November 7, 2009

bounce flash – choices and control

This favorite images from a recent wedding, is one which I’d like to analyze a little as to what went into creating it.

First of all, I am usually quite specific about my backgrounds.  A cluttered background can really bring down an image which might otherwise have worked.  So in a case like this, when creating the romantic portraits outside the venue with this couple, I was on the look-out for something interesting to work with.  When I saw the twinkly lights in the trees outside, I knew that it would definitely make a great out-of-focus background.

I then needed to position the couple in relation to the background – and in this case use a lens with a longer focal length to help place them.  A wide-angle lens would’ve given too wide a field of view.  I need a tighter composition.

But in how I wanted to position the couple, I also knew the light on them wasn’t ideal.  I would have to add on-camera flash as a quick fix for the lighting.  Since I was working alone, I couldn’t rely on an assistant to hold a reflector or an umbrella / softbox.  I therefore looked for something to bounce my flash off .. and I figured that I could bounce my flash off the outside walls of the venue.  I did so at an angle, that I could still have a measure of directional light on them.

These two things then combined to make it this particular spot that I used:
– an interesting background, and
– an area I could bounce flash off.

Since I knew I would be losing a lot of light from my on-camera speedlight in bouncing flash off a large wall outside, the short telephoto that I wanted to use, also needed to be a fast optic.

The lens I decided on was the Nikon 85mm f1.4 … and if I had been shooting Canon, it would’ve been my Canon 85mm f1.2 (B&H)

However, if these lenses seem out of reach, then both the Nikon 85mm f1.8 and the Canon 85mm f1.8 (B&H), are excellent and affordable optics that will open up a whole new look to your images if you’re only used to the depth-of-field of slower zooms.

For the final image at the top, my camera settings were:  1/60th @ f2 @ 1600 ISO,  TTL flash.

Here’s a test shot without flash, where I made sure the intended background worked:

The final image at the top then is a combination of  choices and controlling the situation.  Nothing there is arbitrary.  The choices made were in terms of the setting; the composition; the use of flash to augment the lighting  and in directing the couple .. finally culminating in an image that i love.


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{ 17 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Albert November 8, 2009 at 3:14 am


Fantastic as always.. I am much more aware of the background when i frame my subjects.. It really does separate a good, sharp image to a photo that just screams professionalism..

Much like a lot of your readers, we want to understand your processes when you analyse a shot!

With regards to the photo above, can you run down what goes through your head??

ie) Eye catches an intriguing background.. Calculate some settings to expose for it.. Take a test shot to analyse the background.. Observe possible surfaces to bounce flash.. Dial EV +/- etc??




2 Neil November 8, 2009 at 4:27 am

Albert .. you pretty much have the thought-process nailed there, with the exception that I’d first check for surfaces to bounce the flash off before doing the test shots.

Neil vN


3 Andreas November 8, 2009 at 7:41 am

Hello Neil,

just a quick question. I have read your book and I understand that you – to create a greater light source – bounce of your on-camera-flash. But what do you do when there is nothing to bounce the flash of, e.g. a park, where you just have trees and gras.

Thank you


4 Neil November 8, 2009 at 9:04 am

Andreas, then you have to do something else obviously .. whether you position your couple in a specific place so that you have great light .. or whether you use additional lighting.

But when you don’t have something to bounce your flash off, you either have to create that “something” by having an assistant hold up a reflector or umbrella .. or you have to do “something else”.

Neil vN


5 Daniel Sullivan November 8, 2009 at 11:27 am

Fantastic (as always) Neil. Do I sence a slight rotational blur to the background? I assume that was intentional, and beautifully done. May I ask how you get your non-professional models (like B&G’s) to pose in such a dramtic way? It seems most of them think they need to say cheese, like in your test shot. Thank you so much for sharing your setup.


6 Neil November 8, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Daniel .. the rotaional effect you see there is purely how the bokeh appears on this lens at that aperture. Many large aperture lenses do this.

As for how I work with my clients to have them respond like that .. it’s a combination of just having a fantastic couple, but also how you as the photographer collaborate with them. Personality goes a long way.

Neil vN


7 Arnold Gallardo (Zeroneg1) November 8, 2009 at 2:37 pm

:) If the B&G are comfortable with the photographer and have a good rapport with the photographer and at ease with the photographer then ‘MAGIC’ happens :) it is important to have very good communication. Sometimes no need to coach them since they interact nicely between themselves specially in a wedding situation :)


8 Dan November 9, 2009 at 11:05 am

After seeing so many examples of your work, I have to ask if this effect was purposeful.

For me, the body positioning, facial expression, hairstyle, and angle of the frame of your final photo make it look like the bride is falling into the groom’s arms (from upper left to bottom right). Was this a conscious capture, artful post-process grab, or happy coincidence?


9 Neil November 9, 2009 at 11:11 am

Dan .. the image isn’t a crop. It’s full size. So the composition was purposeful, although I did fire off a number of images, and instinctively changed my composition while shooting. In editing the images, I liked this one most of all.

The composition therefore is partly a (near) conscious decision at the time of taking the photo … with the post-production editing of images also factoring in.

As for the pose … it was how the bride responded to my instruction. I got lucky in having a couple that was great to work with and full of energy.

Ultimately, I’d say all the factors you mention, do come into play.

Neil vN


10 Frances November 9, 2009 at 11:20 am

Neil — you inspire me!

Thanks for sharing!


11 Joram Freudenfels November 9, 2009 at 2:58 pm

Neil – Great shot, as usual!
What do you use to get rid of noise since the photo was taken at 1600 ISO.


12 Neil November 10, 2009 at 6:14 am

Joram .. I have Neat Image and Noise Ninja, but don’t use the programs at all.

I use the Nikon D3 currently, and with correct exposure, there is barely even a hint of noise at 1600 ISO, and I happily photograph the romantic portraits in low light with such a high ISO. The images look great even at 100%.

Neil vN


13 David Amberson November 10, 2009 at 12:14 pm

I second what Neil says. I use a Canon 1D3 and at ISO 1600, the images look like ISO 400 on most cameras…..when properly exposed that is.

As for Noise. I found Noiseware recently and its amazing. This program feels better than Noise Ninja which I have. I used it on some of my past shots at ISO 3200, and this program almost completely gets rid of all noise…..but it leaves detail in the subject. Its wierd, its like the program knows where to pull noise and leave those fine single stray strands of hair alone. The fabric detail, remains untouched, but that grain is gone. Its great, and it sharpens nice too.

Neil, great post. I find that choosing the background in shots seems to be the single most missed item in many shots. When I shoot a wedding, and the Bride has requested “In home” before wedding shots, its difficult. You are walking into unknown, uncharted, uncontrolled territory. So I will go as far as find a nice area in Livingroom, then turn on the table lamp behind them to add some light in background, then gel the flash and it adds sooooomuch to the image. Thinbgs like this make the difference between my shots and Aunt Lucy’s Powershot snaps.

Background placement/angle is often the difference in a amatuer snapshot and a professional shot. Many people dont realize that even a distant tree with color will make a nice out of focus backdrop to an otherwise boring image.

Keep it coming Neil. This site is great. Its one of the few where the photographer doesnt mind sharing details on how they got the shot. So many are affraid of competition….they dont share. I cut my teeth on advanced flash contro/technique here years ago and its made such a difference in my work. A real photographer is confident in his/her abilities and will glady discuss technique.

And so, if I ever have someone ask me how I got the shot, I gladly go into detail after wedding to show them, then if they still dont get it, I write down this website for them on my card, and give it to them. I couldnt dare keep this helpful information to myself.

Thanks Neil, I’m sure many aspiring photographers pick up a bunch in each and every one of these posts.

Take care,


14 Vivian November 10, 2009 at 6:00 pm

Dear Neil

Just bought your book but already got great inspiration (also from your blog as well). You are the absolute genius, both in photographing and explaining.

I love the idea that you posted some videos which includes the process of how you work. I wish to see some more!!!



15 Neil November 10, 2009 at 6:15 pm

Hi there Vivian .. thank you for those very flattering comments.

I do have a few video clips available here to show a little of how I work, but they aren’t full instructional clips yet. More like glimpses.

I’ll definitely add more material along these lines over time.

Neil vN


16 rafiayub November 18, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Dear Neil,
Learning a lot from you…thx
How did you get the background warm after using the flash…!
Would you like to have post processing on images? If I would be there I could do the bride dress(only) one/half stop under and make the lase(only) more sharper thru lightroom adjustment brush.
Your flash control is its extreme. The way/rythm you drag the flash light thru the image is beautiful. Can you please explain a little did you avoid the black suit from the flash ?


17 Neil November 25, 2009 at 11:20 pm

rafiayub … I didn’t make the background warmer. The background is that colour in relation to the colour of the flash with a 1/2 CTS filter on it, and bounced off the outside wall. In that way, the colour of the background just “feel into” that colour range you see there.

I might have done a touch more to the image in post-production of the RAW image, but this is where I left the image at the proofing stage. I am happy with it with the minimal adjustment done to it in RAW.

As for the black suit .. once again, the tonality of the black suit just fell into place in relation to the brightest part of my subject, the dress. There is the possibility of adjustment again afterwards by using the contrast, local contrast, brightness, fill and black point .. but I didn’t have to here. With my basic defaults as I have it set in ACR / Bridge, I was happy with the way it appeared.

In the end, I am more concerned with the mood and expression than fine-tuning the more technical consideration of the image. You also need to keep in mind that this is one of about 700 images delivered to the client, and I still need to keep a fast workflow or I will drown in it.

With the articles and postings on the Tangents blog, I largely aim to keep it true to the way the image appears with minimal fuss outside of the camera and basic editing in RAW.

Neil vN


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