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Five Methods for Bouncing Light

For many photographers, bouncing light means just one thing: using a reflector to lighten a subject’s shadow side. But bounced light can take many forms because it can be done for many reasons—like making “motivated light” or creating a softer, more natural looking source. Here are five examples of how you can bounce light for more refined illumination.

• Bouncing a flash off a ceiling. By default, when I put a flash on my hot shoe I aim it straight up in the air so that I can bounce the light off of the ceiling. It’s especially effective with low white ceilings, but it also works on taller off-white ceilings, too. This bounce not only softens the illumination and eliminates the “bucket of light” look that a typical full-frontal flash provides, but it also makes the light appear to come from above where it’s more natural for light to originate. I frequently bounce the flash a second time by attaching a small white card to the back of the flash to act as a subtle softened fill light from the front.

• Bounce as a fill light, with a white, silver or gold reflector. The prototypical reflector is the white fill card. Bouncing spill from the main light (whether that’s sun, strobe or anything else) off of a white fill card is a great way to decrease contrast and add illuminating detail to the shadow side of any subject—from portraits to products, architecture to automobiles. But changing that surface from white to matte silver gives the fill card a bit more kick; shiny silver even more. Change the color of that surface from silver to gold, and the fill light turns warm. This is a great way to add magic-hour-style warmth to portraits; just remember that a little goes a long way.

• Making a key light with a large reflector. Here’s a bounce technique that often gets overlooked. Bouncing a specular source—like a strobe with a parabolic reflector—off of a large white reflector effectively takes a small pinpoint source and turns it into a broad light source. That’s the difference between a specular light and one that’s diffuse, which makes all the difference in the world. Broad, diffuse sources are flattering, especially for portraits, because they wrap their light around a subject and produce less prominent shadows. This is usually a task that’s reserved for a softbox, but the look is subtly different than a key light bounced off a reflector. Better still, a $10 sheet of white foamcore for a bounce is a lot more affordable than even the most inexpensive softbox.

• Creating an edge light with a mirror. Mirrors and shiny boards (which have mirror like reflectance but aren’t as fragile as a real glass mirror) are very powerful reflectors. With them, you can bounce light and send it a very long way. This technique can be especially useful when working outdoors, to send sunlight over a long distance to act as a hair light or an edge light to add separation between a subject and background. (Imagine a subject standing in open shade and a mirror in the distance reflecting sun at the subject’s back.) You could use a mirror as a key light, too, but it would be so bright and specular that it’s probably a bit harsh for a key. As a backlight, though, that intensity is perfect.

• Bouncing sunlight off of almost anything. Speaking of sunlight, it’s often best when bounced. Sure, you can take pictures of people standing in direct sunlight, but move them into open shade where that sunlight is reflected off of the surrounding environment and suddenly you’ve got an indirect, diffuse light source that makes for less harsh light and much more pleasing portraits. Or, bounce that same sunlight off those same surroundings and you can even take it inside—courtesy of a nice north-facing window. Windows facing other directions can work too, as long as they don’t have the sun shining directly in the window. North facing windows simply never have direct sunlight shining in—as long as you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, that is. The point is, the sun is an amazing light source, but it’s most amazing when it has had its edges rounded off thanks to a good strong bounce.

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