I was reading (on Tangents I think) advice on avoiding bounce off the ceiling as being an unnatural place for the light to come from (?) and in any case not artistic. Figure out where your lamp or softbox would be if you were in a studio, and aim the flash to bounce from there.

However I can't help wondering how he manages to have expansive white surfaces to bounce from, pretty much anywhere he wants. Is that because his experience is with weddings and everything is draped in white including the people?

I can rarely find anything to bounce from in the wild, and that includes a reflective white ceiling that's not too far overhead.

What's he leaving out that's obvious to him?

  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ Odd, I would've thought it would be more natural to bounce from the ceiling, as you'd normally see things lit from above (say, from a light fitting, or the sun) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 9:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can we work on the title of the question a bit here? "What to bounce?" sounds like we are talking about balls or kids or something. Maybe... "What surfaces should I bounce a flash off of?" or similar? \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 16:09

3 Answers 3


Do you have a camera that has a usable ISO 1600? (Hint: if you're using a full-frame camera of recent vintage, the answer is "yes". The answer is also "yes" for a goodly number of smaller-sensor cameras these days.) If you do, and you also own a "full sized" on-camera flash (Nikon SB910, Canon 580EX/600EX RT, or an approximate equivalent, whether your camera's marque or third party), you have an available guide number of at least 230 in meters or 770-ish in feet. (The farther away, the more zoomed-in your flash can be.) And you can double those numbers when necessary if you're lucky enough to have one of those cameras where ISO 6400 is just another setting. "Too far away" is a long, long way away.

And if you actually read what Neil has to say (and look at the occasional behind-the-scenes shots he posts), you'll notice that he'll take advantage of just about anything. You don't need a massive expanse of white wall nearby; a post or ceiling beam will do if there's no wall handy, as will exterior concrete, tablecloths, the shirts of willing "assistants"... If all else fails, you can always go off-camera.

As for the bounce from above, it's the vertical or forward bouce he's talking about. That puts the light directly or nearly directly overhead. Basically it's high noon on a slightly overcast day; the raccoon eyes are a little bit softer than you might get with direct sunlight (or with direct on-camera flash as your main light) but that doesn't make it flattering. He will use a ceiling bounce behind himself (and to the side with individuals, couples or small-enough groups) when he needs to.

Yes, that throws a lot of light away, but you have a huge excess of light with a speedlight when you're not battling the sun (or trying to use a too-low ISO because you can see OMG NOYZZES!!! at 100%). Let's say you lose three stops on the bounce, mostly because of the bad angle bouncing behind. At ISO 1600, that leaves you with a GN of about 40 (meters) from the bright spot on the wall (or cieling, or what have you). That's f/4 when the bounce surface is 10 meters/33 feet away from your subject. Doing the same thing with grey concrete, or at an ISO of 800 instead of 1600, means you'd need to be at f/2.8 at the same distance. Or you could lift your ISO to use a smaller aperture or handle increased distance.

Neil isn't leaving anything out; you're just vastly underestimating how much light a modern speedlight puts out when paired with a modern DSLR. The days of GN36/120 flashes and shooting VPS or Portra 160NC at 125 are far behind us, as are digital cameras that need to be kept nailed to ISO 100.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That's no understatement on the amount of light that things like the 600EX put out either. I've done some playing with my 5D Mark iii at ISO 6400 and my 600EX running full power and it blows my mind some of the shots I can pull off in darkened spaces. It can even battle the sun from relatively "distant" (for that type of shot anyway) positions when shooting at the sync speed. \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Henderson
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 14:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, particularly on van Nierkerk's usage of high ISO settings, and having misunderstood what he meant about not bouncing up at 45º/90º by default. :) And the wall doesn't have to be white or a wall. \$\endgroup\$
    – inkista
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 23:19

There is a YouTube video of a session from Neil at B & H Event Space where he admits to having recourse to other light modifiers when there is absolutely nothing to bounce off of. Also, he says that he uses the flash in the same positions all the time, only changing the position of the subject to suit the light that is then produced.


The big key to bounce light is to consider the shadows. You don't want to bounce the light before it gets to the subject so that it fills in naturally. When shooting events, you are often in close with a lot of excess power to go. Personally, I normally bounce off the ceiling behind me, but I also use a reflective modifier that sends about 20 percent of the light directly forward to provide a front fill while the light falling back down keeps everything bathed in light.

I personally do this more to avoid being as distracting as guests at an event tend to not like light being bounced off their face and as you said, there is often a lack of suitable bounce surfaces.

Certainly the color, direction and quality of the light (and more importantly shadow) are the most important things to consider, but also consider the disturbing amount of power available to you in a modern speedlight. They are basically miniature strobes at this point if you have a fairly recent model top end speedlight. My 600EX-RT is one of the few piece of gear that when I bought it, I thought, "There is no possible way a flash is worth $550" (the price when I got it.) Within a couple weeks of using it, I wanted three more of the things.

Think about how much light you have, where you need the light to come from and how large of an area you need to avoid shadows that will be a problem. Think about what modifiers you have (and if you don't have some, get at least a couple possible modifiers for your flashes). In a particularly difficult environment, consider setting up an off camera flash that you can use sync'd with your main to provide extra fill lighting. It's a little harder to shoot with, but you can put them in different groups and dial in the appropriate fill ratio as you move around. It takes some practice, but is well worth it.


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