what do you do when you can’t bounce your flash?
A question that I’m often asked in emails or on this site or in person is, “what do I do when I have nothing do bounce my flash off?” Sometimes the question seems to be directed as a challenge, but mostly I think photographers are hoping for a great solution that may have evaded them. Maybe, just maybe there might be a technique that could help when faced with super-high ceilings and wooden walls.
My usual reply is that that little speedlight only has so many electrons that can be turned into photons. There is only so much we can do with bounce flash …
The image above was sent in by one of the readers of the blog, and is typical of those scenarios where I realize I have no easy way out. There just isn’t anywhere to effectively bounce flash off.
Much of this website deals with ways of bouncing flash, eg:
1. We can rely on high ISO capabilities of our cameras and wider apertures to allow more light in.
2. There are sometimes innovative ways to bounce flash, for example:
- using on-camera bounce flash outdoors at night (wedding: Jen & Chris)
- using on-camera bounce flash outside (model: Precious)
- bouncing flash off an outdoor shop-front
- bouncing flash off a brick wall
But despite pushing the limits of our cameras and lenses and on-camera flashguns … there are those times when we’re just out of reach of what is physically possible with our equipment.
Then we have to improvise or perhaps accept that we simply are in a situation where there are no easy options. So while I did once reply to this question about bouncing flash in these impossible places, “you’re screwed” .. I’d still like to offer some suggestions and help.
We may have to use additional lights.
We may have to use umbrellas and softboxes … although these aren’t always practical at events,
We might very well have to resort to plastic diffuser cups on our speedlights, or even direct flash.
I’ve even seen suggestions of a portable umbrella bracket like this one:
Now, I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say you’d look like a clown waltzing around with one of these at an event, but it can’t be described as unobtrusive. It will give you pretty awesome light in any venue where you have a black ceiling and black walls .. but I don’t quite think it will be practical at most events. But, there is that option. Just so you know.
I recently had to photograph a wedding at a museum where the reception room had black walls and a black ceiling. There was simply no room to put up additional lights. I had to resort to my usual technique when in a pinch like this .. I put a wireless TTL transmitter on my camera (such as the Canon ST-E2 or Nikon SU-800), and hold my speedlight up in my left hand with a diffuser over the speedlight. This way I am still trying to get directional light to my flash, even if it is a hard light from a small light source.
Sometimes you have to rely on high ISO and wide apertures to grab any of the available light. Such a church is West Point Military Academy, NY. No flash is allowed, and you have to rely on the ambient light.
However, if the light levels are too low .. lower than the point at which you can get away with a reasonable shutter speed, then you have to use flash. As an example, here is just such an intimidating example for someone wanting to use just on-camera flash bounce flash:
There simply is nowhere to bounce flash off in this location.
Since there is nowhere practical to bounce flash off, and off-camera lighting isn’t feasible … then you have to pick your favourite light diffuser for your flash, or even resort to hard direct flash. I try and stay away from this last desperate option though.
Finally, there are no easy answers. No quick options that will still give you wonderful light in such challenging indoor settings. You have to adapt and improvise .. and sometimes you accept the limitations of where you are and what your equipment is capable of, and use direct flash.