I’ve long been a bit of a purist when it comes to lighting for photography. My philosophy was something like, ‘Ambient light is best but if you are going to be using flash it’s got to be big studio-style flash heads with nice big modifiers on them.’
A hotshoe flashgun, for me, was just a grudgingly-used problem-solver when there simply wasn’t the ambient light to make an acceptable image. Over time I became less reticent about using a hotshoe flashgun as I developed a set of techniques that could make its presence in the photo less obtrusive. I never use direct flash with the flashgun pointed directly at the subject but find surfaces to use to bounce flash to soften the blow.
Sometimes the flash is used to augment the natural light, slipped into the shot unnoticed. At other times, the light is so nasty or so non-existent that I decide the light the image entirely with the flash yet still want to produce a professional-looking image.
Here’s how on-camera-flash and a simple bounce tool (in this case a Joe Demb Flip-it Jumbo) can give a pleasing image. This wedding guest was mid conversation sitting just off to the side of a disco area, with flashing laser lights. He wasn’t dancing so ‘getting the atmosphere’ wasn’t of concern in this instance. The flash was bounced to the ceiling of the white marquee, while the Joe Demb Flip-it, which was mounted on the end of the flashgun just off the left, added a little directional light. The flash bounced from the ceiling is soft and flattering while the directional light from the Flip-it adds depth. The ambient light does not feature. We effectively have two lights in one using a simple bounce tool! Cool…
The resulting image certainly isn’t marred by icky flash. It looks like it might have been taken with a studio-style flash head and softbox! And it´s on-camera.
Next is a shot from the same wedding taken in the lively ‘disco area’. Here I’ve again used bounced flash but this time I’ve ensured the shutter speed and ISO combination is sufficient to bring in some of the funky lightshow as the best man gets down and boogies. Whether you’re trying to eliminate the ambient or bring it into play, a bounced flash is still your friend.
When you bounce, the light source becomes as large as the bounce area you are using. A bigger light source offers softer, flattering light. Hard light increases contrast, makes shiny heads shinier, wrinkles deeper and more pronounced. There’s a place for hard light but in the portrait setting more often than not we’re looking for a softer light.
Next, let’s look at a shot from a Burlesque evening held at a local restaurant where I’ve killed the ambient light, which was being providing by harsh little tungsten spotlights in the ceiling. With camera in portrait orientation and the the Joe Demb Flip-it off to the side with have directional light being kicked forward, softened by some light bouncing down from above. Bounced light is like turning a wall or ceiling into one great big umbrella. It’s magic when you’re forced to use flash. The aperture was a wide f/2.8 for shallow depth of field and, in the middle of a busy event, I’ve managed to a achieve a pretty studio-esque portrait with a hotshoe flashgun.
When bouncing flash you have to be aware of changes to colour temperature brought about by bouncing off coloured surfaces. A white or pale grey wall or ceiling is pretty safe but, say, an orange wall with give an orange colour cast. A multi-coloured wall could give of a blend of different temperatures. Always shoot RAW files, where there’s more scope to alter the white balance of your image after the event.
You also need to be aware of flash power. Generally, when killing the ambient entirely, you’ll need to increase the ‘flash exposure compensation’ (FEC) on your flash gun to ensure a good exposure. If simply trying to sneak a little fill into the shot you may want to decrease FEC.
I often use the Joe Demb Flip-it to kick a little stronger flash forward, softened by the bounced light. But you can also use just the bounced light. A great technique if you find a white wall, stand between it and your subject and point the flashgun over your shoulder. Now you have the equivalent of a great big umbrella (without having to lug it with you on the shoot).