Light is my favourite part of photography. I also love colour, composition and gesture, but light – wow. To me, light is photography. At the same time, it is possibly also the hardest part to learn. It is a great challenge; setting lighting usually takes a great deal of effort but it can also be very rewarding. In this post am I not going to focus on studio lighting, but look at on-camera flash units and how I use them to improve my photography.
It pains me seeing how people sometimes use their on-camera flash with a bounce accessory. Bounce diffuser domes are meant for use with surfaces to bounce light off. I have seen people use bounce domes outdoors and it simply does not work, all they do is reduce flash power. The reason is that a bounce dome distributes the light around the room, making the light bounce off walls, ceiling, floor and practically any light coloured surface to give a soft, diffused daylight effect on your subject. Another big mistake people make is aiming the bounce dome straight at your subject; the correct way is to tilt your flash with the bounce dome 45° upwards. By doing that, the light distributes more evenly around the room, but what is more important is that it does not interfere with the sensor on your flash, nor does it interfere with the TTL metering, which may otherwise make your shots underexposed.
In short, bouncing the flash from the ceiling softens all the shadows. In effect, the ceiling becomes the light source, rather than the flash itself.
Bouncing off the ceiling, giving raccoon eyes
Bounce flash can also result in undesirable and unsightly effects, for instance shadows formed under the nose and inside the eye sockets in portraits. One option is to use a secondary reflector which directs extra light at the subject in addition to the light from the main reflector. Another solution is to use a modifier like the Gary Fong Lightsphere, which directs a bigger proportion of the light towards your subject. This modifier is great, versatile enough for different conditions, and diffuses light very well. The downside is that it is also bulky and it gives a very broad spread of light, which is not good for pinpoint or directional work. Then there is the waste of light, why do it have to through it 360° around? slowing your recycle time and making it annoying to work around. Finally, there is the price; it is a harsh price for a piece of Tupperware. To a certain extent, the same effect can be achieved with the DIY solution.
Using a DIY diffuser
A DIY diffuser made using translucent silicone drawer liner from Ikea gives a nice, soft, natural light without giving a raccoon effect on your subject. The shot below was taken with a DIY diffuser on a flash unit mounted on-camera, taken about 2 meters from the subject. You can see the diffuser reflected in the highlights in the boys’ eyes. The balance of diffuse light and gentle shadow gives a natural depth to the image. Best of all, the home-made diffuser I recommend here will not set you back more than a few bucks.
Using a wall
When shooting portraits, one of the best surfaces for bounce flash is a wall. It creates an impression of depth. As the reflector is fixed in place, you will have to move the subject to increase or decrease the amount of shadow visible to the camera. Another benefit is that the wall reflects light into the face at eye level, giving a flattering illumination. Unlike when bouncing the light off the ceiling, bouncing light off the wall not produce dark shadows under the eyes. Make sure there is a reasonable distance between the wall and the flash − if the two are close to each other, diffusion will not be sufficient. Tilt the flash head through 30° to 45° so that you are not in the way and causing shadows when holding the camera. If you want to emphasize the eyes, then tilt the head down a little.
Ceiling or walls of odd colors
As discussed under bounce, using the walls and ceiling is desirable to soften up shadows and give a natural daylight effect. However, if the walls and ceiling are not white, this will reflect in your photos. One trick I learned just recently is to hold a reflector behind/over your head, using this to bounce the light off. Obviously, you do this without the bouncer dome. With this technique, the reflector becomes your light source, rather than the flash. This is a great technique to use outdoors or in large rooms where the ceiling and walls are too far away to be effective. An alternative to this is Rogue Flashbenders, which effectively increase the light size giving a softer, more pleasant light.
Wide angle diffuser and reflector card
I use the HLV F60M flash unit from Sony. As with most high-end flashes, it comes with a built-in diffuser as well as a reflector card. When you tilt the diffuser up, turning the ceiling into one big reflector, the reflector card bounces light towards the subject in order to fill up the shadows and create catch light.