I would simply have adjusted my Flash Exposure Compensation up or down.

There it is – a consistent approach that gives me a basic portrait that always works. A good starting point.


related articles


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.

53 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 3Fred Johnston says

    Another great post, Neil. After reading it, I still couldn’t quite figure out the positioning of the BFT in relation to the subject, flash, and bounce surface. Then I found this little gem on flickr from you in response to a question that cleared it up perfectly:

    “… you point your flash towards the area you want your light to come from. And then you use the BFT to flag any direct flash from falling on your subject.”

  2. 4Jon says

    Hey Neil, thanks for the great info. I’m using a d90 w/ sb700 and am fairly new to this so could you give me a few pointers?
    -How do you meter for the background but focus on the subject, are you using AF or MF?
    -And for the flash, are you just bouncing off the ceiling in this shot?

  3. 5 says

    Hi there Jon

    I was in manual exposure mode.

    Where you focus, and what you meter of / for, have nothing to do with each other. (Except when it coincidentally is the same thing.)

    I metered for the background. Because my settings are now fixed in manual exposure mode .. I could then change my position and find the composition I wanted, and position my on-camera flash’s bounce direction as I needed.

    Neil vN

  4. 6mike says

    she is beautiful and it was nice to see you didnt “push” the spinlight 360. Nice to see someone with integrity and skill.

  5. 11C says

    Such a simple technique and such great results. The catchlight comes from the flash bouncing off the surfaces – the ceiling and/or walls.

  6. 12Anthony says


    Thank you for the excellent workshop! For having followed your blog and read both your books, there were still plenty of “Aha!” moments throughout the day. Definitely a worthwhile investment that left me with a lot of food for thought.

    And I’m glad you didn’t end up hitting those two girls in public; 90% of the people on the Strip had cameras this week, so that could have been bad.


  7. 13 says

    This is one those great posts that summarizes the detailed bounce flash knowledge you have posted in the past. People really ought to bookmark this.

    It’s definitely good that you still use the BFT for your workshops to show that you can still get fantastic photos with low-tech items.

  8. 14Steve says


    Like Anthony, I really enjoyed the workshop. I appreciate the time you put into your presentation and the one on one time you spent with each of us. It was a real bonus to have a beautiful model that we could shoot in various conditions. Thanks again for the experience.


  9. 15Jay says

    Hey Neil,
    great post.
    Is it the BFT the prevented any glare off the glass window, since no direct flash was hitting it?


  10. 16 says

    Yes, the BFT reduces the chance of me seeing the flash’s glare in the window. But it also depends on me shooting at a slight angle to the window, and not standing perpendicular to the window. I don’t want any part of the interior of the hotel room that is partially lit by the bounced light, to appear as a reflection.

    Neil vN

  11. 17John says


    Since you use a telephoto, did you bounce the flash off of the ceiling and left wall IN FRONT of where you were standing?

  12. 18 says

    John … exactly! I was bouncing my flash slightly towards her, by bouncing off the wall and ceiling above her (and to camera left).

    And I also posed her so that her shoulder was pointing to the light, and her head tilted into the direction of the light, so that I could get (or at least approximate) short lighting.

    Neil vN

  13. 23 says

    Neil – great post…

    What flashgun did you use?

    If it was a Nikon – was it TTL or TTL-BL?

    I’m probably being stupid here with these questions, the 4th shot had these settings – 1/80 @ f3.2 @ 800 ISO – that was just shooting to expose the subject correctly without any care for background?

    However the fifth shot had these settings – 1/250 @ f4 @ 800 ISO – that was the correct exposure for the background? and you simply added fill flash to that?

    Finally hwy do you shoot at ISO800 as opposed to ISO400? Is that just so the flash doesn’t ahve to work as hard?


  14. 24 says

    I used the Nikon SB-910 speedlight (B&H), and I would always recommend getting the larger more versatile speedlights in any make.

    As I just posted elsewhere here, when I use my flash as a dominant light source, I tend to be in TTL mode, and not TTL BL.

    1/250 @ f4 @ 800 ISO were my settings based on the background. Then I added bounce flash to her. She would’ve been severely under-exposed. With that in mind, the flash here isn’t mere fill-flash. The flash is a dominant / main light source.

    But in choosing my settings like I did, I could balance the exposure on her, with the correct / pleasant exposure for the background.

    Neil vN

  15. 25 says

    Thanks for the article, Neil. I recently discovered your blog and became an instant fan. In fact, I’ve just purchased both of your books and look forward to reading them.

    In trying to shoot a scenario similar to this I’ve run into the situation where if I meter for the background using my camera’s fastest sync speed of 1/250, I have insufficient bounce flash power to properly expose the subject. Is there a way around this, other than find a less bright background?

    I shoot with a 580EX II and a 7D.



  16. 26 says

    Mike .. exactly. You’ve run into a scenario there where your bounce flash just isn’t capable of delivering enough power. You’d need a much much larger flash, and a better way of delivering the light, than bouncing it. Or you would have to change to a different place where the background is less bright.

    Neil vN

  17. 27mvheyst says

    Neil, you have the gift or ability of “using creativity to find backgrounds where none seemingly exist”. The links in this article, under “1. Find your background”, shows it clearly. These are inspiring articles, as it provide solutions to a nightmare type problem.

    I believe you can write an excellent book on composition. Your flash photography books are one of a kind (nothing else compares with it), and I believe you can do the same with composition & backgrounds, with a focus on practical implementation, using flash where necessary.

  18. 29Paul says

    Hi Neil, another fab article. Just want to clarify. Meter the background until it arrives at the tones and brightness you want but was the flash dialled down or left with zero compensation?


  19. 30 says

    Paul … the technique is exactly as you describe it there.

    As for the flash compensation, as far as I can recall was set to 0EV. The FEC has to be around 0EV here, because the flash isn’t mere fill-flash.

    Neil vN

  20. 32Steve Vequist says


    When we brought up our pictures we did at your workshop in Vegas, the background of the MGM/New York colors were more blue than green but Shawna’s skin tones were similar to yours. Was that because I was at a Tungsten white balance with the CTS gel on the flash and this makes the open shade outside blue? Thanks in advance for the comments and again for a great class.


  21. 37Gene says


    I am fairly comfortable with your bounce techniques except for the white balance settings The skin tones here seem a little warm for the flash setting but the daylight portion seems “normal”. Did you use a CTS gel to warm the skin tones or change white balance to cloudy. If you are writing another book for my collection could you expand it to include more of your white balance techniques?

  22. 38 says

    Gene .. I have the skin tones here quite warm. That’s my usual preference. (I think I do take it too farm some times though.)

    Now, regarding the idea that the skin tones here are too warm for Flash WB, but daylight seems normal … keep in mind that I shoot in RAW. Therefore the idea of a specific WB preset on my camera, falls away. I can change my WB to anything afterwards. And I do adjust the WB as a matter of course with my post-processing of the RAW file.

    I didn’t use a 1/2 CTS gel here, but as one of the workshop attendees mentioned, he did, and the background color was different as a result.

    And yup, I am busy with my next book!

    Neil vN

  23. 39naftoli says

    Neil regarding comment number 23s last question u could have shot at iso 200 and used a 1/60 of a sec. to get the same exposure, as long as ur speedlight is powerful enough, which it should be if its an sb910

  24. 40 says

    Naftoli … I could’ve shot at a lower shutter speed, but not if I wanted the background to appear like that.

    The lower shutter speed would’ve forced me to adjust my aperture / ISO combination for those 2 stops difference … and then my flash would’ve had to dump 4x as much light to give me the same flash exposure to maintain the same ambient-to-flash ratio.

    Neil vN

  25. 41IvanDC says

    Hi Neil,

    Currently enjoying both your books as well as the website!

    You strongly recommend a fast telephoto zoom, but what typical length are you using in this type of photo please?

    I am looking at the 80-200mm F2.8D as I cannot afford the 70-200mm VR-II but as I have a crop sensor DX (Nikon D7000) I am concerned it may be too long for many rooms.

    Are the effective 105mm (70×1.5) and 120mm (80×1.5) minimum fields of view going to be a little unwieldy indoors in rooms like this and other this examples?

    Would the older 35-70mm F2.8D or a 85mm F1.8 be a better starting point?

    Kind regards

  26. 42 says

    Ivan … I agree. I’ve always felt the 70-200 focal range makes the most sense (for portraits), on a full-frame camera. It’s just too tight usually on a crop-sensor camera.

    However, at 70mm it is wider than the 85mm lens you propose, so the zoom would still be the better choice there.

    A medium-range zoom like the 24-70 or 28-70 makes more sense as a portrait lens on a crop-sensor camera.

    Neil vN

  27. 43Theresa says

    Learning a lot from reading comments and questions, but being quite new to this, there is something I’m not sure I understand. Why ISO 800 with such a bright background?

  28. 44 says

    Theresa, the background wasn’t that bright. All I could get at f4 was 800 ISO. The tinted glass cut down a lot of the bright light.

    I could’ve gone to f2.8 and 400 ISO, but I wanted a bit more depth-of-field than f2.8 here.

    Then also, 800 ISO isn’t a high ISO on the Nikon D3s. I happily live there when I shoot in light that isn’t super bright.

    Neil vN

  29. 45 says

    Hi Neil,

    you said… “I was bouncing my flash slightly towards her, by bouncing off the wall and ceiling above her (and to camera left)” so, are you bouncing flash off the browish wall and bold coloured print as seen in your pull-back shot and if so I would have expected a colour cast on your lovely model?

    Thanks for making the time for your excellent blog, when are coming to Australia to run a workshop?!

  30. 47 says

    thanks, so I guess you set WB on about 3700 K rather than AWB or daylight 6500K so that the resulting image in camera would look fairly ‘normal’ then tweak if required in post production? Do you bother with colour checker cards or would you use white of her eye to set white point in post? (I am red-green colour ‘blind’ so I like to use a colour checker when I remember).

  31. 48 says

    Chris .. I didn’t gel my flash in this instance.

    I usually start by using the eye-dropper tool and clicking on my subject’s eyes to get some kind of white area.

    Neil vN

  32. 49Bob Masiello says

    Hi Neil,
    I’m starting to grasp the technique of bouncing my flash, but my question is, What happens when the walls and ceiling are not white, as was the case a few weeks ago, when I found myself in a room with Red and Yellow (Mustard) colored walls. Thanks, Bob

  33. 50 says

    Bob, I rely heavily on the RAW file containing enough data to get to a pleasant WB.

    However, when you bounce flash off a deeply colored wall, (especially if blue and green), then there are gaps in the spectrum. There are some colors missing so you just quite can’t get a good WB.

    Then you have to do something else … off-camera flash; bounce flash into a reflector … or change the image to Black & White.

    Neil vN

  34. 51aditya says

    i am new to photography.
    how do you get this number ?
    Having metered for the background, I set my camera to:
    1/250 @ f4 @ 800 ISO
    I want to know how to do metering ?


  35. 53albert says

    Hi neil,

    i have been following your tutorial and i already fill up my handphone screen of shortcuts of your tutorials…hahaha…and it helps me a lot and continue learning from it.

    Thanks a lot Neil.

    By the way any chance coming over here at singapore please let me know i just wanted to learn more from you in person..

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