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Flash: Bounce flash

Flash from a Speedlite can be quite harsh. The reflector in the unit is relatively small, giving very directional light. A larger reflector would give a softer light, but would make the Speedlite less easy to handle. However, there are often large reflectors available in rooms where you shoot − the ceiling and walls. Aiming the flash at one of these surfaces reflects and diffuses the flash, giving much softer lighting for your subject. This is called ‘bounce flash’ photography.

Using a ceiling

Direct flash in a small room not only gives a harsh light, but also throws a shadow on the back wall. If you are holding the camera on its side in portrait format, the flash will be to one side of the subject, and this shadow will be visible on the opposite side. Aiming the flash head up towards a white ceiling will eliminate the shadow and give much softer illumination. Make sure your subject is looking forward, rather than down, or you will get shadows under the eyes.

In a small room, the flash head can be pointed directly up at the ceiling − a 90° angle. The light will bounce from the ceiling not only to the subject, but also to the walls, adding extra diffusion. In a larger room, where the walls are further away, aim the flash head at a point about one-third of the way towards the subject. Don’t go for a mid-point, or some of the flash will be wasted behind the subject.

Flash exposure should still be automatic, though you might need a little compensation depending on the size of the room and the brightness of the ceiling.

Using direct flash gives a harsh light and can give distracting background shadows. Bouncing the flash from the ceiling softens all the shadows. In effect, the ceiling becomes the light source, rather than the Speedlite.

Using a wall

When shooting portraits, one of the best surfaces for bounce flash is a wall. This reflects light into the face at eye level, giving a flattering illumination. It tends not to produce dark shadows under the eyes, which can result from bouncing light from a ceiling.

The light can be reflected from any of three walls, the one in front of the subject, or the two on either side. The wall in front of the subject is the one to the rear of the photographer, and is often overlooked as a possible reflector. Simply swivel the head through 180° and tilt it through 30° to 45° so that you are not in the way of the light when you are holding the camera. Make sure there is a reasonable distance between the wall and the Speedlite − if the two are close to each other, the area of the wall used as a reflector will be quite small and the bounced illumination will not be very diffuse.

Using a wall on either side of the subject as a reflector gives more scope for creative lighting. With the light coming from the side, turning the face into the light will provide flat lighting, while turning it away from the light will throw shadows. A greater three-dimensional effect is given by shadows. Experiment with the face turned at different angles to the wall to see which effects you prefer. Because the light is coming from eye-level, the head can also be tilted down a little if you want to emphasise the eyes.

Bouncing light off the wall behind the camera gives soft, shadowless lighting, which is suitable for many portraits. The results can be better than using an umbrella reflector, because the area of wall used can be larger than an umbrella. Instead of moving an umbrella reflector around to change the effect of the lighting, you can ask the subject to turn to the left or right.

Using a wall to the side of the subject as a reflector throws shadows across the face, which can create the impression of depth. Although the reflector is fixed in place, the subject can move to increase or decrease the amount of shadow visible to
the camera.

Speedlites such as the 580EX, 580EX II, 550EX and 430EX have tilt and swivel heads. You can swivel them to either side (left) to reflect light from a wall, or tilt them up (centre) to use a ceiling as a reflector. This versatility means that if you turn the camera through 90° to use a portrait format you can swivel the head (right) to bounce the light from a ceiling, or tilt the head to bounce the light from a wall.

Bounce flash photography is not limited to indoor locations. Various lightweight portable reflectors are available for use outdoors. These attach to the Speedlite, or to a bracket, and provide soft, diffuse illumination in any location. These portable reflectors can also be used in large rooms where the ceiling and walls are too far away to be effective, or are painted with strong hues that would add a colour cast
to the image.

Off Camera Shoe Cord

The Off Camera Shoe Cord provides more flexibility for bounce flash photography. The cord fits between the camera accessory shoe and the base of the Speedlite and retains all the automatic features of both. With the cord, you can position any Speedlite at any angle while the camera remains pointed at the subject. This is especially useful if your Speedlite does not offer a tilt or swivel head.

At first sight, you might think it is difficult to hold both the camera and a Speedlite in your hands. In practice, most photographers find it quite easy unless they are using a heavy camera fitted with a long lens.

If you have problems, the Speedlite can be supported on a tripod. The relatively short length of the cord (about 80cm) means that you won’t be able to stray far from the tripod, but at least you will be able to use both hands to support the camera.

Bounce flash photography is only one use for the cord. With the Speedlite attached to the camera hot-shoe, close to the lens axis, direct flash gives very flat lighting. Moving the Speedlite just a little further from the lens can introduce shadows which add depth, modelling and texture to a subject.

The cord is also useful for close-up photography. Illumination from a Speedlite attached to the camera is often too high for subjects close to the camera. Using the Speedlite on a flexible cord means that you can bring the flash head down to the level of the subject.