how to bounce flash

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.

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bounce flash photography / lighting at wedding receptions

This photograph from a recent wedding got a few comments and questions in the album on Facebook. The questions really hinged around “where did all that light come from?” or whether I had used off-camera flash.

The purple and blue light in the back-ground is from the up-lighting from the entertainment / DJ company. The light on the couple entering the reception room … is all one on-camera bounce flash.

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bouncing flash forward without getting that direct flash look

When bouncing my on-camera flash, I rarely point the flash straight-up. Most often the flash is pointed behind me or to the side to a certain extent. This way I get directional light. I want that off-camera soft-box effect. However there are those times when it just isn’t that practical.

With this recent wedding, the indoor ceremony was held in this large room. As you can see here in this test shot, the ceiling isn’t white, but is a light brown, with wooden beams. The thick cross-beams have the effect of blocking flash when bounced, containing the spread of light.

Bouncing flash behind me just about killed the light from my flash, so little of it returned to light my subject. So for the ceremony, kneeling down in the center aisle, I had to get light onto the bride and groom. The most logical way to do this, and still get good soft light on the couple, was to point my light forward at an angle to get enough light there … but I still needed to block direct flash from hitting them.

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using on-camera bounce flash outdoors

With wedding photography, when doing the night-time romantic portraits of the couple, the pressure is usually on. The only opportunity to whisk the couple away for a few minutes, is during dinner time, when the party is at a lull. The pressure is on because you have even less time than you had during the earlier part of the day, and you also don’t want to lose the attention of your couple who wants to get back to their guests at the reception.

I usually scout a few places before-hand, getting a clear idea of what I want. When setting out with the couple, I rely on bounce flash and on video light. There is rarely time for carrying around a soft-box. You need to move fast, set up fast … and still come up with the goods.

With this wedding from the past weekend, I wanted to capture two specific portraits of the couple with the outside of the venue as a backdrop. I would normally have used video light here, but I had the idea that I wanted the compression from a longer lens … the 70-200mm f2.8 … and then the person holding the video light would be in shot. So the solution was to get flash in there. Where we were working outside there, I fortunately had part of the building to bounce my flash off.

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New to flash photography?  Start here!

In preparing the material for the just-completed webinar, Don’t Fear Your Flash, I had given some thought to where I should start with the material. Flash photography on one level is so simple once you “get it” … but from the outside, it can look intimidating and complex. I feel that flash photography is one of those subjects which start to make sense once you grasp a bunch-of-things simultaneously. But how to explain it all at once so that it makes sense?

So I wondered about where exactly I should start the material for the webinar. What should I start a seminar with when I have a 90 minute time limit? Camera settings? Aperture, ISO and shutter speed settings? Manual flash vs TTL flash? Metering for flash and ambient light?

During a test run with the Clickin Moms team who had arranged and hosted the webinar, I had to check voice levels, and was told to say something. I just started riffing on the idea of starting the webinar … and as I said, “where do we even start?” to the imagined audience, it hit me .. that’s exactly what we need to do. We just have to start. We just have to take those first photos!

We can spend too much time caught up in first trying to understand all the technical aspects and all the nuances of lighting. We can be too intimidated by all that to actually use a flash … when all we need to do as a start, is to actually start using the flash!

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adding bounce flash to ambient light

Using images from a past workshop, I want to explain a simple concept with flash photography on location. In workshops and seminars I quite often describe the flash as ‘riding on top of’ the available light exposure. It’s just another way of describing the usual technique of under-exposing the ambient light somewhat, and then using flash to give correct exposure. We can thereby control the final look of the image by controlling the direction of light from our flash.

By using flash like this, we can use the flash to ‘clean up’ the light in the photograph.

This photograph of Crystal, our model at this workshop, was taken during the early evening. We were working outside, using some of the found surfaces to bounce flash off.  The trick here is to find that combination of bounceable surface, a good background, and then to position your model so that the additional light from the flash adds to the final image. What I like about this specific image is how the sign (and the reflection of the sign) outside the hotel creates a halo around Crystal.

Here is the image without flash, and also a pull-back image to see what surface I bounced the flash off ..

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combining flash and ambient light

Going by the emails that I receive, one of the areas that many photographers struggle with is that of combining ambient exposure and flash exposure.  This question  is also expressed in other ways.  It can be a frustrated, “where do we even start?”  I also often see it expressed as an involved step-by-step deconstruction of technique, making the entire process more complex than it is.

In reply to that, and many other emails I’ve received in the past few months, I’d like to offer an analysis of a few images from a recent shoot.

One of my favorite clients has the most adorable baby boy that she wanted some portraits of.  I had to shoot fast, since his attention span was .. oh, zero.   He’s still a baby!  I also wanted to be able to cover myself in getting some available-light only portraits, and some with bounce flash.  I didn’t want the flash to be overwhelmingly bright.  And in bouncing the flash, there was also less chance of disturbing the baby.   So I had to mix it up in order to get some variety, and be sure of images that worked.

The image at the top was shot with the Nikon D3 and the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S
Lighting here was a combination of available light and bounce flash.  And as usual, I used the black foamie thing to flag the flash so NO light from the flashgun fell directly on the child.

camera settings:  1/100 @ f4.5 @ 640 ISO, using TTL flash
The FEC was not recorded, but would’ve been around 0EV because my flash isn’t merely fill-flash here, but fairly dominant.

Now where the settings look like they might be informative, I also often feel that these numerical values are a diversion.  Too many photographers will get hooked on the choice of f4.5 over another aperture.  Whey 1/100th of a second?  Why 640 ISO?

The truth is that this could’ve been a different combination of settings.  What is important here, is the quality of light.  It is our major concern here, and should interest us more than f4.5 at this moment.

The light on the baby’s face is directional.  There is more light coming from camera left .. and from this you should be able to deduce that I did indeed bounce my flash to my left.  Using that piece of black foam to flag my flash, I was able to get directional light like that.

The light is soft. Since I bounced my flash into the room, and it bounced off the walls, and furniture, I will have soft light.

So those two aspects of the light from my flash is easily understood – soft directional light.

Now let’s look at how I chose to balance my flash with the available light …

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why use an on-camera flash modifier that is black, instead of white?

This question repeatedly comes up as response to the various articles here on my favorite light modifier – the black foamie thing. For anyone new to this, here are the two main articles on how I use a piece of black foam to flag my on-camera speedlight.

The question invariably comes up:
why a piece of black foam and not a white card or a piece of white foam?

Looking at this image, which also appears in my book on flash photography:

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using bounce flash outdoors

January 3, 2008

using bounce flash outdoors

While the bounce flash techniques described on these pages are heavily dependent on shooting indoors which provide those places to bounce flash off … it wouldn’t seem possible to use these techniques outdoors.  After all, you can’t bounce flash off the clouds.  (Although we’ve all seen photographers attempt this outside.)

So while there are obvious limitations in applying these bounce flash techniques outdoors, there are times when these techniques can still be quite effective.

This example, also shown in the tutorial pages is of this image taken at a wedding that I photographed in Aruba.

Here I had my daughter hold up the gold side of the Lastolite reflector. And hopefully this gives the idea of light from the sun setting over the ocean. (It had just gone down, and the light was blandly grey.)

However, these bounce flash techniques do imply some kind of surface to bounce your flash off.  But you shouldn’t feel limited by not having an obvious area to bounce light off.

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