Flash photography can be very simple with direct, on-camera flash, using either the built-in head or an external flash unit. Of course, the simplest methods rarely produce the best results in any type of photography; and this also applies to shooting with flash. If you own a versatile accessory flash unit for your interchangeable-lens camera, consider the following technique and accessories for more pleasing illumination.
Bounce the Light
Direct on-camera flash produces an unflattering look in people, with flat light striking the subject from the front, and eliminating all shadows. It also creates hard shadows on the wall behind the subject. Both problems can be minimized by bouncing flash light off a side wall or the ceiling. This requires a flash unit that has a tilt head (for bouncing light from a ceiling) and/or a swivel head (for bouncing light off a wall beside the subject).
As the photo at the top of this story shows, on-camera flash produces a harsh-looking effect, while bouncing flash from a ceiling can provide gentler, more pleasing illumination. This technique, used for the photo directly at right, can produce technical problems however, so you may need to tweak the photos in image-editing software. (© 2010 Peter K. Burian)
Hint: Be sure that the bounce surface is white or close to it. That will minimize the risk of an unflattering colour cast in your flash photos.
It's easy to bounce light from a ceiling; simply set the flash head to a 45 degree angle and take the shot. The results may not be ideal because the light will strike a person from above. This can produce dark eye sockets, flat light and dull colours. Bouncing light from a side wall may produce more pleasing effects; that may require you to re-position your subject to a location near a white wall. Next week I will discuss an even better technique: off camera flash. That may sound complicated but it's actually a simple method for more professional lighting effects.
Use An Accessory
Instead of using the ceiling or a side wall as discussed above, you can also get soft light with an accessory that you attach to the flash unit. One type includes a large white surface: the light will be bounced off that area onto your subject. Several brands and configurations are available but the most common are the LumiQuest Bounce models and the Rogue FlashBender (at left on photo). While they differ in construction, both feature a bounce surface that's larger than the built-in bounce card that's available with some flash units. Hence, they produce softer, more pleasing illumination.
Many photographers prefer to use a different type of accessory, an add-on that simply spreads and diffuses (scatters) the light for soft illumination. The two most readily available models are the small Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce and the much larger Gary Fong Lightsphere (at right on photo). In my experience, the latter is more effective for people pictures, because of its larger size. Like the bounce accessories the diffusers are most effective when the flash unit is no more than 2.5 metres from the subject.