Bounced light has always been an important component of lighting, especially in portraiture, and it is one of the most fundamental lighting skills one should possess as a portrait photographer. It gives a little more illumination to the subject and eliminates or lightens unwanted shadows.
While some may come up with different ways to bounce light, truthfully, there is only one real way to bounce light, and that is with a reflective surface. However, there are different techniques you can use, and these variations are all based on the direction, material, colour, and even angle of the object or surface used to bounce the light. The effects and techniques are different, but they all aid the photographer to achieve better portraits.
So, What Are The Benefits Of Bounce Light?
Bouncing light is essential at times when you want to get rid of harsh shadows or when you want to soften the light that you already are using. If you are a photographer who works with strobes and you either are not able to use other lighting modifiers, or you do not own them, then bouncing light can be a very useful technique. The same applies when you are shooting weddings and events under ambient or low light, and you want to improve the lighting conditions, then bounced light can come to the rescue. By bouncing light, you are able to transform the small light source that produces harsh light into a large light source that produces soft and flattering light.
Bouncing light is a fascinating-yet-simple concept that can instantly elevate your cinematography. In this article, we’ll take a look at how bouncing light can help improve your shoot in ways you haven’t even considered.
Bouncing light is the process of redirecting the main light source onto a reflective or “bounce” surface, essentially taking your spotted and harsh light and turning it into an area light. You can bounce light off of anything from a white wall to a drop ceiling to a piece of white beadboard. By bouncing your light onto new material, this material becomes the larger light source — not the lighting fixture. Bounced light will usually be “larger,” creating a much softer throw and spread, which makes it more pleasing to the eye.
Bounced light is perfect in small spaces that can’t accommodate a lot of equipment. Let’s say you’re shooting in a cramped office environment. You barely have enough room to set alight, let alone fly in a 4×4 frame of diffusion material. To combat this, you can easily bounce your lighting.
By simply shooting your light into the ceiling or onto an adjacent white wall and using that as your light source, you fill the room with a beautiful, soft, and even bounced light. This is an incredibly simple process that can produce outstanding results. Also, a simple bounced source can make the lighting on your subject far more cinematic.
The materials you can use to bounce light vary greatly — sometimes, the locations themselves determine what you can use: a ceiling, white muslin, foam insulation. Typically, when you’re using bounce sources, you’ll want to ensure that the bounce won’t affect the colour quality of your light. For example, if you’re in a room with slightly yellow walls, once you bounce your light off of them, your lighting become slightly yellow, too.
If you want to bring in your bounce material for more colour control, one of the best (and easiest) things you can use is white foam insulation from any home improvement store. This versatile material is easy to work with, and it can even help you bounce the sun to even out your lighting. This material has become a filmmaking staple, and you’ll find it on practically every professional set.
Bounced lighting can really improve the look and feel of your work. It’s super easy to work with, and in many cases, it doesn’t cost you anything. Essentially, bounced lighting boils down to understanding that the larger the light source, the softer its spread.
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Five Methods for Bouncing Light
For many photographers, bouncing light means just one thing: using a reflector to lighten a subject’s shadow side. But bounced light can take many forms because it can be done for many reasons—like making “motivated light” or creating a softer, more natural-looking source. Here are five examples of how you can bounce light for more refined illumination.
Bouncing a flash off a ceiling
By default, when I put a flash on my hot shoe, I aim it straight up in the air so that I can bounce the light off of the ceiling. It’s especially effective with low white ceilings, but it works on taller off-white ceilings, too. This bounce not only softens the illumination and eliminates the “bucket of light” look that a typical full-frontal flash provides, but it also makes the light appear to come from above where it’s more natural for light to originate. I frequently bounce the flash a second time by attaching a small white card to the back of the flash to act as a subtle softened fill light from the front.
Bounce as a fill light, with a white, silver or gold reflector
The prototypical reflector is the white fill card. The bouncing spill from the main light (whether that’s the sun, strobe or anything else) off of a white fill card is a great way to decrease contrast and add illuminating detail to the shadow side of any subject—from portraits to products, architecture to automobiles. But changing that surface from white to matte silver gives the fill card a bit more kick; shiny silver even more. Change the colour of that surface from silver to gold, and the fill light turns warm. This is a great way to add magic-hour-style warmth to portraits; just remember that a little goes a long way.
Making a key light with a large reflector
Here’s a bouncing technique that often gets overlooked. Bouncing a specular source—like a strobe with a parabolic reflector—off of a large white reflector effectively takes a small pinpoint source and turns it into a broad light source. That’s the difference between a specular light and one that’s diffuse, which makes all the difference in the world. Broad, diffuse sources are flattering, especially for portraits, because they wrap their light around a subject and produce less prominent shadows. This is usually a task that’s reserved for a softbox, but the look is subtly different than a key light bounced off a reflector. Better still, a $10 sheet of white foam core for a bounce is a lot more affordable than even the most inexpensive softbox.
Creating an edge lightly with a mirror
Mirrors and shiny boards (which have mirror-like reflectance but aren’t as fragile as a real glass mirror) are very powerful reflectors. With them, you can bounce light and send it a very long way. This technique can be especially useful when working outdoors, to send sunlight over a long distance to act as a hair light or an edge light to add separation between a subject and background. (Imagine a subject standing in open shade and a mirror in the distance reflecting the sun at the subject’s back.) You could use a mirror as a key light, too, but it would be so bright and specular that it’s probably a bit harsh for a key. As a backlight, though, that intensity is perfect.
Bouncing sunlight off of almost anything
Speaking of sunlight, it’s often best when bounced. Sure, you can take pictures of people standing in direct sunlight, but move them into the open shade where that sunlight is reflected off of the surrounding environment, and suddenly you’ve got an indirect, diffuse light source that makes for less harsh light and much more pleasing portraits. Or, bounce that same sunlight off those same surroundings, and you can even take it inside—courtesy of a nice north-facing window. Windows facing other directions can work too, as long as they don’t have the sun shining directly in the window. North facing windows simply never have direct sunlight shining in—as long as you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, that is. The point is, the sun is an amazing light source, but it’s most amazing when it has had its edges rounded off thanks to a good strong bounce.
Tips and Tricks to Bounce Light
Get a Good Flash
First of all, invest in a hot shoe flashgun to attach to your camera. Choose one that allows you to tilt and swivel the head, so you have more control over where to direct your light.
Mind your Surfaces
Make sure that you’re pointing your flash towards a surface that light can bounce off from, with a good distance of 1-2 meters. This can get especially complicated when shooting outdoors or during fast-paced events, as ideal surfaces become harder to find. Many photographers actually make the mistake of aiming their flash at ceilings that are way too high, or even at the sky in attempts to diffuse the light. Of course, no flash bounces back, resulting in poorly lit photographs and a drained battery.
The trick? Bring your own surface. Invest in a portable reflector you can lug around, or get one that can be easily attached to your flashgun.
Avoid Color Cast
When shooting indoors, choose a ceiling or a wall that’s white or light in colour. Bouncing your flash off a deep-coloured surface like blue or green will likely result in that same colour being cast in the light, affecting the hues of your photograph. Though photo-editing apps and programs can help, your best bet is still keeping the tone of your light neutral.
Bouncing works wonderfully when the bounce surface is neutral in tone, preferably white. Unfortunately, with modern construction, there are few white walls available. Avoid bouncing light off of coloured surfaces. The light you create will be the same colour and probably cause you post-production nightmares.
Ceilings are usually white, but just bouncing off the ceiling can cause shadowed eye sockets (raccoon eyes). You need some light to strike your subject from a lower angle. Seek out the white areas of interiors, such as doors, window shades, etc. You can also drape a door or tall furniture with a white sheet to bounce light off of.
A white reflector on a stand is a better solution; position it anywhere. In tight quarters attach DIY plastic reflectors to walls. The camera should usually be 3–10 feet from the bounced surface. Rotate the speedlight’s head to the perfect bounce angle (similar to a bank shot in billiards). Remember, the closer the distance between speedlight and bounced surface, the harsher the light will be.
Choosing a direction to bounce light can be tricky for beginners. Most people just point the flash towards the ceiling, which is acceptable for basic product shots, since the bounced light acts like a soft spotlight. Doing this for portraits of people though can come out looking extremely unflattering; after all, no one likes shadows under their eyes).
For dynamic portraits, directional light is key. Bouncing light from above and behind or from the side gives the subject’s face a subtle shadow, which can play up or highlight certain features while creating a nice slimming effect.
A good technique to remember is to imagine that the surface you’re using is the light source itself. Then, position your subject accordingly, adjust your flash to your surface of choice, and frame your shot before hitting the shutter.
The great thing with photography is that rules exist less as steps to be rigorously followed, and more as a guideline to help you explore and find new ways of framing the world. Many amazing photographers have captured their best images by challenging the standards of their profession and completely disregarding what has been taught to them—just as you’re free to forget about everything you’ve read on this list and just going out, getting creative with your shots, and having fun.
Bounce light is, as the term suggests when the strong light from the flashgun is made to bounce off a surface (like a wall, a ceiling, or even a reflector) before hitting the subject. Pointing the flashgun at an angle, rather than directly at the subject, softens the light and makes for more natural-looking shots—almost like being illuminated by the glow of candlelight, instead of, say, having a flashlight shone on your face.
Softer lighting is especially important when you want to capture beautiful portraits that mimic the way our eyes see and perceive a scene. Because the transition between highlights and shadows is much gentler and more gradual than what you’d get with harder lighting or direct flash photography, you’re also able to capture more details and finer shading—giving you a photograph with better dimensions and favourable results.