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How to Bounce On-Camera Flash for Better Portraits

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One of the most common pieces of lighting advice for photographers getting into portraiture is to move the flash off camera to get the best-quality light. Ideally, you would always have the time, space, and resources to move your light onto a light stand. In reality, this isn't always possible. While it's generally more pleasing to have your light off-camera, sometimes you face situations where you just have to make do.

A friend of mine had the battery in his camera burst into flames on a shoot. Once, during a wedding, a bystander knocked my light off the stand and the flash, trigger, and umbrella exploded into a mangled wreck. Or, last week, my assistant got heatstroke and I wasn't able to find anyone on short notice. There are any number of pressure situations where you simply can't set up lights. No matter what happens, it's still your job to make the best photos you can. Bouncing your on camera flash can still yield tremendous results when you're in a pinch.

Why is it so important to learn how to bounce light? Bare flash is a small light source that creates small specular highlights. If you've ever taken a selfie in a bar and sheen the light sheen off you or your friend's forehead, then you've seen specular highlights. A larger light source lessens that harsh contrast and creates a more diffused, flattering look. Luckily, your small, specular light source can become a large, diffuse light source simply by bouncing the light.

Bounced Flash Creates a Big Light Source

Bounce Your Light Off the Ceiling

If you're inside, there's a ceiling. Instead of blasting your subject in the face, bounce the light off the ceiling! This is a trick used by photographers everywhere because it works to spread the light evenly and is flattering to everyone. The only problems with this technique are when the ceilings are black or very high. Beware, if you are standing very close to your subject this method can create dark circles under the eyes.

Bounce Your Light Off the Walls

If you have a wall, you have a light diffuser. Stand with your subject beside the wall, aim your light to the side (and up the wall a bit as well, so that the light bounces slightly above you) and turn your subject to face the into wall. While some materials reflect better than others, bouncing the light off the wall will produce a soft lighting effect. Beware of coloured walls as they will create a color cast in your light.

On the left you can see what the light bounced off of to get the picture on the right. See how she picks up the color cast of the wall? Be careful, because if that wall is yellow, green, or any other color, it could throw a sickly looking color cast over the photo.

Quick and Easy Flash Modifiers

"Flash Modifier" in a large category of lighting tools. There are many different kinds on the market, and each one has it's own pros and cons that go beyond the scope of this article. However, attaching something to your flash to either bounce or diffuse it is the principle they all use, so with just a bit of research you can probably find one that works for your budget.

Here is a photo of the flash modifier I own. It attaches to the flash with velcro and it has a set of inserts that can give your flash different looks. 

Use a Business Card as a Bounce Card

Don't have the money to spend on a flash modifier? No problem. Have a business card handy?

On left, on-camera flash aimed at subject. On right, flash aimed up with a white business card tucked into the velcro strap on my light. I tilted the light back slightly so there would be some light falloff, lighting her face more than her clothes.

A similar technique works if you have a camera with a pop-up flash instead of a detachable flash unit.

Normal pop-up straight flash. Camera set to program mode.
Pop-up flash diffused with a business card. Program more again, but this time the amount of light coming from the flash was reduced by the diffusion of the business card. To compensate, the camera set a a longer shutter, increasing exposure of the background. Also, because of the card, more of the light from the flash bounced off the walls, filling in the shadows and warming the photo quite significantly in the original file. I corrected the color for the version you see here.
My pop-up flash diffusion method using a business card.

Use a Handy Reflector

Your light stand falls over and the umbrella breaks. The flash trigger breaks, too, but thankfully your flash is still intact. While a tragedy, it doesn't get you off the hook of making a great photo.

Like the ceiling-bounce method, holding a reflector above your flash can create a more diffuse light. You could use a specialized reflector, a piece of card, or, as I did here, my broken umbrella.

I held out the umbrella as far as I could and aimed the flash slightly to the left of it to avoid front spill on my subject so I could still get dramatic side lighting.

Conscript Someone Wearing White

Take a second to analyze the light in this photo. It's directional, dramatic, has soft edges and even illumination of the whole figure like light from a large source. It has all the makings of a softbox-lit shot, but it's not. Here's the proof:

 The woman in the white shirt was not a planned part of this shoot. She was there in the hall and was commandeered (happily) into helping me with this shot. I use this method all the time at weddings. You know who will be wearing white? Every guy there in a suit. With just the groomsmen you have a guaranteed set softbox-like bodies you can use for portraits at every wedding, and they'll get a kick out of it.

Think Outside the Box

Here's a real-world example. I'm on location with Anthony, who wants a portrait with the Seattle skyline in the background. That means I have to face a certain direction. Because of the time of day, this meant hard sun falling on his face. Everyone loves 1pm sun, right? Ouch, harsh light.

Ok, that's awful. It just won't do. I moved Anthony into the shade of a nearby building so we could still see the skyline but he was out of the sun.

Now I need to expose for the the background so the we can tell its the skyline, but I can't make Anthony any darker or I'll start to lose detail in his skin. Flash to the rescue! The flash is on a stand here, but this technique works even if you have the flash on camera. I bounced the light off the side of the restrooms, making sure that it was up high, giving him a subtle Rembrandt-style light.

I was able to stop down, the smaller aperture reducing my exposure and making the background both darker and more in focus. I was able to light Anthony to an appropriate level, and the bounced light created a soft illumination that feels natural.

Can you think of something else you can bounce your flash off? Let me know in the comments.

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