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Bounce Flash in Photography: The Essential Guide

Do you want to create beautiful photos using bounce flash techniques?

Bouncing your flash is one of the simplest ways to get gorgeous light–and it doesn’t require much equipment, either. 

So if you’re interested in discovering how you can use bounce flash for amazing results…

…read on.

What Is Bounce Flash?

First things first:

Bounce flash refers to a flash technique where you use the building interior as a reflector. In other words, instead of pointing the flash at your subject, you point it at a wall or a ceiling, then allow the reflected light to illuminate your subject. 

It can produce soft, even results, like this:

Though you have a surprising amount of flexibility, and can use it to light your subject from different angles and with different amounts of harshness

Note that bounce flash is generally done with a flash mounted to your camera’s hot shoe, though you can technically do it with off-camera flashes mounted on light stands. 

When Should You Use Bounce Flash?

Whenever you’re working with a movable flash (that is, a flash that you can adjust the angle), then it’s a good idea to bounce it, unless you have some form of light modification available (e.g., a softbox or an umbrella).

Why?

Because unmodified flashes look terrible. They give your subject a flat, unpleasant look, with contrasty shadows that just aren’t flattering. 

(Yes, there are a few exceptions. But not many!)

So if you’re in a situation where you’re working with a naked flash and you don’t have access to any modifiers, you’re probably going to want to bounce it. 

You see, the softness of the light is about size, where the bigger the light source, the softer the light. 

A naked flash is very narrow, which means that you get harsh, contrasty light.

But if you take the flash and you bounce it off the wall, the light becomes much broader. And you get a softer effect, as if your flash was very large to begin with. 

(This is what light modifiers generally do, by the way; they widen the flash to cover more area, and thus create a softer effect.)

You might also want to use a bounce technique if you’re working with a camera-mounted flash and you want shadows coming from different directions. 

For instance, say you wanted a three-dimensional, sidelit effect, like this:

Well, with a flash that comes from the same angle as your lens/camera, it’s just not achievable. 

Normally, you’d achieve the sidelit effect by taking the flash off the camera and triggering it from a distance. But if that setup isn’t available to you, or you just don’t have the time, you can bounce the light off a wall and create the desired shadows anyway.

Here’s the bottom line:

Whenever you want soft light, or whenever you want non-direct shadows, you can use a bounce effect. Sure, it’s not as flexible or as powerful as a flash with modifiers or a flash mounted to a lightstand, but it’ll still give you a good result.

What Equipment Do You Need to Create a Bounce Flash Effect?

As long as you can direct the flash, you can use the bounce flash technique. 

So that means speedlights that allow the head to rotate (this is very common!) are generally fine for bounce flash. 

But a pop-up flash won’t work, because they only have one direction: straight ahead. 

Note that you can also use the bounce flash technique with studio strobes and the like, but there’s generally not much of a point if you have a sufficient number of modifiers to achieve the look you’re after. 

The Bounce Flash Basics

Now let’s take a look at how you can create a beautiful bounce flash effect.

Choose Your Flash Angle

Bounce flash starts with the right angle. By bouncing the flash in different ways, you’ll end up with different shadow shapes, which can easily make or break a photo. 

Really, you need to think of the surfaces around you as a sort of mirror, and think of your flash as a laser beam. Then ask yourself: If you fired the flash at the wall, how would it reflect? 

So if you want to create shadows under your subject’s nose and chin, you’ll want to fire the flash at the ceiling above. 

If you want to create shadows on the left side of your subject’s face, then point your flash at the wall to the right. 

And you can fine-tune the shadows even further by thinking about the intensity of the angle. A steep angle will reflect back steeply, whereas a shallow angle will reflect back shallowly.

Really, I’d recommend that you experiment with different angles. You’ll get the hang of it quickly–just be willing to make a few mistakes when you’re starting out.

Bounce Off a Neutral Area

Here’s a basic pitfall of bounce flash photography:

You bounce the flash off a colorful wall.

And you end up with a strangely-colored photo. 

This is not at all desirable, and can ruin a photoshoot if you’re not careful.

Why?

Because flashes take on the color of the wall they’re reflected off of. So if you bounce a flash off a blue wall, you’ll end up with a blue color cast, and that’s generally not the goal.

That’s why I’d suggest finding a neutral wall (such as a bright gray or a white), instead of a colorful wall. 

And note that the darker the wall, the less powerful the bounce will be. White walls are great, but black walls will get you barely any bounce at all.

Carefully Choose the Right Settings for a Nice Exposure

Flash exposure can be a tricky subject. 

Now, if your flash has through-the-lens metering options, you’ll often just let the flash do its thing and fire off images. 

But with bounce flash, you’re going to have to switch your flash over from TTL metering to manual exposure, because the bounce will lessen the flash strength and will give you images that are very underexposed if you aren’t careful.

I’d recommend starting with your flash at a power of around 1/8th or so. Make sure your aperture is at whatever you setting you like (for artistic purposes), set your base ISO (often ISO 100), and your shutter speed at your flash sync speed (which is generally 1/160s or 1/200s).

Take a test shot. And see how things look.

If things are too bright, you can narrow your aperture or drop your flash power.

If things are too dark, you can increase your flash power, widen your aperture, or–if the ambient light is too dark, but the “flashed” areas seem well-exposed–drop your shutter speed. 

Then take another test shot, make any necessary adjustments, and continue until you get the result you want!

Avoid High Ceilings and the Outdoors

Here’s your final bounce flash photography tip:

The farther your flash has to travel when bouncing, the weaker the effect will turn out. 

Which means that you won’t be able to bounce a flash off a very high ceiling, because it’ll just be too far away for a noticeable effect. 

And you definitely won’t be able to bounce a flash outdoors, because the sky will just absorb the light and leave you with nothing. 

Instead, bounce off walls and low ceilings. It may take a bit of searching, but you’ll find some good bounce surfaces if you put in the work!

Bounce Flash Photography: Conclusion

You may not be especially familiar with bounce flash techniques, but they can be a real lifesaver–especially in situations where you only have a naked flash on hand and can’t move it off your camera. 

So don’t be afraid to get creative with bounce flash. 

You can use it for some beautifully lit images.

Is bounce flash better than direct flash?

That depends on your goal. If you want softer images with elegant shadows, bounce flash is going to be a good option. But for vibrant, intense images, direct flash will do the job well.

Can you use bounce flash outdoors?

Not really. If there’s a low overhang or a wall, you can certainly bounce your flash off of that, but you cannot point your flash upward and expect it to bounce off the atmosphere, I’m afraid.

Can you bounce a flash off of walls?

Absolutely! You can bounce your flash off of any bright surface, as long as it’s near enough to your subject for a well-exposed result. Be careful to avoid colorful surfaces, though, because the flash will become tinted the color of the wall.

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