Bounce the Flash
You’ve done the research and bought the nice equipment. You’ve trained your eye with hours of practise, so much so that you know instinctively which aperture and focal settings to use. Still though, you feel that there’s something not quite right…
Might we suggest you bounce the flash?
Bouncing the flash allows you to create a soft lighting effect that is levels above the harsh glare of your built-in or hotshoe mounted direct flash. Let’s take a look at this technique and how it can elevate your photography.
What Is Bounce Flash?
Bounce flash is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the method of bouncing the light from your flash off of a surface around your subject, rather than hitting the subject itself. This turns that surface into a light source which bathes your subject in a softer, more natural looking light.
Illustration: Jim Sheeran
Why Not Aim Your Flash Straight At The Subject?
Direct flash is, ironically, not the brightest idea. It creates a hard, unnatural and washed out light which is detrimental to your imagery. It’s akin to seeing someone caught in the headlights of a car late at night, all ghostly glow and eyes ablaze. Compare this with how people look in daylight, bathed in sunlight which bounces off multiple objects before hitting the subject. That’s the effect we’re aiming to replicate with bounce flash.
There’s more to bounce flash however than simply replicating daylight. It also offers you opportunities to bring some drama to your photography, by controlling the shadows on your subject and allowing you to create nuance without the need for any extra equipment. For example, if you want to cast your subject’s face in shadow, you can bounce the flash off the wall behind them to backlight them and create a darkened, moody effect on their face.
What Tools Do You Need?
First things first, you’ll need a flash that can be controlled independently of your camera’s aperture setting.
One thing that I would recommend when using a ceiling to bounce the flash is to use a light modifier on the flash unit. Some units have this built in but if not, a piece of foamcore or cardboard will get that small highlight into your subject’s eyes. There is no end to the photographer’s imagination and innovation, and I’ve even seen a seasoned pro use a plastic spoon held on with two rubberbands to create this effect!
Illustration: Jim Sheeran
What To Consider
A good bounce flash photographer will understand angles in the same way a pool or snooker player does. In the same way the player manipulates the angles to make white ball hit the other balls effectively, a photographer bounces flash at an angle to hit their subject in the desired manner. You might not get it right first time, but just like players in pool halls, practise makes perfect and you can have a lot of fun trying.
To begin with, bounce your flash off of a neutral-coloured surface. This is because the colour of the surface changes the colour of the light hitting your subject, and a neutral surface will help keep lighting consistent.
That’s not to say you should stick to this however. There’s a lot of value and fun in experimenting with different surface colours and how it can change the effect on your pictures. For example coloured surfaces can give you warmer or cooler light on your subject, based on how red or blue they are respectively.
Correct exposure is key to using bounce flash effectively. As you are not directly hitting your subject with the flash, you should set a longer exposure time in order to reach the necessary levels of light intensity to correctly illuminate the subject. If your photo seems too washed out, reduce the power of the flash and try again, or decrease your aperture. Conversely, if the lighting seems insufficient for your needs, and increase the power and see if that helps. As always, experiment, experiment, experiment!
My favourite analogy for light spread is that if you hurl a bucketful of water off a six foot ladder the drops won’t spread as far as if you threw it from a second story window. (This is an example for illustration, please don’t try this!)
In a similar fashion, when you bounce your flash, distance is key. If your subject is too far from your bounce point, or the area in which you’re attempting to bounce light in is too big, then there won’t be enough light on your subject. For this reason it’s not common to use bounce flash outdoors, as it’s simply too big a space and your light will likely dissipate.
Now that you know the fundamentals of bounce flash, it’s time for you to get out and try this fun and useful technique for yourself.