Bounce flash photography. It sounds like a complicated procedure, one of those mythical flash techniques we try desperately to avoid.
We’ve all been there. You’re at a party or gathering and want to take a picture that captures the atmosphere of the moment. When shooting in low light, your first instinct is probably to use a tripod with a long shutter speed, or increase the ISO to shoot handheld.
But if you’re taking pictures of people indoors at a party you can forget the first option; your subjects won’t keep still! A high ISO can often work because it preserves atmosphere. But you get grainy pictures and have to use the widest aperture and slowest shutter speeds possible.
Using a bounce flash technique is your most flexible option in this scenario, and it’s also remarkably easy to do. You can stay mobile, and you have a greater range of shutter speeds and apertures to choose from. You can also use a low ISO setting to retain image quality.
By bouncing flash off the ceiling or a wall, rather than firing it directly at your subject, your flash light becomes more diffuse and even. As such, pictures that employ bounced flash look much more natural. In fact, if this bounce flash technique is done well, people won’t be able to tell that flash has been used at all.
Most external flashguns have a bounce flash facility, though some have more flexibility to turn and tilt the head. All modern guns also have a TTL, or through-the-lens, mode. This ensures that the extra power needed from the flash is set automatically.
But be warned, as bounce flash techniques can sometimes look bland if the light is just too even! Portraits also lack sparkle, as eyes don’t have ‘catchlights’ (the small, bright reflections of flash in people’s eyes). To add these, use the pull-out ‘bounce card’ found on many hotshoe guns. This white plastic sheet directs some of the flash output straight at the subject, giving a smidge of direct light and adding mirror-like catchlights. So without further ado…
Bounce Flash Photography in 4 Simple Steps
Step 1: Control the exposure
The camera and flash can be set to take care of the flash exposure for you, even when you’re bouncing the light. Set the flashgun to its TTL mode. Use the Aperture Priority (A) exposure mode on your digital camera, so that you can set a wide aperture that suits most portraits.
Step 2: Find the right surface
Check the colour of the ceiling; white is ideal, but off-white will do. We’re used to things being lit from above, so ceilings provide natural-looking illumination. You can bounce flash off a white wall too, as this can look like window light.
Step 3: Pull out the bounce flash card!
The secret weapon for making bounce flash portraits look alive, with engaging catchlights in your subject’s eyes, is a white plastic bounce card. This slots in above the flash and is pulled out with the wide-angle diffuser. Remove both, then push back the diffuser.
Step 4: Compensation culture
Look at your results carefully on the back of your digital camera, checking the histogram for signs of both over- and underexposure. If the flash isn’t bright enough, or is too bright, use the flash exposure compensation facility to increase or decrease the light level.
7 quick bounce flash photography tips
Tip 1: Use fresh batteries
Bounce flash needs four times more power than direct flash. Use fresh batteries and take spares so a flash recycles fast.
Tip 2: Increase your ISO
Don’t leave ISO set at 100. To prolong battery life and speed up recycle times, boost sensor sensitivity to at least ISO400.
Tip 3: Shoot in raw
Colour balance, contrast and exposure issues are common with flash. Shoot in RAW (or RAW+JPEG) to correct problems later on.
Tip 4: Use what’s available
Not all flashguns have a bounce card to give frontal fill and catchlights. But a bit of card and a rubber band will do just as well.
Tip 5: Try white paper
For vertical-format shots, the bounce card will be in the wrong place. Hold white paper behind the flash head instead.
Tip 6: Ceiling the deal
Make sure your ceiling is white, or near white, or your subject will be the colour of the paintwork!
Tip 7: Find a new angle
If the ceiling is too high, angle your flashgun so it lets you bounce flash off a white wall behind or beside you.