Why Do Photographers Like To Use Bounced Flash?

by William Lulow

Bounce flash is simply a lighting technique that uses a nearby reflective surface to “bounce” light toward the subject. It is different from “diffused” light or “direct” light in that the light has to travel to the reflective surface and then to the subject. What happens to light that’s bounced is (1) the light rays get scattered, (2) they have to travel further and (3) the reflective surface then becomes the light source.

The reason for doing this is that the reflective surface is much larger than the light itself and therefore, creates a much softer light. This is helpful in portraiture because the larger the light source, the softer the lighting effect will be – something desirable in portraits. One of the problems with this type of lighting when used with a speedlight,¬† is that since the light has to travel to the reflective surface and THEN to the subject, it is traveling about twice the distance that it would normally and this diminishes the light’s intensity. This means that larger lens openings must be used or the camera’s ISO levels need to be set higher.

Given your speedlight’s output, bounce-flash acts as general room light when it is aimed up at the ceiling. For some uses, this is far too much like florescent light in large light fixtures on the ceiling and it is easy to lose the light’s direction. For this reason, I like to “feather” the light. This means that I can angle the on-camera flash to bounce some light off the ceiling and have some of the light directed at the subject at the same time.¬†Here is what the flash looks like positioned on the camera:


It is angled so that some of the light hits the ceiling and some goes directly on the subject. The only thing you need to be careful of with this set up is that the reflective surfaces need to be neutral. If you have a red or black ceiling say, this might give you an unwanted color cast or cut down on the exposure.

This is an example of an image shot with this kind of light:


Now when you are shooting in a studio situation where you are aiming the light into an umbrella for instance, the same rules of bounce light apply except that the light is much more directed than if it were just bounced off the ceiling. However, the light still has to travel from the speedlight head to the umbrella and then back to the subject. So, you will still experience a fall-off of exposure. That’s why I prefer to use my regular Dynalite studio strobes if I’m going to use umbrellas for bounce light. It’s true that the speedlights will work for event-type photography, but I don’t like to use them for normal portraits either on location or in the studio.

I usually use a large, round umbrella for my portraits like the one below:

7foot umbrella

The one I use is about 60 inches in diameter and has many more ribs than normal umbrellas to give the light a truly “round” feel to it. It actually surrounds the subject with light that is extremely soft, yet directed. My Dynalite heads have enough power, even when bounced, to allow me to shoot portraits at small f/stops like f/11 or f/16. I do this because I shoot most of my portraits with an 85mm lens and I find it disconcerting to have the eyes sharp and the ears soft.

So, choose umbrellas which have a rounder appearance and make sure you use strobes with enough power to allow you to bounce the light into them.