In this article, I’ll reveal the secrets of bounce flash. I’ll explain how you can use a single bounced flash for amazing portraits – and I’ll give you plenty of tips and tricks along the way.
Lots of beginners struggle with bounce flash photography, and it seems like an overwhelming and even technical subject. But I’ve been doing professional wedding photography for years, and I’m here to tell you that, with my carefully developed techniques, you can easily bounce your way to better photography!
In fact, here’s my promise:
Once you master the art of bouncing, you will never look back, and you’ll be able to capture pro-level images just like this one:
What is bounce flash?
Bounce flash is a technique where you fire your flashgun up or at an angle to bounce the light off a wall or ceiling. This is in contrast to standard flash, where you point the flashgun (or strobe) toward your subject.
Bounce flash is commonly used by event photographers, because it’s an easy way to turn a small, hard, hot-shoe mounted flash into soft, flattering light. You’ll also find bounce flash used in real estate photography and (occasionally) in portraiture.
Bounce flash vs direct flash: Why is bounce flash useful?
If you’re using a single flash mounted to your camera, and you aim it directly at your subject, you’re going to encounter two major issues:
- The light from a bare flash is “hard,” which looks terrible for most portraits and indoor images. Note that hard light produces defined edges and unpleasant shadows, whereas soft light keeps shadows soft and flattering. Portrait photographers are always trying to soften the light, which is why they use all sorts of modifiers – softboxes, octaboxes, scrims, and the like – but in many event photography situations, you simply cannot carry around a softbox while shooting!
- Direct flash is aimed straight toward the subject, which gives a very two-dimensional, deer-in-the-headlights look. In portrait studios, you’ll often find lights mounted to stands at various angles – but again, when shooting events, this often isn’t feasible.
Enter bounce flash, which allows you to create soft, flattering light and an angled lighting effect, while using a single flash mounted to your camera. Instead of pointing the flash directly at your subject and firing away, you simply angle it upward or to the side, let the light bounce off the wall, and – voila! – you get a beautiful result.
Confused? Don’t be. Below, I share a few examples to show you the benefits of bounce flash. This first image used direct flash:
As you can see, the image looks very much like a snapshot, with hard, unpleasant shadows and plenty of overexposed and underexposed details. Here is another, closer (direct flash) shot, which clearly emphasizes the hard shadow in the neck area and the flat lighting:
Compare the image above to the one below, which was shot with the flash tilted upward toward the ceiling. The light is much softer, and you can see that the shadow on the woman’s neck is softer:
However, the shot can be better. The overhead light, while softer, keeps the model’s face looking relatively flat. But by tilting the flash off to the left so that it bounces off the wall, you get improved three-dimensionality, soft light, and flattering shadows:
Nice, right? That’s the power of bounce flash. And as you hopefully saw (and I emphasize below), it’s actually quite easy to do.
How to bounce a flash: the basics
Now that you’re familiar with the value of bounce flash, I’ll take you through the simple, step-by-step bouncing process.
Step 1: Pick the right flash
First, you will need a hot shoe flashgun, one that allows you to both tilt and swivel the head. Note that some flashes only tilt, and this is not ideal, as it will prevent you from bouncing flash off to the side. Here’s a Phottix Mitros+ flash:
Step 2: Pick your subject and identify all bounceable surfaces
Next, you’ll need to identify your subject, which might be an individual, a couple, a group, or – if you’re a real estate photographer – an entire room.
Now look around. Determine your available bounce surfaces, including walls, ceilings, or even white vehicles. And ask yourself: Which of these surfaces are close enough to get a nice bounce, and offer the type of directional lighting that I’m after?
Here, you need to think like a studio photographer. If you could point the flash from a different direction, where would you position it? What’s the most flattering way to light your subject?
Step 3: Set the perfect bounce angle
For portrait photography, angled front/sidelight is generally best, so you might point your flash toward a wall off on the right or left. That way, you can achieve nice shadows and a three-dimensional subject. That’s what I generally do; I tilt my flash off to the side for those flattering shadows.
Yes, you can bounce the flash off a ceiling. But the result isn’t as three dimensional (remember the photos that I shared at the beginning of the article?), so if you have a side wall to use, then I recommend you go for that instead.
If you’re struggling to determine the right direction, here’s a pro tip that I learned from Jerry Ghionis: Just point your flash head in the same direction as the nose of the subject so you are bouncing. This will give you a nice, three-dimensional result.
Step 4: Fire the flash
Now you can take a shot or two (though don’t be afraid to make adjustments based on LCD feedback!).
Remember to readjust your flash direction if you go from portrait to landscape orientation (and vice versa).
And one final tip: Crop out the wall or ceiling that you are using as a bounce surface. That way you don’t end up with a distracting bright wall in your photo.
Bounce light camera settings
Choosing your camera settings in a bounce flash scenario is really all about exposure. You can approach this from two different directions:
- Automatic flash exposure
- Manual flash exposure
Personally, I rely on my Auto TTL system, so I simply dial in my camera settings (around 1/60s, ISO 1000, f/4) and let the system take care of the rest.
However, you can also dial in your camera settings, then manually adjust your flash power until you get the exposure you like!
In either case, you should take a test shot. If the result is too dark, try increasing the flash power, increasing the ISO, widening the aperture, or slowing down the shutter speed. If the result is too light, consider decreasing the flash power, decreasing the ISO, narrowing the aperture, or increasing the shutter speed.
In the image below, there is no obvious harsh shadow, there is nice light falloff and modeling on his face, and the surrounding area is properly exposed. I was kneeling down at the time, shooting at f/4, 1/30s, and ISO 1600, with the flash pointed camera left and tilted upward behind me about 45 degrees.
When to bounce the light
You know how to bounce the light for great results. But when should you do it?
Bounced light looks great when you have a nearby ceiling or wall (preferably white, so there is no color cast to the light). You can bounce a flash both indoors (it’s quite easy to do in a white house) and outdoors, though bouncing outdoors can be tough, as you need a surface to do the bouncing.
That said, while bounce flash is great, you shouldn’t use it all the time. There are certain scenarios where trying to bounce the light will actually hurt your images.
For instance, if there’s nothing to create bounce, or if the reflective surface is far off in the distance, don’t point your flash upward in the hopes of creating a flattering effect. I see photographers do this all the time, and it only serves to darken your subject.
If you’re not sure whether a surface might offer a good bounce, you can always test it. Put your camera in Manual mode and dial in a nice exposure. Then angle your flash toward the surface in question, take a shot of a nearby subject, then check your LCD. Then take a second shot, this time without any flash. Do you notice a difference? If the first shot is brighter than the second, that’s a good sign, but if the second shot is brighter – or equally bright – then you’ll either need to get closer to the bounce surface or ignore it entirely.
Plastic diffusers: are they necessary?
Many photographers use diffusers on top of their flash to spread the light in all directions. They mount on top of the flash, like this:
I have actually owned and tried most of the diffuser products, and while I have nothing against them, they’re not part of my kit. I prefer bare bulb bouncing for more directional light, but diffusers do the opposite!
Bounce flash photography: final words
Mastering bounce flash technique has really improved the quality of my work – and if you spend a little time practicing, I know it will help you, too.
So the next time you’re out shooting, bring a flash, and start looking for bounce-ready surfaces. Take some test shots, and see what you think. I’m guessing you’ll get some outstanding results!