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I see many photographers at wedding receptions, etc, pointing the flash on their cameras straight to ceiling, or even slanting over the photographer's head.

At first I thought it was to bounce the flash from the ceiling. But today I saw a photographer in a church shooting a christening. Again the flash was pointed to the ceiling. The church has a very high ceiling and had chandeliers hanging, so it's not to bounce the flash from the ceiling.

There was no card on the flash to bounce the light either. Why is the benefit of doing this?

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    Two words; soft light Mar 25 at 17:46
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    @RomeoNinov: Two other words : cargo cult. Every now and then, I see "photographers" using this technique, even though there's 0% chance it actually does anything except empty the flash batteries. E.g. outside, with no obstacle anywhere near the flash beam. Mar 26 at 13:02
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    same to mobile phone users who enable flash in large areas where it has no impact to the result image at all
    – phuclv
    Mar 26 at 13:42

5 Answers 5

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Just because a ceiling is high doesn't mean you can't bounce flash off it, particularly if you only need enough light for fill and use high ISO settings. Neil van Nierkerk's actually been doing this for years.

See:

In both of these instances, he's using an ISO of 1000 or higher.

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  • Not only is it very high, it was directly under the dome of the church. There was also a big chandelier hanging.
    – Stefcyp
    Mar 26 at 14:22
  • So I would be very hard to bounce the flash off the dome.
    – Stefcyp
    Mar 26 at 14:24
  • The photographer might be pointing the flash toward the ceiling out of habit. Many ceilings are low and white, and that is the most appropriate environment for the technique.
    – Nayuki
    Mar 26 at 16:28
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Cameras with built-in flash locate the flashlamp quite near the camera lens. Such a lash-up yields high contrast images. The shadows cast are not filled with ambient light thus they tend to go dark and void of detail. Plus they are quite narrow which can quite unflattering.

Pointing the flash at the ceiling illuminates the subjects with what we call bounce light. This light is highly diffused thus the shadows cast are soft so the display details.

Additionally, a flash close to the camera lens is said to be on-axis lighting. You need to know, light that that plays on human and animal eyes has a tendency to penetrate and then reflect backwards towards the light source that made them. This returning light is ruby red, tinted by the blood rich retina. Thus axial light has a tendency to produce a red-eye effect.

A good technique practiced by photogenes is to hold a detached flash at arm’s length and high. The increases the separation of the light source from the lens. Red-eye is avoided, the shadows cast by this type of light are widened and this gives an illusion of depth. The light comes from above simulates afternoon sun which is quire flattering.

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  • Lighting a scene with an on-axis flash is often better than having everything lit solely by a single off-axis flash. Using a single off-axis flash can produce a black outline around the subject on the side opposite the flash. Adding even a small amount of fill light can make the shadow much less pronounced.
    – supercat
    Mar 26 at 17:55
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    You're a fountain of knowledge Alan, but sometimes your answers almost seem like they've been copied verbatim from somewhere else entirely. You haven't actually addressed the specific details that the asker wants clarified here.
    – osullic
    Mar 28 at 23:13
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Either the ceiling was so far up that bouncing flash off it would have no effect, in which case the photographer was acting merely from habit. Or it wasn't THAT far up.

Or maybe he was taking a series of pictures, some with flash, and couldn't be bothered to change settings.

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One thing to remember is that the power of flash weakens with the square of the distance (which leads to the "guide number" calculations since the aperture number affects the admitted light also in a squared manner), assuming unobstructed propagation. In a closed room, there is no unobstructed propagation, however, so if your flash is powerful enough to fill the whole room with light and the surfaces are not rather dark, bouncing will still do something (light travels fast enough that the lighting and reflective action is essentially over by the time the shutter closes even in a very large church).

If your equipment is good for that kind of brute-force indirect lighting, it will not exactly make you popular with the congregation.

Outdoors this is mostly useless, though I have used trees/bushes for bouncing, and flash into open space is not a full do-nothing in rain, fog, or smoky/dusty conditions. For those "not a full do-nothing" cases, flash gels can provide additional modifiers even though they'll take more light from what already is pretty limited.

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I can think of one possible use for a flash pointing upwards when there is no possibility of it bouncing to give indirect illumination, e.g. out of doors and that is some cameras will automatically switch to a flash mode, (quite slow shutter speed and small aperture) when they detect a flash powered on the shoe. It is often quicker to switch on the flash than to switch to manual mode and set things up by hand.

However, I agree that in many cases it is the photographer, i.e. the person taking the photograph, not thinking about what they are doing - I have often seen people trying to take photographs of the night sky, a TV or fireworks with a direct flash....

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