• April 6, 2020

Getting to Grips With Bounce Flash

Getting to Grips With Bounce Flash

Getting to Grips With Bounce Flash 1024 681 David Taylor

There are two ways to look at the problem of being confined to barracks for the duration. You can either go slightly potty from boredom. Or, and this is the option I’d recommend, learn a new photography technique or two. The skill I’m personally hoping to really get to grips over the next few weeks is mastering bounce flash.

I’m not a big fan of flash. Or rather I wasn’t. I’m now slowly coming round to the idea of keeping a flashgun (or speedlite, if you prefer) permanently in my camera bag. However, the one big problem with direct, on-camera flash is that the light isn’t exactly flattering. Shoot a portrait with flash and the result has all the aesthetic appeal of a police mug shot. (Which may be your preferred photographic style, or you’re a police photographer. In which case you can stop reading now.)

The most useful flashguns are those that have the widest range of possible bounce angles.

There’s not much you can do to modify the light from a camera’s built-in flash. However, fit an external flash to your camera’s hot shoe and things suddenly get more interesting. All but the cheapest external flashes let you adjust the angle of the head, either left or right, or up and down. This immediately gives you more scope to alter the light that illuminates your subject, including using the bounce flash technique mentioned above.

Direct, on-camera flash has two problems. The first is that the light is a frontal light. Frontal lighting tends to flatten your subject, making it look like a two-dimensional cut-out. The reason for this is that the shadows – which help to convey depth – are out of sight behind the subject. The second problem is that any shadows you do see are usually dense and dark, with hard, unattractive edges. (And highlights tend to be small and intensely bright too.) This is typical of all point light sources, such as direct, unmodified flash.


Shot with direct flash. Note the bright, overexposed highlights on the metal lens rim. 

This is where bounce flash comes in. It helps to reduce – even cure – both problems. To make use of the technique you need two things: a flash with a head that can be angled and a large flat surface, either above or to the side of your subject – a wall or ceiling, for example. The idea is that you angle the flash head so that the light emitted is bounced from the surface onto your subject.

By bouncing the light from the flash you turn it from a point light source into a diffuse light source. This softens and reduces the intensity of shadows and highlights, helping to reduce contrast. It also turns the flash from a direct light into either a side light (if you bounce the light from a wall) or a top light (if you use a ceiling), both of which are more interesting lighting schemes than frontal lighting.


The same setup, this time with the flash bounced from a handy ceiling above the subject. Note how softer and more even the lighting is.

Of course, there are a few issues that you may have to deal with. (Life’s never perfect, is it?) A flashgun has a limited amount of power, which is defined by its guide number. This means that at a given aperture and ISO a flashgun has a specific effective range. Use bounce flash and you immediately increase the distance the light from the flash has to travel to reach your subject. This can lead to underexposure if your flash isn’t powerful enough, or if you haven’t taken account of this extra distance when setting flash exposure. (The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the bounce surface will invariably absorb some of the flash light, particularly if it’s a matt surface or is relatively dark.) To overcome the problem either use a larger aperture or higher ISO to increase the flash’s effective range. This is especially important if the flashgun is already at maximum power.

Quick aside: you can either use TTL to automate flash exposure or set flash exposure manually. I prefer to use manual exposure, but that’s a personal choice. Within the limits of the maximum output of the flash, TTL exposure should still work when using the bounce flash technique. Use manual flash exposure and you will need to adjust the power of the flash accordingly.


Be prepared to experiment with the power of the flashgun when using manual flash exposure with the bounce technique. One thing is certain though, you’ll always need to use more power than when using direct flash.

Another problem you may encounter will depend on the colour of the surface. If it’s not neutral (basically not white or grey) then the light from the flash will be tinted. This can be attractive, particularly if the surface is warm in colour. However, it’s something to be aware of. (White balance may be issue though, particularly if there are other light sources helping to illuminate your subject.) For that reason, I prefer to use a large white reflector which doesn’t affect the colour of the flash light at all.


You can use ambient light with bounce flash. I use manual exposure (on the camera) and set the shutter speed to expose for the ambient, once I’ve set aperture and ISO for the flash exposure.

And that is essentially it. Bounce flash is an incredibly useful technique to master, and can help you shoot professional-looking shots with the minimum of equipment. Now excuse me while I go and find a low ceiling, a willing subject and some freshly recharged batteries to put in my flashgun…

This article was first published on Telephoto.com.

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