What is Bounce Flash?

by Nick Kelsh

posted Monday, March 2, 2015 at 12:15 PM EST

This is a big-time professional studio look and it was done with one little flash pointed at a wall to right. The entire wall becomes a large light source and produces a soft, flattering effect.

There are big light sources and there are small light sources.

I’m not talking about bright and dim here. I’m talking about size relative to the subject. A cloudy sky is really one big large white light. By comparison, the sun is a small light—it’s a point light source. The cloudy sky makes soft shadows—if any at all. The sun makes hard—some would say harsh—shadows. Sunlight is much brighter but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

So ask yourself, is the flash on your camera a big light or a small light?

Time’s up. A flash on a camera is a point light source. It makes hard-edged shadows. The results of a flash are often harsh. If the flash is built into the camera there’s only one thing you can do if you don’t want that look. Turn off the flash. (There is an exception to this rule: It’s call “fill” flash. On some cameras you can turn the brightness of the flash down but for the sake of this lesson I’m going to pretend like that option doesn’t exist.)

But if you own one of those detachable external flash units that sits on top of the camera you may have another alternative. By turning that point light source flash into the equivalent of a large cloudy sky you could have the best of both worlds—portable SOFT FLATTERING light.

It’s called “bounce” flash. If you can rotate the head of your flash or attach the flash to the camera with a wire allowing you to point it in any direction you may be able to duplicate a very professional lighting look.

The pictures on the left were taken with the flash pointed directly at Alexander; notice the harsh shadow under his chin. In the middle, the head of the flash was rotated to bounce the light off the wall; the under-the-chin shadow is gone and everything looks more relaxed and natural. And on the right, it was bounced off the ceiling; notice how the eye sockets are getting a little dark because the light is coming from overhead. It’s all the same equipment and location, but three dramatically different looks. Kudos to Alexander for doing a fine job of reflecting light.

It doesn’t work in all situations. You need to be reasonably close to a wall or a ceiling. You’re going to point the flash at the wall—you’re going to light the wall, not your subject. The now glowing wall will reflect light back onto the subject in a surprisingly flattering way. There are restrictions. If the wall is green it will bounce green light back onto your subject.

If you don’t want your subject to be green, that’s not a good thing. If, on the other hand, the wall happens to be a light shade of orange you may find the added color to be dramatic of even flattering. You can point the flash in any direction you want. Walls, ceilings, and even floors all have different effects and moods. But like I said, you usually need to be relatively close to a wall or a ceiling.

If you’re standing in the middle of a basketball court and you want to bounce a flash, you’re basically out of luck.

When you have decided to bounce a flash you have, by definition, decided to get experimental. Back in the film days, you actually had to know what you were doing if you wanted to bounce a flash and calculate a proper exposure. Now, thank heaven, the immediate results of a digital camera make this fun and enormously satisfying. You can get a big-time lighting look with a small battery operated light you carry in a camera bag.

(An exceptional educator and a world-class photographer, Nick Kelsh is the founder of How To Photograph Your Life, an excellent source of affordable photography training and tips. Nick’s courses can be conducted by yourself in your own time, or with feedback from Nick and your fellow students. If you appreciated this article and want to improve your photography, visit How to Photograph your Life and sign up for a course today!)