Bounce flash is photography’s red headed stepchild. It gets no respect and is sadly considered the light source of last resort.
This is complete nonsense.
If you walk onto any Hollywood sound stage or old school fashion set, you’ll see light being bounced all over the place. Simply put, it’s the cheapest and easiest way to make a big beautiful light.
Why I Love It
Just like the cinematographers, I love bounce flash because it’s a cheap alternative to expensive light modifiers.
When I first got into photography, I couldn’t believe how insanely overpriced this stuff was. I remember checking out a small litedisc at Calumet and saying to the clerk “you want me to pay 58 bucks for something that reflects light?”
After that, I just went to the craft store and bought some inexpensive foamcore. Later, when I started working on professional sets, I saw that every pro photographer did the same thing.
The best way to use bounce flash is to move it off the camera. By moving the flash off the camera, you’ll be able to shape and angle the light. To do this, you’ll need:
PC wire/radio triggers
I use a Nikon flash because I’m a Nikon guy. If you use Canon cameras, get the Canon. If you never plan to use the flash on the camera, pick up something cheap and powerful like a Vivitar 285.
The most important thing is that the flash is powerful. When light is bounced off a wall, a tremendous amount of energy is lost. The flashgun should also have a PC connection.
For strobes, almost any brand will work. Light is light. I use the Paul C. Buff White Lightning x1600 because it’s cheap and made out of aircraft grade aluminum.
The market is full of lightstands, but I prefer Mathews because they’re made in Burbank and could likely withstand a nuclear blast. If you’re focused on table-top work, make sure the minimum height is low enough for the work area.
Any pc wire will do. If you want to save yourself the headache of using a wire, pickup some radio triggers. Pocketwizards are the industry standard.
How to use bounce flash
Bounce light into wall……….done.
There’s actually a little more to it than that.
Like any studio light, a bounce flash should be shaped and angled to properly illuminate the subject at hand. The light may be bounced, but the basic principles of light are still at work:
big light=soft light
small light=hard light
To get a very soft light, move the bounce flash away from the wall to create a large circle of light. To make a hard light, move the flash close to the wall to make a small circle of light.
For any given subject, the light should be directed in a different way. Here are some examples:
For food photography, I like to bounce a large light from 45 degrees behind the subject. This is great for creating shape and dimension across the top of the subject. For items like sandwiches that have texture in the front, I typically bounce light from the side.
Window Light Portrait
Bounce flash is especially nice when mimicking a window light. For a traditional look, bounce a large light from the side and slightly to the front. By moving the light up a bit, it will naturally wrap around the subject.
For a standard portrait, I typically bounce the light from 45 degrees in front of the subject and into a corner. This creates a soft light, but still accentuates the jaw due to the angle of light.
The self-portrait below was made with a bounce flash. I don’t look this good in person, but great lighting and firm posture goes a long way.
I love bounce flash, but it does have a couple of drawbacks. The first is that it goes everywhere! To fine tune the light, it’s a good idea to have a few black cards on hand to cut and shape the light around the subject. Light is controlled by subtracting light, not adding it.
The other issue is color. Unless the light is being bounced off a neutral color like white, a color cast is going to come into play. To compensate, do a custom white balance or fix the color in post.
Even with these snags, bounce light is still an exceptional choice. The next time you have a shoot, turn your favorite light toward the wall and see what happens. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised.