Monday, September 6, 2010

12 Alternatives to Bouncing From Ceilings and Walls (Basic to Intermediate)

Bouncing is a great technique to get soft, directional light from your flash.  Sometimes though, bouncing appears impossible, as in the case of a very large room where the ceilings and walls are too far.  (You may want to at least try though - sometimes bouncing can be useful even in extreme situations.) Another difficult bouncing scenario is when the ceilings and walls have a strong color, especially if that color is inconsistent with the color of the ambient light.

Here are 12 alternatives for softish light when bouncing from ceilings and walls is not an option.  Few are as good as bouncing but they may be better than nothing:

1. Handheld umbrella.  I personally think this is the best alternative for family photographers.  A handheld umbrella can provide soft directional light, with or without an assistant.
Example (with a ~40 inch softbrella):

Sometimes a normal sized umbrella is not practical.  However, even a small umbrella is reasonably useful.  I have a 19.5 inch umbrella, which is tiny compared to other umbrellas, but has a surface area of around 298.6 square inches, the same as the surface area of a 17.3 x 17.3 softbox.  I also have a 25-inch umbrella (surface area of 490.9 square inches, the same as the surface area of a 22.16 x 22.16 softbox).

Example (19.5 inch reflective umbrella):

Example (25 inch shoot-through umbrella):

Related articles:
DIY handheld umbrella
Purpose-built handheld umbrella

2. Use a softbox or umbrella on a stand.  Many pros use large umbrellas or softboxes such as the Lastolite EZybox to provide a soft directional light in the field.  In terms of light quality, this may be the best option but you're likely to need an assistant for this though.  Note: if you're using a large umbrella, be careful - even a slight breeze can topple the light stand over.

3. Bounce from a reflector.  It is possible to bounce off a reflector, even without an assistant.

Related article: Bouncing Flash Outdoors in Daylight

4. Use a diffuser.  In daylight shooting, you can use a diffuser to block direct sunlight from hitting your subject.  The large surface area of the diffuser makes it act as a soft light source.  Alternatively, you can block direct sunlight with a shade.  The subject would then be illuminated by open shade.  A potential disadvantage is that the background will appear much brighter than the subject.

Lastolite 33" Tri Grip 1 Stop Triangular Shaped Translucent Diffuser

5. Use a bracket with umbrella or softbox attachment.  Here's a flash bracket that can be paired with a softbox or an umbrella.
ALZO Flip Flash ® Bracket Softbox Kit - Achieve studio quality images with your Portable Flash Speedlight - for all DSLR - Requires Shoe Mount Adaptor for NIKON SB-900* - by ALZO Flip Flash ® Bracket Umbrella Kit w/H-Bar - Achieve studio quality images with your Portable Flash Speedlight - for all DSLR - Requires Shoe Mount Adaptor for NIKON SB-900* - by

6. Bounce off random stuff.  Sometimes it may seem as if there are no walls or ceilings to bounce from but there are actually usable bounce surfaces.  Neil van Niekerk has used this technique successfully: (bouncing from random architectural features).  Occasionally, I've bounced off other people's clothes (while making sure they're not looking :) ).

7. Bounce off your shirt (if it's white).  If you're wearing a white or light colored shirt, you can try bouncing off your shirt.  Because there's no directionality from this method, this is best suited for using flash as fill.

8. Bounce off the ground.  Normally, upside-down light leads to a horror-movie look.  However, if the shadows are not too dark, and the upside-down light is soft, then it may look ok.  Sometimes, strong sunlight does bounce from the floor to illuminate a subject softly, and this technique can resemble that look.

Related article: Bouncing Light Off the Ground

9. Use a flash modifier that enlarges the surface area of your flash, such as the Lumiquest Softbox III.  I hesitate to suggest this because the majority of flash modifiers offer little improvement.  However, even a modifier that is smaller than the subject can reduce the harshness of bare flash.  Just remember that the key to softer light is a larger apparent size.  Also remember that diffusion by itself does not soften light.  You should also lower your expectations for the softening effect.

Related articles:
Do small modifiers offer any benefit?
Diffusion Doesn't Soften Light

Moving on to solutions that don't actually use soft light:

10. Use flash as fill.  If the ambient light is bright, the flash can be used merely to lift shadows, which is less artificial-looking than direct on-camera flash as key.  Some cameras are better at automatically throttling down the flash to do precisely that.  In any case, use flash exposure compensation to make sure the flash isn't too bright.   Using flash would still be an improvement over ambient-only by making shadow detail more visible, and reducing the highlight-shadow contrast.

Related article: Summer Pool Party

11. Use one or more hard light sources to control the highlight-shadow ratio.

Example 1 (one hard light source + ambient):

Example 2 (two hard light sources + ambient):

Related articles:
Three Dimensional Lighting
Quality vs. Contrast

12. Postprocessing.  Sometimes, postprocessing can be used to simulate a softer light source.
Related article: Dodging and Burning

Any other ideas? Please post them in the comments.

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