Bounced Flash Photography

Take Better Flash Photos by Diffusing the Light from Your Flashgun

Young Woman Photographed with Bounced Flash and Yellow Background

Introduction to Bounced Flash

Ever since I bought my first SLR, I have experimented with bounced flash. I also tested various other methods of lighting but “bouncing” the flash was one of my first experiments. I think I read about it in a Photography Magazine in the early 1980’s. It was so exciting that I went out and bought a Vivitar 2500 flashgun with zoom, swivel and bounce facilities.

It was great and I loved it! In those days of non re-chargeable batteries, I think I got through quite a few alkalines.

Bounced flash could also be described as “defused light flash photography”. It takes some getting used to but when you get it right, the results are beautiful. The diffused light has a much more pleasing effect on your subject. Of course, nowadays, the flashguns are so much more user-friendly but you still need to know a few things.

Firstly, as you are re-directing the light away from the subject, you will need either more flash power. Or a wider aperture.

Why is that?

Well, assuming you are using a dedicated or automatic flashgun, and without getting TOO technical, all of the sensors in your camera and flashgun work together. So, your camera will tell the flashgun how far away your subject is and supply the required amount of light. For example, the subject is 3 metres away.

But! If this light is bounced from say, the ceiling, you have just extended the distance from flash to subject to around 5-6 metres. This normally means that not enough light will hit the subject and the picture will be UNDEREXPOSED!

How can I correct this?

Actually there are a few ways:

  • Open the aperture - By opening the aperture on the lens a couple of stops, you are letting more light into the camera. Doing this will compensate for the lack of bounced flash light hitting the subject. A longer shutter speed will not work. All that will do is to lighten up the background NOT the subject. Remember, the aperture controls the AMOUNT of light let in. The shutter speed controls HOW LONG it is let in for.
  • Increase the FEC+/- (Flash Exposure Compensation) - If you know where this is on your camera, up the FEC+/- by about 2 stops. What this actually does is trick the camera into thinking it has the correct setting. In reality, you have actually made the flash unit think it needs to give more power. By giving more power and light, again, this should compensate for the lack of bounced flash power otherwise.
  • Switch Flash to Manual - This is a little more tricky as the flash will normally just give you full power. You are then in danger of OVEREXPOSING the subject. You will need to close the aperture more to compensate for the extra power and light coming from the flash unit. It is also more time consuming as you need to use the guides to work out the “distance of subject” to “aperture setting” ratio.

Bounced Flash doesn’t just have to be bounced from the ceiling (although this is quite effective and quick). You can bounce the flash from a bright wall, a white sheet or even a piece of hand held card.

Can I see some examples?

You don’t need a complicated set up in order to achieve a studio look. For this shot of Sonia and Dillon, I simply used one bounced Flash and available light. This particular flash gun has 2 flashes. The main on top which can be tilted and swiveled, and a smaller, fixed flash which is used as a fill-in flash. 

For this next example of my Son’s Toys, each toy had to be photographed quickly. I had no time to set up the studio. Therefore, I simply:

  • Placed each toy on a white card
  • Bounced the flash directly upwards from the ceiling (as I was pretty close)
  • Took a few test shots to get the correct aperture
  • Repeated for each toy once I had the correct exposure

You can see the toys are evenly lit and the shadows are nicely diffused.

Can you set me a task?

Ok, as a practice, try one the following (best with digital as not to waste film if you shoot analogue). Ask a friend or family member to act as a model (I've used my camera here). Attach your flashgun to the camera, turn it on and set it to auto. Tilt the flash-head upwards at an angle of about 45° (or even straight up if they are not far away) between you and the subject.

Use the aperture to control the light

Set the shutter speed on your camera to 60th/sec and the aperture to f.11. Take one photo. Then open the aperture one stop and take another photo from the same position. Repeat this until you reach f.4 and then go through the photos to see which gives the best results.

Click for larger images below...

F11, 60th/sec, ISO 100, No Flash

F5, 60th/sec, ISO 100, No Flash

F2.8, 60th/sec, ISO 100, No Flash

Use FEC (flash exposure compensation) to control the light

Now, set the shutter to 60th/sec again and the aperture to f.8. This time take a series of photos still using bounced flash. However, this time adjust the FEC+/- (If you have it on your camera) from -2 up to +2 taking one photograph at each stop. Again, review the pictures and see which one works the best.

Lastly, set the camera on a tripod (If you have one) and set the aperture to whatever gave the best results in the first task. Again, set the flash to auto (and bounced flash) and turn off any room lights. Set the shutter speed to the fastest flash sync speed (normally 200th/sec). Take a photo.

Now use the shutter to control the light

Next take a series of photographs whilst slowing the shutter speed for each shot. Do this until you get to a reasonably slow exposure. What you will see when you review, is that the subject should stay reasonably well exposed, whilst the background gets lighter with each slower shutter speed.

200th/sec, F8, ISO 100, Bounced

60th/secF8, ISO 100, Bounced

20th/secF8, ISO 100, Bounced

Young Girl Screaming at Camera

In this case, 200th/sec @ f8 with bounced flash worked like a charm to get a balanced exposure. This is a great tip if you are using bounced flash and need background detail. Also, the faster the shutter speed, the blacker the background becomes which could also be a desired effect.

For example, the shot to the left (or above/below if you are on a mobile device) was taken in full sunlight using the methods above.

If you practice long enough with these, you will eventually “just know” what settings the camera and flash need for each occasion. Very handy at weddings etc where you don’t have the time to practice!

Young Girl Smiling at Camera for Portrait

© Image Copyright All Things Photography - Flash bounced from a wall to the subject's right

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