I’ve been trying to write about bounce flash at weddings for about an hour now. The problem with explaining bounce flash is that it seems simple at first (just point the flash over your shoulder!) but then there’s a snag … a situation where that doesn’t quite work. So, you talk about the snag, which leads you down another path (diffusers and bounce cards!) … which veers off into some other tangent (shadows and background!) and the next thing you know you’re typing the words “raccoon” and “inverse square law” in the same sentence and you just have to stop.
So, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to post some pictures from a recent wedding and talk about the lighting in each one. Hopefully I will be able to stay on topic. (By the way, I am a wedding photographer in Tampa, FL and no raccoons were harmed in the writing of this article.)
This particular wedding reception was in a small room with low ceilings that were white (mana from heaven for a bounce flash photographer). I was able to shoot with my flash pointed back over my left shoulder most of the night. I think a lot of people tend to believe that you either bounce off a wall or you bounce off the ceiling in front of you. It’s important to realize that you can bounce off the ceiling behind you as well (especially if it’s low). You will typically lose some light, since most of it will bounce to the back of the room but you’ll still get some back from the ceiling, tablecloths, walls, etc. I had my flash dialed up to +1 most of the night. Could I have taken this shot with a diffuser or direct flash? Sure, but I would have lost contrast in the subject. The reason the dancing man stands out is because the light falls off across his body (notice the shadow on his face).
I should point out that my first choice for flash photography is always a direct bounce of some sort. If I can’t pull that off I will use a bounce card and try to bounce off the ceiling with the card throwing some light forward to eliminate “raccoon eyes” (and you thought I was joking about the raccoons). If the ceiling is too high for a good bounce I will consider using a second strobe on a stand pointed at the ceiling to get more light (read this). If none of these options work, I light a chair on fire and escape in the confusion.
When I’m not using a card I point the flash over my left shoulder. When I’m using a card I point the flash to the left or right. This gives me a nice bounce for cross-lighting and the card reflects enough light for fill. (That’s my 5-year-old daughter demonstrating my typical bounce card setup.) Many times when you are shooting with a deep background (like a dance floor), you can stay in this configuration most of the night. It has the distinct advantage of working the same way when you tilt the camera, which is great for fast-paced dance floor pictures. However, if you are shooting against a wall, you will get more shadow, like the picture below:
When I approached the best man during his toast, my first thought was, “The wall behind me is too far away.” So, I switched to my fall back position with a bounce card. I shot and chimped (ooh-ooh!) and immediately spotted the deep shadow on the wall. It’s still an acceptable picture and I was getting some contrast on his face but I wanted to do better. So, I dropped the card and rotated the flash to point behind me at 45 degrees just to see if I could get enough bounce:
Bingo! Good contrast and almost no shadow. Now I knew that I could bounce off the ceiling behind me from anywhere in the room. I never used the bounce card again that night.
Once you start to bounce flash at weddings you will find yourself looking for ways to be more creative:
For this picture I pointed the flash straight left and bounced it off the wall.
This brings up an interesting point: Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking that you need a beautiful venue to get good pictures. Every wedding isn’t at The Ritz-Carlton. You never know what elements of a wedding will be most important to your bride and groom, but you can be sure that they hired you because they expect you to produce something unique with whatever they provide. Work the room, look for angles and find the shot. (btw, I’m undecided about whether or not to clean up the colored lights on Mom’s dress. I’ll probably clean it up for the album)
Remember, it’s not just about the fancy formals with off-camera lighting or the emotional close-ups during the ceremony. The #1 request that I get from clients when designing their album is, “more party pictures.” With a little creative bounce flash you can elevate your reception pictures to a new level.