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Lighting 101: Bouncing off of Walls and Ceilings

Abstract: Placing your flash on a light stand and bouncing off of a wall or ceiling can give you a lot of quality for almost zero effort. [This post was updated on Feb 5, 2020.]

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 lighting on manual power from a fixed lighting position allows you to move around while giving you consistency in exposure, light direction and softness.

• 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. It's about time, huh?

OK, then. This fixed/bounce technique 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. Your light will pick up the color of the bounce surface.

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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