The Basics of Bounce Flash
by Chris Gampat -  1/14/2011

If you proclaim that you're a natural light photographer when the issue of purchasing an external flash comes up, consider yourself one of many. It's possible that the reason why many people say this is because they're afraid that their images will come out looking overexposed with large areas totally blown out in the histogram. We're here to take your fear away with an easy to swallow guide to using a bounce flash.


What is bounce flash?
Bounce flash is taking the light emitted from a flash's head and aiming it toward a surface away from your subject so as to illuminate them with soft, subtle, even lighting. In English, that means that if you purchase something like a Canon 580 EX II that your flash will almost never be pointing forward at your subject. Also note that bounce flash requires a flash unit with a tiltable and adjustable head.

So what are your options? Since the flash head swivels up and down and around in a hokey-pokey fashion, aiming the light at another surface is what your exposures will be all about. If your subject is right in front of you and there is a wall positioned behind you, aiming the flash towards the wall is a smart idea. Here's what happens:

Of course, this is only one way to use a bounce flash. You can always point it towards the ceiling, which is one of the most common tactics of most photographers.

Additionally, you can even use items like bounce cards, reflectors and Rogue Flashbenders to add further versatility. The latter can be molded and shaped into nearly anything you'd like and will help you save space in your camera bag when traveling.

Why should I get a bounce flash?
The main reason to go out and purchase a bounce flash is because you'll be able to shoot better quality photos. Additionally, it will get the creative juices going for ideas and projects using the brand new DSLR that you've recently purchased.

Even with the proper settings, professional quality images can be shot with a point-and-shoot camera and bounce flash.

Believe it or not, adding a bounce flash to your camera will futureproof it for a longer period of time. Think of it this way: why upgrade to a newer DSLR if you can take better photos with your older one? Sure you may want HD video like in some of the newer models, but you won't necessarily be able to shoot better photos with a newer DSLR. Using a bounce flash can breathe new life into your older camera.

What does it look like in practice?
Here are a couple of photos to illustrate the points.

Bounce Flash

In all of these photos, I'm using the Canon 5D Mk II, 85mm f/1.8 and 580 EX II flash. There is scaffolding right above us, a wall on my right and empty street to my left. For this photo, I bounced the flash up at the ceiling: which illuminated it and turned it into a giant softbox. The problem with this method is that it created lots of shadows under her eyes, under her nose, and under her chin. In the process, the image really isn't all that flattering either. Some of the highlights are also blown out as you can see on her forehead.

Bounce Flash

For this photo the flash was bounced up and to the right: therefore aiming at the upper part of the wall on my right. The result still delivers some shadows on Kristen's face, but the image is much more flattering. For this image, you can imagine the equivalent of a giant softbox being placed up and to my right.

Bounce Flash

This time, I aimed the flash totally to the right. As you can see the image is very flattering. There is a harsh shadow under her chin though: this problem could've been solved with a reflector on my left.

For this image, it would be best to imagine a softbox being placed to my right.

Bounce Flash

So what would happen if I didn't use flash at all? Well I'd have to totally change my exposure settings and you'd end up with the shadows you see above. Notice the shadows under her eyes and chin. No one ever wants to see those.

A key to lighting that I was taught in cinematography was to imagine that the entire scene went to black and you had to light it one light at a time. Then I needed to imagine what each light would do to the scene. The same applies to using flash except that in some situations, there will be lights present. You'll just need to take very careful notice of the lights around you and figure out what effect they are creating.