Monday, April 30, 2007

"Hey, Cory! Why is your flash sideways?" AKA, The Bounce Flash Article!

I am finally getting started on my series of articles on flash. I am going to start with the type of flash I use most often - the on-camera bounce.

The reasons I use on-camera bounce:
  1. I move quickly and quite often have the two options of available light or on-camera flash. Sometimes the available light in a room is not flattering.
  2. I don't like direct on-camera flash in MOST situations as it produces very flat lighting with harsh shadows
  3. Soft, bounced lighting, when balanced with room lighting, looks natural and flattering.

The reasons NOT to use bounce flash
  1. Some rooms don't lend themselves well to bounce flash (ballrooms a mile wide with 40 foot ceilings, black paint on the walls, red paint on the walls if you are shootingJPG, etc.)
  2. It does not add any drama to the photographs (harsh lighting is dramatic and can add or detract from a photograph, soft lighting usually does neither).
  3. Beautiful natural lighting already exists in the environment you are in.

Equipment that you will need.
  1. A digital (or film, I suppose) SLR
  2. Flash capable of tilt and swivel.
  3. A piece of black plastic and some Velcro.
  4. Good batteries

Okay, here we go with the meat of the article.

Bounce flash is a quick and easy way to upgrade the lighting in a room. Whenever I am looking through my camera I am looking at the type and angle of light as well as content and composition. When I see that the lighting is mostly from overhead sources, I usually want to modify it somehow. Overhead lighting as the only source of light leaves dark shadows in the eyes and causes people to look tired. This is probably my least favorite type of lighting.

To use bounce flash, you don't have to do anything too difficult. You attach your flash to your camera (or to an off-camera shoe cord if you wanna get funky) and point the flash in the direction that you want the light to come from. Imagine that you have a big softbox on a set of wheels that you can position anywhere you want in the half-circle behind you. You can place directly to the left or right, directly overhead, directly behind you or the the left or right of directly behind. You obviously can't make it come from the far side of your subject because of the physics involved (think of shooting a cue ball in pool - you can't bounce the ball off the bumper directly on the far side of another ball without hitting the ball).

The softbox concept

A portrait on the fly using bounce flash

Now that you have your flash bouncing around the room, you need to control it a bit. The first thing to keep in mind is how you want the lighting to appear. Do you want to drown out the existing lighting, add to the existing lighting or somewhere in between? My favorite way to do it is to add to, but not completely overpower the existing lighting. I do this by manually setting the exposure to keep the room lighting the way I want it (to add to, but not completely overpower, I might set the exposure to underexpose the existing light by one to two stops). Also, the slower your shutter speed, the more you have to have the room lighting below the flash setting. To give you an example, if you are shooting at 1/20 of a second with only a one-stop difference between room light and flash, you will have blur from the movement of the people as recorded by the by room lighting after the flash has fired. In which case, you need to increase the difference to two stops to avoid the flash-blur look. Unless, of course, that is what you are going for!

Bounce from the right of the room balanced to the room light.

Something else that I wold recommend is controlling the light from falling directly into the frame (this is a more common problem when shooting wide). To do this, you either need to zoom your flash or create some sort of snoot-type device for your flash. You can see what I did here with a piece of black plastic (a file folder from Staples) and some Velcro. This prevents flash from hitting someone directly into the scene I am shooting. I've shown it to other people, but most don't share my enthusiasm for attaching ugly, home-made devices to their flashes, but willingly spend $40 on a piece of Tupperware to sit on top of it!

My setup with black plastic "bounce tunnel"!

I have four more hints with bounce flash. The first is to use a high ISO because this increases the sensitivity of the sensor, which in turn reduces how hard your flash has to work and reduces how badly you blind anyone that makes the mistake of standing next to you! Second, buy a good pair ofNiMH batteries. NiMH batteries keep a consistent recharge rate during the life of the batteries. With Alkaline batteries, the recycle times on your flash become longer and longer as the power is drained out of them. Third, be aware of your surroundings. It doesn't do any good to want the light to come from the left if the nearest wall is 120 feet away. It also doesn't do any good to point a flash directly at the mother of the bride's face! No matter how annoying you may find her, nothing good will come of blinding her! That last is just a joke; I haven't had an annoying MOB in years.

Another example of side bounce.

Finally, experimentation is good! In fact, it is the only way to get a good handle on using bounce flash. Go forth and bounce!


ed pingol said...

this is a goldmine. thanks for sharing cory!


Christiana said...

Your site is now added to my favorites! Thanks for sharing all this info. Very helpful!

Asiya Khaki said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Asiya Khaki said...

Hi Cory,
Thanks for an amazing article. I have one question- Do you find the high ISO that you suggest sacrificing the clarity of the image--ie. causing a grainy look to your photographs?

Thanks again for the tips!

Cory Parris said...

Hi Asiya,
I don't mind the "grain" look. Modern digital at 1600 looks very similar to the 400 speed film I used to use. So...No, I don't feel like I am giving up quality. I feel like the images are better for using the higher ISO.