A Quick Guide to Using Bounce Flash for More Natural-Looking Photos

Creating a portrait using flash is a whole lot more than just pointing your flash at your subject and taking the shot. Learning how to use flash creatively opens up a variety of new lighting options – which you can use to make the picture you envision in your head show up on your camera’s LCD screen. In this article, we’re going to look at using bounce flash.

Bounce flash is a handy trick you can use in a pinch to improve both the quality and amount of light in your finished picture using a flash unit right on top of your camera.

What is bounce flash?

Bounce flash is exactly what it sounds like. You aim the flash unit on your camera at a ceiling or nearby wall so that the light reflects off it and then back towards your subject.

This may seem like a really roundabout way of providing illumination, but there are a number of excellent reasons why you would want to bounce your flash, such as:

  • It quickly creates soft light.
  • It can be used to create directional light.
  • Helps you avoid the drawbacks of direct flash.

Let’s go through each of these points in more detail to get a better sense of how to use bounce flash to improve your photography.

1. How does bounce flash create soft light?

One of the most important factors in determining how soft the light in your image will be is the apparent size of the light source. Notice I said “apparent size” – not “actual size”.

Your pop-up flash or attached speedlight are small light sources – so if you aim them directly at your subject you get harsh lighting. This is why photographers often use softboxes, umbrellas or other modifiers to create a larger source of light – which makes the light softer.

You can use this same concept to quickly create a larger apparent light source by bouncing your flash off a roof or wall and spreading out the light.

2. How can bounce flash create directional light?

Understanding the direction from which the light is coming – and using that to your advantage – can have a huge impact on the quality of your photos.

Without flash, you’re at the mercy of whatever ambient lighting is available. When you are indoors in a dimly lit room, that ambient light is often rather unpleasant as the light usually comes from the ceiling overhead. This casts deep and dark shadows under people’s eyes – not at all a flattering look for a portrait.

By setting up near a wall, you can bounce your flash off it and effectively create a new light source that sweeps in from the side. Think of it as creating a new window to add more light to the scene. This new light will fill in those ugly shadows for a much more pleasing look.

3. How does bounce flash improve on direct flash?

Sometimes a direct flash can significantly improve an image. Sometimes it results in redeye, awkward shadows, and a deer-in-headlights look.

Using bounce flash solves the red-eye problem since that is caused by light reflected directly back at the camera from the back of the eyeball. When your main light is bouncing in from overhead or from the side, you can also say goodbye to large shadows cast by your subject onto the background.

Lastly, direct flash creates boring lighting that flattens facial features and textures. Bounce flash results in more sculpted light that can be used to accentuate features and show depth.

What do you need to get started with bounce flash?

In order to shoot bounce flash, the bare minimum you will need is an external flash unit with a head that can swivel and tilt.

If you are planning on buying a new flash, make sure to research how it can be maneuvered. Some cheaper models will provide more flash power than your standard in-camera pop-up flash, but if they can’t be adjusted to tilt and swivel then you won’t be able to use them for bounce flash lighting.

Balancing the light

When shooting with flash in a bright room, you need to perform a balancing act in order to keep the light looking natural. This is the case with bounce flash as well.

A flash picture essentially has two exposures:

  1. The ambient, or available light, which is all the light from windows, light bulbs, candles, chandeliers, etc.
  2. The light from your flash.

As the photographer, you need to balance these two exposures to create the image you want. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that you need to go around flicking light switches until you get the exact amount of brightness needed for each shot – your camera settings can control how much light will be in the final shot.