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Working with Flash – How to Use Bounce Flash for Better Photos

In this article, we’re going to focus on a few ways that you can get the best results when working with flash, mounted in the hot shoe of your camera. Specifically we’re going to take a closer look at how you can bounce your flash for improved results.

If you’re just starting out with flash, most likely you’ve started your strobist journey by purchasing your first flash. Congratulations! You’re on your way to adding another skill to your arsenal to equip yourself with the tools and knowledge to create great photographs under any lighting situation.

If you haven’t purchased a flash just yet – don’t worry. After reading this article, hopefully you’ll learn a few tips to help you narrow down your buying decision.

Go from this . . .

To this!

Size Matters

Despite what you may have heard, size does matter – particularly when we’re talking about light. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to assume that you are looking to start photographing people.

The size of the light source, relative to the subject you are photographing, will determine how hard or how soft the light is (i.e. the quality of light). If the light source is small relative to your subject, the light is going to be somewhat harsh, and generally less flattering. A small light source tends to be more specular and will result in harder shadows.

Conversely, the larger the light source in relation to your subject, the softer it will be and therefore more flattering.

Think about the sun for a moment.

Although it’s a giant ball of fire in the sky – relative to a person it’s actually quite small due to its distance from the earth.

If you were to go outdoors at midday in the middle of summer, the resulting light from the sun would be very harsh and would produce hard shadows on your subject. The additional of clouds helps to diffuse the light, but they also increase the size of the light source (it's now the sky, not the sun) which results in softer light that is much more flattering.

Take a look at the front of most flashes and you’ll notice that the surface area of the flash head is not very large – particularly in relation to a typical human being (compare to head size). If you’ve ever taken a photograph with a point and shoot camera or a dSLR with a built-in or pop-up flash, you’ve likely been less than impressed with the resulting image.

In addition to being a direct source of light, these are both very small light sources which produce very unflattering light.

Now if you progress up to using an external flash that mounts into the hotshoe of your camera, the surface area is a bit larger but still relatively small compared to a person. The resulting light from an external flash is still going to be less than ideal.

Take a look at this example where direct on-camera flash was used to illuminate the subject.

Exposure: ISO 125, f/4.5, at 1/125th of a second

Notice that the direct flash creates some specular highlights on the subject’s forehead and also the harsh shadow that is cast on the wall behind as a result of using direct, on-camera flash.

So what can you do to improve your results while still working with one flash on your camera?

Bounce the Flash

Just like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh, learning to bounce your flash is the first step towards creating more flattering light when working with a single flash on-camera.

Before you can start to think about bouncing your flash, you need to take a look at some of the flashes on the market that have some limitations, and may not be the best choice if you’re only going to purchase one flash to start.

Canon has a couple of entry level Speedlites in their lineup that might seem attractive at first, if you’re only basing your buying decision on price. However they all have one thing in common that make them a poor choice if you’re looking to get better results with flash photography. Specifically the flash heads on these entry level flashes can’t be turned or tilted, which means you can’t change the direction of the flash in order to bounce it off another surface.

Speedlite 90EX

Speedlite 270EX

In the current Canon lineup, this would include the Speedlite 90EX and the Speedlite 270EX. These flashes do support wireless capabilities, and may be a good choice if get into working with multiple speedlites and off-camera flash, but if you’re only planning to buy one flash to start out, these are probably not going to be your best choice.

If you’re shopping for a flash, look for one that allows you to tilt and turn the flash head so that you can bounce the flash off another surface. Here are some options (there are many good third party brands available at lower prices as well, read the reviews and get the one that's right for you).

Benefits of Bouncing Your Flash

Bouncing the flash is going to do two things which will immediately improve the quality of the light:

  • Increase the relative size of the light source (making it softer)
  • Change the direction of the light, which in turn changes the direction of the shadows
Exposure: ISO 320, f/3.2, 1/125th

If you’re able to bounce the flash off of a larger surface like a wall or ceiling, this is going to effectively turn the small light source (your on-camera flash), into a larger light source and make it a bit softer.

Looking at the example above, I simply rotated the flash head 45 degrees to the left and bounced it off a nearby white wall.

Notice how bouncing the flash also changed the direction of the shadows, and created more depth and dimension on her face. This is as opposed to the direct on-camera flash, which flattened out her facial features and threw a hard shadow on the background. The light is also less specular on her face now.

Considerations When Bouncing Your Flash

When bouncing the flash, you have a few things to consider:

#1 Direction of the flash

The first is going to be the direction of the flash.

Bouncing light is a little bit like playing pool (billiard). You have to figure out your angles to determine where the light is going to fall on your subject. Most speedlights allow you to rotate the flash head 180 degrees, and tilt the flash head up and down.

This enables you to point the flash towards a ceiling, for example, and bounce the flash off of there. Be careful when bouncing your flash off of the ceiling as that can produce dark shadows under the eyebrows and under the nose and chin as illustrated in the example below.

Exposure: ISO 125, f/4.5, 1/125th

The introduction of a reflector or bounce card under her chin would reduce these shadows and result in a much more pleasing portrait.

#2 Color of the Bounce Surface

The second thing to consider when bouncing flash is the color of the surface that you’re bouncing off of.

Ideally you want to try bouncing the flash off a white, or neutral colored surface, otherwise you will introduce a color cast on your subject. In the example below, my flash was bounced off a nearby yellow wall resulting in a color cast being introduced onto the subject.


If you don’t have a neutral surface nearby, try introducing something like a piece of white foamcore, a reflector or an umbrella on a light stand, and bounce the flash off that.

If you have an assistant with you (or you can solicit one), get them to hold the reflector in the area where you want to bounce the flash. In the example below, I introduced a white reflector to the right of the camera and positioned the flash at a 45 degree angle.

Here are some more examples I took while making the Portrait Lighting course with Darlene:

Direct flash on-camera (see how sad Darlene is with this lighting?)
Bounced off the ceiling (notice the nasty shadows from her glasses!)
Flash bounced off a white wall to camera right. MUCH better!
Bounced off the ceiling but aimed backwards a bit. This is a good option if you do not have a side wall to bounce off.


Bouncing flash is a great way to start getting better results using an external speedlight mounted on top of your camera. It takes some practice and experimentation, but hopefully you’ll start to see some better results the more you do it.350x350-black-PLOL

As you start working more with flash, you’ll discover there are limitations using a single flash on camera. As you progress, you’ll probably want to start getting your flash off the camera, and working with modifiers like umbrellas and softboxes.

For more tips on portrait lighting see:

Darlene and I go into this in more detail in our course – Portrait Fundamentals – Your Guide to working with Natural Light and Off-Camera Flash so be sure to check it out if you’re interested in learning more.



Bruce Clarke is a wedding photographer in Edmonton, Canada. He is also a photography teacher and co-creator of the Portrait Lighting course with Darlene. You can see more of his work on his website: Moments in Digital Photography.

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