using on-camera bounce flash outdoors at night

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.

Here is a quick grab-shot with my camera which had the 24-70mm f2.8 on, so that you can see what I bounced my flash off – that part of the building over where the guests arrive.

Because I had to bounce my flash partly forward, towards the couple, I had to flag my flash. Black Foamie Thing to the rescue! As always, the idea with using the BFT to flag my flash, is to block any flash falling directly on my couple. This way I can get soft indirect light, similar to using an off-camera softbox. Of course, I had to be at fairly extreme settings on my camera to make this work in this case.


camera and flash settings & equipment used (and equivalents)

camera settings: 1/60 @ f2.8 @ 1600 ISO; TTL flash
The lens was zoomed to 70mm for this specific image.


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.



Oh, about those sloping verticals – that light pole is actually skew! And the kerb does slope outward like that.

Working fast like this, with a flexible idea of what is possible in bouncing on-camera flash, I was able to get an image which really looks good. Ultimately though, on-camera bounce flash is just one part of any photographer’s lighting arsenal.

48 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1 says

    Neil – You have become my photographic guru! I have to admit to checking out your site at least once a day – sometimes several times more. I’ve been very interested in the constant reference to the Black Foamy Thing and this current article really does it for me. I can suddenly really see just what the benefit is to using that little ‘device’. Pure Magic!
    I shot a roll of film this weekend past (in Sydney, Australia)and used the ambient light/flash exposure techniques that you so frequently espouse, and I was very happy with the results. Hope you head this way soon – I sense that you already have a substantial following here.

    So, photographic messiah, I thank you for your inspiration and teaching and hope that your continue to prosper.



  2. 2Wiz says

    Neil, great info !!
    I am just amazed of the power of that speedlite.
    Do you think that would be possible with a 430EX II ?

  3. 3 says

    I’m not sure the 430EX II would’ve been up to the task, although I have to admit that the original (RAW) image was over-exposed by about 1/2 a stop. But I still think it would’ve been more than the 430EX II is capable of. This type of situation really needs a berried flashgun like the 580EX II or the SB-900.

    Neil vN

  4. 5 says

    Every time I use TTL at night with low ambient light, my histogram is skewed to the left (left to middle of the histogram). Is that how your shots turn out?

    The image ends up fine overall, but I’ve lost a lot of data in the image.

  5. 6 says

    The histogram will be skewed t the left because of all the darker tones in the image. However, this photo was over-exposed by 1/2 a stop, so I still had to pull the exposure down a touch on the RAW file.

    Neil vN

  6. 7Scott says

    Hi Neil,

    The flash must be the dominant light source for the subject so is this a case of ‘dragging the shutter’ to let the background ambient register nicely and then letting TTL flash do the rest? Aperture and ISO settings to get best reach out of the flash gun given what you were bouncing off?

    Thanks for all the great articles,

  7. 9stakx says

    Great location– looks like a movie or theatrical set. I remember the couple’s engagement photos.

  8. 11 says

    Great photograph and fabulous use of the wall surface to the right. I was curious why you used a smaller aperture to get greater depth of field. A little surprised you didn’t choose a softer background with your f/2.8 lens.


  9. 12 says

    Bob … I’m not quite following you here.

    I shot at f2.8 … wide open on that zoom lens. Why would I need more DoF ?
    And how would I choose a softer background ?

    Neil vN

  10. 14 says

    Hi Neil, since reading your bounced flash + BFT, I’ve been bouncing off everything, even outside: cars, trees, other people.
    I’d imagine to pull off your shot, you needed a fairly high ISO for the flash to register, especially with the wall so far away.
    I’ve tried something similar during a sunset portrait with some problems: to underexpose and saturate the sky, I needed a low ISO. After bouncing the flash at a nearby wall, it was difficult to get the subject to be exposed properly – probably because the ISO was too low to “register” the flash.. any tips on these situations? Thanks!

  11. 15 says

    Bouncing your flash implies a loss of power. It isn’t an efficient way of using your flash’s output. So you won’t be able to bounce flash at low ISO settings (or small apertures), or in daylight or anytime the ambient light is strong, since this will imply settings where your flash runs out of juice. It just can’t deliver what you’re trying to do with it.

    For that, you’re better off using a softbox or something similar.

    Neil vN

  12. 16Edy says

    Hello Neil,
    I have a great doubt.
    In this photo you said that to achieve the shot you would need a very high ISO (1600) to get the flash on TTL married couple.
    If I remember correctly, the FLASH TTL is not ‘affected by ISO and shutter opening.
    Iso opening distance and power of the flash manual flash only influence.
    In TTL flash shutter speed and aperture and ISO affect ONLY the background … and ‘correct?
    So to increase the power of a TTL flash I just have to act on comprnsazione Ev (+1, +2, +3).
    Why ‘increase ISO to increase the power of the flash TTL when the flash output in TTL is controlled only with a positive EV??

    Thanks Neil you’re always the best source of my inspiration and constant.

    Edy trigona Genoa Italy

  13. 17 says

    Edy … you have to consider the complete equation here.

    TTL flash exposure is not affected by change in aperture or ISO, since the camera and flash are working together to dump more (or less) light to still give you correct exposure for how you are changing aperture / ISO settings.

    Remember, for manual flash, exposure is determined by aperture / ISO / distance / power.

    So the power of the flash plays a distinct role. So your camera is telling the flash to dump more power .. but at some point the flash can’t cope with what you’re demanding off it. There just isn’t any juice left in it. That means you have to change your aperture / ISO combination so that your flash is capable of delivering enough power.

    With the same reasoning, it doesn’t just help to increase the FEC … because at some point you run out of juice. There just is no more.

    Neil vN

  14. 18 says

    Neil, Wonderful post! I must say your new book “Off Camera Flash” is the one of best photo books I have ever read!

  15. 19Jerry says

    Mornin’. Since this is vertical image and the light is coming from camera right, did you basically shoot with the camera in reverse? Otherwise the flash would’ve been aimed to the left. I’ve never tried that before. I see more and different practice in my future if that’s how you did it.

  16. 20 says

    Jerry, I held my camera with the camera in the palm of my right hand, so that the flash could point to my right.

    “camera over hand” vs “hand over camera”.

    Neil vN

  17. 21Kyle says

    I know it’s probably more case-specific than anything, but when using TTL flash as the main source when bouncing it, are you generally using it around +2, or maybe higher? (This photo, e.g.)

    I almost always use manual flash, but I’m trying to make clear to myself when TTL makes more sense, and how to arrive at a +/- setting intuitively based on a particular situation.

    And secondly, when dragging the shutter and using flash as your main light source, how much do you “let up” on the “rule” of (roughly) 1/focal length as your shutter speed? Especially during reception photos, when people are moving a lot.

    Hopefully my questions make some semblance of sense, any thoughts appreciated. Thanks Neil!

  18. 22 says

    2 stops over-exposure would be 2 stops over-exposure .. even though the TTL flash metering often suppresses the flash exposure in relation to the ambient light.

    Also, with strong backlighting, you may want to push the FEC that high. But this was not that scenario. I had my flash set to 0EV compensation. That was a little too strong, since the Nikon D3 and SB-900 tend to over-expose at 0EV … I usually dial it down to -0.7EV as my default.

    1/(focal length) .. that didn’t quite enter in my reasoning here since I used a lens with excellent stabilization. However, since I was working fast, I didn’t want to pull the shutter speed very low.

    Do keep in mind that the 1/(focal length) rule of thumb is meant for camera shake .. ie, your movement. Not the movement of your subjects.

    Generally, use as high a shutter speed as possible to minimize camera shake.

    Neil vN

  19. 25Paul Bohman says

    This is a stellar example of the technique. I’ve been able to bounce the flash off of outdoor structures too, but rarely do you get something so big and white as the structure you had here. The photo looks great.

  20. 27 says

    Eduardo, I had probably kept my flash zoomed to whatever I had it set while working indoors. (Probably zoomed to around 200mm or such). I didn’t take particular note.

    Neil vN

  21. 28 says

    Hi Neil,

    I am impressed by the focus behind the couple. I thought it would have been softer at f/2.8. That is all I meant to say. Thanks for clarifying. The photograph is something we would all like to achieve. Your help is appreciated.


  22. 29 says

    Hi Neil — this is my first note here. I’m just an amateur who loves portraits now and then when I get the chance. I found your site a few months ago after a frantic search on the Internet — because I had to use flash for the first time at an indoor event (and also purchased your book). Just want to say that you’ve been an amazing teacher. Thanks for so generously sharing your knowledge!

  23. 32Niko, Philippines says


    I’m a long time reader, but here’s my first note :)

    I’m curious about the pull back shot where you included the white wall where you bounced your flash. I noticed that the couple were still underexposed.

    Did you increase the FEC for the main photo of the couple?

    Or did you intentionally darken the couple in post to emphasize the wall (2nd image)?

    Thanks! And I really love your blog!

  24. 33 says

    Niko, the 2nd image was just a quick grab shot to show what I had bounced my flash off. As such, its only use is to see the wall in relation to the couple.

    I didn’t have time to make a carefully controlled pull-back shot, since we were working in a hurry. So don’t read too much information into it.

    Neil vN

  25. 35bradleywalter says

    Just phenomenal. It really is world class stuff you’re giving us here, Neil. Thanks for this one. Tied it all together for me rather abruptly.


  26. 36Ben says

    Hi Neil

    Have been reading your tangents for a few months and have been super pumped at all the great info.


    I do have a quick question from a rookie :)

    How did you handle the white balance in this shoot?


  27. 38Ed says

    Hi Neil,

    Great shot in a less than idea location! A couple of questions. Firstly, in some previous posts, you’ve mentioned Quantum flashes. Could you see yourself using a Quantum flash on a bracket to squeeze out lower ISO? I’ve been looking into a Quantum setup and wondered how that would affect my workflow.

    Secondly, what do you look out for in order to make sure the groom doesn’t cast a shadow on the bride?


  28. 39 says

    Ed, I’ve long ago passed up on the idea of using a Q-flash (on a bracket) on my camera when I found the output was only linear over a 3 stop range. With wider apertures (and higher ISO settings) it would over-expose, regardless. I found that speed lights are better integrated with the ca,era’s metering and capable of more subtle results. Admittedly I haven’t kept up with the latest Q-flashes such as the Trio.

    So this is where I am in situations like these – I either use speed lights or video light.

    As for the groom not blocking the light on her… simple posing technique on the spot, re-affirmed by checking the camera’s preview.

    Neil vN

  29. 40 says

    great shot an thanks for the information!
    if you keep hammering this into my head it may stick someday. i forget about some/allot of the bounce possibilitys out there.

    thanks again.

  30. 42Rick says

    The white wall used for bounce now becomes a MAJOR distraction in a photo that is about the bride and groom. Bounce flash is fine as long as the surface you are bouncing off does not overwhelm the actual photo itself.

  31. 43 says

    Rick, I’m not following you on this. How is the wall that I’m bouncing the flash off, now becoming a distraction?

    Or are you referring to the pull-back shot? That’s for reference only.

    Neil vN

  32. 44 says

    This is a great solution to lighting, and I like the overall look, but am surprised no one has mentioned the dark shadow cast on the groom’s face, with his right eye almost completely in shadow, which most wedding clients would find objectionable.Turning him more towards your light source would minimize that.

  33. 45 says

    Colleen, true, the lighting here isn’t studio-perfect. For me though, the photo here is more about the location and mood of the place. Also, the speed with which we worked was necessary at the time. Finally, the client loves the photograph, and this to me, seals the deal – the image works.

    Neil vN

  34. 46 says

    Neil, how would you shoot a house & backyard party with on-camera? Balanced ambient with flash mounted CTO gel indoors bounced off wherever I want to direct the light (ceilings/walls/corners) is what I would guess might work ok for inside – but what about outside, just say there is no roof and no walls or windows to bounce off? What do you when you can’t actually angle the light towards anything other than the subject? Without going off-camera.

Leave a Reply

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