flash photography – bouncing flash behind you

bounce flash photography

bouncing your on-camera flash behind you

A comment posted to the article, directional light from your on-camera flash, asked a lot of questions about bounce flash photography. While most of these have been answered over time in various articles, it might be a good thing to pull it all together in directly answering those questions here.

This uncomplicated portrait of Anelisa was shot during the podcast Don’t Fear Your Flash. It shows the specific elements that I want with bounce flash:

To get flattering light from my on-camera bounce flash, I most often bounce the flash behind me, or somewhat towards the side.

Here is a typical comparison between direct on-camera flash (where you get that side-ways shadow), and the clean open light you get from bounce flash.

For the eagle-eyed followers of the Tangents blog who suspect they’ve seen the image at the top before somewhere, yes, you have. It was used to illustrate this article a while back: New to flash photography? Where to even start

Back to the questions:

I’ve read so many contradicting opinions on all lighting questions that I just didn’t know which to believe!

However, having read many of your articles you have impressed me with your knowledge and creativity that you’ve become my only point of reference. Your images are stunning and your site is so well written that I rarely go anywhere else for inspiration.

Thank you! One of the things I have consistently tried to do, is show examples. I was always frustrated when in photography forums you’d get someone grand-standing and making sweeping comments, without showing examples of their results. “I can photograph an entire wedding with just a 50mm lens!”  Sure buddy, but show us a full gallery of your awesomeness. You know, stuff like that. So I do post examples. If someone doesn’t like the results, then that is fine too. At some level it *is* a matter of taste.


1.) What do you bounce your flash off?

I’ve a few questions for you, if you don’t mind. I appreciate that you may have answered these elsewhere but there’s so much to take it I most likely missed them somewhere along the line. Any help you can give would be most appreciated. I also appreciate that these questions may seem a little basic!

1. You often say that you simply bounce your flash behind you (in general terms), and I get the impression that you do this regardless of what is behind you. Is this the case? If so, what if there is no wall or other surface sufficiently close for the flash to bounce back effectively? What would you do? I admit that my physics knowledge is somewhat lacking, but if a surface is so far away, does the flash light not die by the time it gets there and back onto the subject? Or, am I to assume that your flash is capable of such distances? (I use a Canon 580ex II).

When I say “bounce my flash behind me”, I rarely bounce directly behind me. It’s usually at an angle over a shoulder, or upwards at an angle off to the side – depending on where I want my light to come from.

In this example – bounce flash photography at wedding receptions – I bounced into the huge reception room behind me. No specific wall behind me. Just the room. But at a high enough ISO and a wide-ish aperture, enough light will return to light your subject properly.

What if there is really nothing to bounce your light off? Then you adapt or improvise. We’re photographers and can’t just passive about how we use our cameras and shrug our shoulders when the stars don’t align for us.

But there are scenarios where we can actually use bounce flash outdoors to sweeten the image:
– using on-camera bounce flash outdoors at night
– using bounce flash outdoors
– finding something to bounce your flash off
– wedding photography – using bounce flash outside


2.) Does your body block the light from bounce flash?

2. When bouncing behind you – and I think this may apply for portrait orientation more than landscape – do you not get in the way of the light when it bounces back?

Nope. By the time the light returns, it is a huge spread of light, and you are very unlikely to be in your own shadow.

Your light source isn’t the small flash-head, but the large surface you bounced your light off. So you now have a huge light source.


3.) How much FEC should you dial in when you bounce flash?

How do you know how much +ve FEC to dial-in? (I am assuming that, mostly, you need to dial-in such because you are bouncing).

Flash exposure compensation is dialed in when you need more (or less) flash than the camera dictated. TTL flash exposure is affected by the overall balance of dark and light tones in your scene. Usually it works pretty well. But if your subject and scene are predominantly light tones, then the TTL flash (like any automatic metering mode), will tend to under-expose. Then you need to bump your FEC up.

You have to start pre-judging the tonality of your scene, and adjusting your FEC for that already.

Now, to your specific question whether you should dial in FEC because you’re bouncing flash … theoretically, no. In practice .. probably.

That Pre-flash there is what the TTL flash metering system uses to calculate the actual exposure. By measuring how much of the pre-flash is returned, the camera knows how much  light to send out for the actual flash exposure.

So in theory, it shouldn’t matter whether the flash is pointed forward, or bounced. In practice though, you might find that a specific camera model tends to under-expose with bounce flash. In that case, you know about it, and can set a default FEC when you bounce flash. Simple.


4.) Bounce flash & flash brackets

Correct me if I am wrong, but your methods seem to eliminate the need for flash brackets (particularly for portrait orientation). Would you agree? If so, are there any circumstances whatsoever when you would use a flash bracket?

That is all covered in the article on flash brackets. I have the Custom Brackets Pro-M rotating bracket (vendor)


5.) Bounce flash and slow shutter speeds

I assume (I don’t know why!) that bounce is not appropriate for ultra low-light dragging the shutter work? Instead direct flash is better? If so, where would you point the flash, would you use any accessories (stofen etc) and what -ve FEC would you dial-in?

I do pull the shutter speed down where I can. It depends. That it is bounce flash (vs direct flash), has no bearing on my shutter speed settings.

Here is an example and explanation of why I used a fairly high shutter speed at a wedding reception, while bouncing flash – shooting in low light – flash and incandescent light. But mostly, I would drag the shutter to some extent. Here is another related article – shutter speed choice with flash.

I hope this all helps to make more sense of the topic.


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.

17 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1 says


    This is the single most brilliant piece of flash advice I have ever read. I just tried it now (with an older 420EX Speedlite) and it blew me away, it’s so simple yet brilliant. Silly me thought I could only bounce from the ceiling or a side wall. I have been reading Bill Hurter’s Wedding Photographers Handbook and saw some of your photos and your section on RAW workflow. So I decided to search for you on the Internet and I have learned a tremendous amount since finding your site yesterday. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.


  2. 2Tommy Rendra says

    I tried and used the advice. People were wondering what did I do, until I show them the picture. Great advice.

  3. 3 says

    what do you do when you are in a banquet hall and the wall are draped with fabric and your ceilings are high-vaulted or colored red. I encountered that and…. yikes! At times, I just had my assistant shadowing behind me with a fill. Is there a better approach?


  4. 4 says

    Amanda … you’re right. At some point it just isn’t feasible to bounce flash like that and then you have to come up with alternatives. The best in terms of how “pretty” the lighting will look, is off-camera flash held up by an assistant.

  5. 5Rob says

    So in the example above it sounds like you are adjusting your ISO to affect the camera’s sensitivity to the light being created by the flash and cast on to the subject. How does that apply to the ambient/background of the shot? Is it a balance? I’ve read nearly every article on your website regarding flash in the last few days. I remember reading that in TTL mode, really the only way to control flash is through the flash exposure compensation adjustment. Is ISO adjustment in this scenario mainly to compensate for larger rooms/high ceilings?

    I think I understand it in theory in a perfect world, the hardest thing for me to learn I guess is knowing when to tweak the theoretical values depending on the environment. But I guess that comes from experience!

  6. 6 says

    Rob .. since ISO affects manual flash exposure and ambient light equally, adjusting the ISO doesn’t affect the balance between manual flash and ambient. If you increase your ISO, it makes both your manual flash and ambient light brighter.

    However, in TTL mode, the flash follows your settings. In other words, the camera will reduce the amount of flash to what it deems to be correct. So if you increase your ISO setting, the ambient exposure will be affected, but not the flash exposure.

    So you have it correct there .. in large rooms or someplace where I need to help the TTL flash exposure, then I will increase my ISO.

  7. 7nan sanders says

    i have a question about depth of field for groups (even just 4 people)in the same shot.
    What about everyone being in focus at f2.8 or so? Also what about dance floor shots
    at such low f stops? Does a high ISO eliminate focal blur, and digital noise as well.

    you say bouncing the flash behind you—is the flash turned backwards ? /

    Thanks. Great info and I just ordered your book from Amazon.

  8. 8 says

    Nan .. hi there …

    If you’re going to use such a shallow depth of field, you need to make sure that everyone’s face is i the same plane of focus.

    As for wedding receptions, I most often use wider apertures … and usually in the f3.5 – f2.8 region .. sometimes faster.
    It depends on how much depth of field I need. It’s usually not much .. just the subject needs to be sharp.

    I have no idea what you mean by: Does a high ISO eliminate focal blur, and digital noise as well.
    Higher ISO settings will increase digital noise.

    To bounce your flash behind you, you HAVE to have a speedlight that can swivel and rotate. But you have to have that any way.

  9. 9edy says

    Ciao Neil,
    trovo questo articolo veramente stupendo…..devo dire che la mia nikon d 200 aumentando la sensibilita’ iso sopra 500 la foto e’ gia’ pessima.
    Ci sono altre soluzioni?
    Grazie in anticipo.
    Edy Trigona Genova italy

  10. 10 says

    Hello Neil,
    I find this article really beautiful … I must say that with my Nikon D200 increasing the sensitivity over 500 ISO, the photos start to look bad.
    Are there other solutions?
    Thanks in advance.
    Edy Trigona Genoa Italy

    Hi there Edy

    If your ISO becomes the limiting factor, then you have a few choices:
    – you are going to LOVE the Nikon D700, or
    – get a more powerful flashgun, or
    – use faster lenses.

    Those three decisions will affect your flash exposure with bounce flash – ISO, power, aperture.

    The other control – distance – isn’t something we can really affect most of the times with bounce flash, unless we use start using umbrellas and other light modifiers which we can bring closer.

    Neil vN

  11. 11 says

    It’s incredible how much of an effect the quality of light can have on the appearance of a subject. In the bare direct flash shot, she appears gorgeous, of course, but skinnier, perhaps less healthy (perhaps in part due to harsher shadows on collar bones). The bounced flash shot has her looking fuller (in a great way), healthier, warmer even.

    Thanks for the (rather constant :) reminder about using walls. I finally got to use this tactic during the processional at my last wedding.

  12. 12 says

    Lol Neil…I actually have shot entire weddings with just a 50mm lens.

    But I hear what you’re saying though. Keep up the great work…you’re the best!

  13. 13 says

    “I actually have shot entire weddings with just a 50mm lens” – most of the ones using this statement are those who haven’t invested yet on fast zooms :)

    thanks Neil, i have been bouncing my flash from day 1, because it creates great results. thanks for the tutorials!

  14. 14Mark Van Bergh says


    Always appreciate your articles and blog. Also have your first book. One question I have never seen you address however is the focal length setting you use on your flash when bouncing with the flash on the camera. Basic options are let the flash head “zoom” automatically based on the focal length of your lens, or manually set a focal length based on the conditions (e.g., for a more distant wall/bounce surface increase the focal length of the flash head to provide more effective “power,”, or perhaps use a longer setting to provide more directionality). Obviously, if you are using off-camera flash you have to manually set the focal length for the flash, so what do you do there? Does it depend on the size of the soft-box? Thanks.

  15. 15 says

    When I bounce the flash, I normally set the flash to the longest zoom length.

    In a softbox, I tend to go wider, but not very wide because then the fresnel has more likelihood of melting as the flash over-heats. So generally around 28mm zoom setting on the flash if I use it with a softbox.

  16. 16Kim says


    when you say that you bounce flash over a shoulder, is the flash head oriented horizontally over a shoulder (left or right) or is the flash head 45 degrees up while being being over one shoulder (left or right).

  17. 17 says

    “When I say “bounce my flash behind me”, I rarely bounce directly behind me. It’s usually at an angle over a shoulder, or upwards at an angle off to the side – depending on where I want my light to come from.”

    I bounce into the direction I want the light to come from.
    Not 90 degrees above me, because that would place the light source too high.
    Not horizontally level behind me either, because then the light comes from too low a point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *