Perhaps one of the first tips you learned about flash photography is to use bounce flash indoors. The reason is quite simple: direct on-camera flash produces unflattering photo and it also creates a hard shadow on a wall behind the subject. By bouncing the flash light off the ceiling or walls, you can create a natural-looking photo with soft shadow. Bouncing the flash effectively creates a much larger light source that can wrap the light around the subject. Bouncing also changes the direction of the light so the shadow is thrown down behind the subject instead of directly behind the subject.

Basic bounce flash tips

  • Ceiling bounce works out better because the shadow is thrown lower behind the subject. Wall bounce from the side of the subject can product a more visible shadow on one side of the subject and uneven side-to-side illumination on the subject. Ceiling bounce is possible when the camera is hold in portrait orientation by setting the flash head title angle to 90 and rotate the flash head to point to the ceiling.
  • The optimal title angle for bounce flash is greater 45 degrees. This reduces the amount of the light from flash head directly illuminating the subject. When shooting at a downward angle, try to title the flash head greater than 90 degrees (points backward so the flash head points to the ceiling). On most flashes, this can be done by rotating the flash head 180 degrees.
  • Bounce flash works best with surfaces with neutral white or high reflectance. Watch out for color cast if the wall has colors.
  • Bounce flash doesn’t work well if the ceiling is too far or too close.  Too close, the effective size of the light on the bounce surface is too small to be effective. Too far away, the light loss is too great. Nikon flash manual recommends 1-2 meters or 3.3-6.6 feet between flash and the reflecting surface.
  • Bounce flash causes significant light loss (2-3 stops), make sure the photo is not under exposed. Use larger aperture or higher ISO if necessary.

Bounce flash with diffusion dome (Omni Bounce)

Diffusion dome is a white plastic cover that goes over the flash head. It is also commonly known as Omni-Bounce. It works by spreading the flash light to much larger spaces around it, causing light to bounce from many surfaces simultaneously. The end result is a nice evenly lit scene.  Nikon recommends using the diffusion dome in bounce flash application. Here what is said in the SB-800 user manual.

By attaching the provided Nikon Diffusion Dome over the flash head, you can diffuse the light even more when doing bounce flash, creating extremely soft light with virtually no shadows.

Well, it doesn’t seem so in practice. You can still get hard shadows. Using the diffusion dome is against another important rule of bounce flash: avoid illuminating the subject directly from the flash. With the diffusion dome on, there might be too much light directly illuminating the subject.

Diffusion Dome

To illustrate the problem. I ran a series of tests using Nikon D200, SB-800 Speedlight, and Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 D lens. I mounted the flash on the camera then took test shots with the flash head at 45, 60, 75, and 90 degree angles and the following flash setups: 1) with the diffusion dome, 2) without the diffusion dome, 3) without the diffusion dome but with the built-in bounce card pulled out, 4) without the diffusion dome but with both built-in bounce card and wide flash adapter, and 5) with the diffusion dome and built-in wide flash adapter.

Bounce_Flash

The test result clearly shows the best approach to achieve complete shadow-free on the wall behind the subject: you want to reduce the amount of light directly illuminating the subject. That means not using the diffusion dome, or bounce card, or the wide flash adapter, all of which can put more direct light on the subject.

One note of caution: You can avoid the shadow behind the wall by reducing direct light, but you may create shadow on the subject from the bounced light. For example, shadow under the subject’s nose or chin. So sometimes it is a trade-off you need to consider.

Nikon’s mistake

The following is taken from Nikon SB-800 instruction manual. The illustration on the left shows you the softer shadow cause by the bounced light with the diffusion dome but the manual forget to show you the shadow created by the direct light from the flash!

Nikon_Manual

Don’t bounce if it is not possible to bounce

We talked about this a while ago: Don’t use bounce flash setup if you cannot bounce.


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