Lighting 101: Bouncing off of Walls and Ceilings

I am thinking many of you already use your on-camera flashes creatively by bouncing them off of a ceiling or wall. This is a great technique, and one of the most common ways to get a taste of creating good light with your flash.

(Photo by Strobist reader Leon Tolner)

So why bother to take your light off of the camera when you are just going to bounce it off of a wall/ceiling anyway?

• Because you move around when you shoot, which changes where the light hits/comes from in a room.

• Because lighting on manual from a set location gives you consistency in exposure, light direction and hard/soft quality.

• Because it is a quick technique to half-way set up and begin shooting while you decide what you really want to do with cooler light.

• Because working with the light off camera is a good habit/ethic to get into, whether you are just bouncing off of a wall/ceiling, or using a plastic diffuser with a half tungsten gel through an office-plant cookie (explained here) to make a slick, layered quickie portrait in an otherwise drab, flourescent office.

This technique is easy, heavy-use, bread-and-butter stuff. And, you will notice, we are talking pure technique at this point and not hitting you up for yet another piece of hardware. 'Bout time, huh?

OK, then. So this gives broad, room-filling light and is good for setting up a forgiving zone of directional light. Smooth and flat, but crisp, too. This is the strobist's version of quick and dirty.

Things to remember?

First, watch your wall color. It'll color cast your light.

You can frequently use it to advantage, as in the warm light the wall kicked back in this artist portrait.

Use the lens angle adjustment on your strobe to control the size of the patch of light illuminating your subject. Just pop the flash and eyeball the hotspot on your bounce surface. The above photo of the county sheriff had the flash set on 85mm, bounced off of the ceiling near the subject. Note the fall-off through the back of the frame.

Conversely, this shot of a midnight Harry Potter fanatic was lit up into the ceiling behind me with the strobe set to 24mm. So this just casts a wide, soft swath of light.

Next: Bare-Bulb Style Lighting


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Anonymous Lee said...

I've always thought it best to use an off-camera light when bouncing. Glad to see that someone else realises this too.

September 12, 2006 2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and the lighting above the child?
a technique i havn't seen before...
hahaha... j/k

December 17, 2006 10:30 PM  
Blogger Sean Phillips said...

What's a ficus cookie??

February 16, 2007 11:44 AM  
Anonymous Greg said...

What do you mean by "Just pop the flash and eyeball the hotspot on your bounce surface"?

June 06, 2007 12:24 AM  
Anonymous ruthdeb said...

Greg -- I couldn't quite picture that either, but here we have an example, with pictures (as part of the Lighting 102 series)

July 10, 2007 10:33 PM  
Anonymous Tafcooper said...

Do you suggest using off camera lighting when shooting an event? I'm guessing not since the photog is supposed to be moving all around to capture everything and the lighting is most of the time on a light stand or superclampped somewhere. Please advise. Thanks. I love this site

December 02, 2007 8:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

pop the flash = fire/check flash to see area illuminated (hotspot). Adjust angle/zoom/ratio as needed.

Using a single fixed bounced flash in one enclosed enviroment gives you freedom of movement while retaining a consistent lightsource.

Bouncing from the camera can work when holding horizontal but changes dramatically when you hold the camera vertical.

November 20, 2008 4:43 AM  
Blogger areohbee said...

When I use ceiling bounce, I get bright heads and dark feet - anyone else had this problem?

Rob Cole

February 27, 2009 8:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob, your problem is pure physics. It's a property of light intencity,called the inverse square law. The intensity of light radiating from a point source is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source. So if your heads are 4 feet from the ceiling [I know most people are taller than this, but it makes the numbers crunch in whole numbers] and their feet are 8 feet away, the feet will get 1/4 the amount of light.

March 20, 2009 10:03 PM  
Blogger areohbee said...

Indeed. Question is: what to do about it. My first approach has been to not use bounce. My second approach has been to use an omni-bounce diffuser, but only if there are tight white walls too. Another approach I've taken is to add an SB-R200 or two to light the lower areas, but that has yielded an unnatural look. I'm still not satisfied. How 'bout you?

March 20, 2009 11:30 PM  
Anonymous Yoghi said...

Rob.. have you tried to bounce the light of your shoulder? So the light will come from the back of your shoulder. With regard to the inverse law, you should relatively get the same luminosity between the head and the feet.

May 10, 2009 11:52 AM  
OpenID theredsweatshirt said...

Hey Guys. I cannot get consistent shots without the dreaded dark shadows at events when bouncing! I have more events coming up and could use some serious advise... I use the 580ex II on the 5d mark ii on a bracket....

July 06, 2010 12:53 PM  
OpenID theredsweatshirt said...

Hey Guys. I cannot get consistent shots without the dreaded dark shadows at events when bouncing! I have more events coming up and could use some serious advise... I use the 580ex II on the 5d mark ii on a bracket....

July 06, 2010 12:53 PM  
Blogger Grasshopper said...

Great Info thank you thank you!

Found a typo - last line

Cookie, in this case, is short for "kookaloris," which is genuine photo jargon. It is generally a piece of black cardboard with a pattern of holes in it that you shoot a light through to get a cool pattern on a background.

The problems with hole-patterned cardboard are (a) it looks a little hokey to me, and (b) I usually do not have one one me.

September 12, 2012 5:25 AM  
Blogger Michael G. Hansen said...

At what height in relation to the camera height do you place the off camera flash, when bouncing? I have some problems with harsh shadows behind the subjects when bouncing, and I think it is caused by the height at which the off camera flash is placed or maybe the height of the ceiling??

March 25, 2014 4:52 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


You gotta move the flash around (or at least where you aim it) and see how that changes things. In your case I'd be aiming higher. The height of the flash does not matter as much as the size and location of the hot spot that it causes on the bounce surface -- which actually becomes your new light source.


March 25, 2014 8:46 PM  

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