Photography Tips: Bouncing an External Flash

These days, DSLRs are so good in low light, that many people decide they will never use flash, or that flash is always a negative thing. Bouncing the light from an external flash, also known as a speedlight, though, can make a big difference in the quality of your photos.

Learning how to use bounce flash has improved my indoor photography so much, that it’s one of the best photography skills I know. It’s amazing what a difference this can make.

When it’s too dark inside or when the light just isn’t good, bounce flash with an external flash that slips into the hot shoe of your DSLR, can give you professional looking images, without that “deer in the headlights” look of direct flash. And, when flash is used well, it mimics natural light and won’t even be noticed (other than providing sharper, cleaner images.)

The good news is, you don’t have to be a photography expert to use bounce flash. It’s really a simple technique. All you need is a speedlight that rotates and tilts. Read on.

bounce flash portrait

Here’s the problem with that built-in pop-up flash on your DSLR:  That kind of light is too harsh and direct, and the source is too small.  (Shooting any flash straight on will give you poor light.)

External On-Camera Flash (Speedlight)

An external on-camera flash that rotates and tilts, though, spreads more light and can be bounced.  This kind of flash slips right into your DSLR’s hot shoe, and it can be used on or off-camera. (I’ve only used mine on-camera, but these are really versatile flashes and can be used off camera too.) In Nikon lingo, they are called Speedlights, and in Canon, they are Speedlites.

Using bounce flash with my speedlight inserted into the hot shoe on my camera immediately made my photography look much more pleasing and professional.  It is one of the best camera equipment purchases I have ever made.

*This post contains affiliate links. This means I will earn a commission if you purchase through them, at no additional cost to you. As an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. 


How to use Bounce Flash

  • This technique will work in the Program mode, Shutter Priority mode, Aperture Priority mode, or Manual mode settings on your camera. I’m pretty sure you can use it in full Auto mode also, but I think the built-in flash will fire too, along with your speedlight (which is what you’re trying to avoid.) So, if you want to use an Auto mode, use Program mode instead. It’s just as easy, but gives you more control. 

You will get the most control of the amount of light if you’re bouncing the flash while you’re using Manual mode, but you absolutely don’t have to use Manual mode. When I first got my speedlight, I hadn’t had my DSLR very long, and I was still shooting almost all of my photos in Program mode. 

  • I usually set my camera’s ISO to about 400 or 800 for this, depending upon the indoor light situation. Your ISO setting will determine how much ambient light will factor in. It’s fun to experiment.
  • I use the auto (TTL) setting on the speedlight. (In Nikon, it’s i-TTL, and in Canon it’s E-TTL.)  I usually point it at the ceiling straight up or at a side wall, and the flash spreads nice light onto my subject. Sometimes I’ll point it a little forward at the ceiling if my subject is a little farther away, or even a little behind me at the ceiling if the subject is very close. Play around with it. (It’s best if the wall is white or very light, which is why ceilings work well.) I’ve also bounced off a piece of white foam board or poster board.
  • By adjusting the angle of the flash, you control where the light will fall, and you can get some really nice directional light. 
  • You can increase or decrease the amount of flash with the flash exposure compensation button on the back of the speedlight, so the amount of light from the flash is adjustable.

It’s really very simple!

The photo at the top, of my daughter and Sunny was taken several years ago, in our kitchen. That photo was shot in Program Mode. I simply pointed the speedlight up to the ceiling and shot.  Had I used the pop-up flash on the camera and shot straight on, there would have been a much more harsh shadow behind them, and the light would have been harsh and flat. 

Now here’s an example of direct flash, without bouncing… See what I mean? Ugh, shadow.

child with play drill

Choosing a Speedlight

NOTE: You will need a speedlight that rotates and tilts, in order to bounce the flash.  Some of these types of external flash units don’t swivel and tilt, so make sure you’re purchasing one that does.

Although speedlights can be a little bit of an investment, they are so incredibly helpful, when the light isn’t optimal. (And, that can be often.)   

But, as you know from this post, I am all about buying photo equipment used. Used equipment, from a reputable camera store either locally or online, can save you a lot of money. 

Also, speedlights can be purchased at varying price points, so don’t let the price of one of them scare you off. If you visit a local camera store or have a conversation on the phone with an online vendor, you can be sure to find one that will meet your needs.  

I recommend buying the same brand speedlight as your camera, as this makes getting the right lighting much simpler.  The third party brands are cheaper, but they may not be quite as compatible.  This is another great conversation to have with a knowledgeable camera store person.

I have Nikon DSLRs and use the Nikon SB-600 Speedlight Flashbut there are different ones available at various price points.  It swivels and tilts in different directions, so that I can bounce it to get the best light available. 

A popular flash for Canon DSLRs is the  Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT Flash.  There are other versions of Canon Speedlites, too.

Modifying the Built-In Flash

If you’re not ready to make an investment in a speedlight, there are a few ways to soften the built-in pop-up flash on your DSLR, without spending a lot of money.

One solution that I’ve seen online (but haven’t tried), is to place a small white card (business card or an index card) at a 45 degree angle in front of the pop up flash, so that the light bounces up.

Another option is to tape some tissue paper over the pop-up flash! Try to keep the actual tape from covering the flash if you try that. 

There are many times when I need my flash, so I’m glad to know how to use it well!  I’ll always be learning new things about flash and new ways to use it.

If you would like to explore bounce flash photography in depth (or even just get some easy to use tips within a video class), I recommend this excellent class at Craftsy.  The class gives you great visuals of this technique. 

Porraits with an On-Camera Speedlight

Have you tried this flash technique yet?

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  1. I love Gary Fong products! I did a wedding a few weeks ago with a camera that has ISO up to nearly 25,000! And yet, once the sun set, the external flash unit was much more pleasing than just using high ISO. I prefer natural light, but I'm certainly not against flash!

  2. What great advice! I was just talking with a friend about this who is going on the trip of a lifetime – trying to explain what he wanted to do. I should have showed him this post!

    Thank you for joining us for Photo Friday this past week!

  3. Thanks for the tips. I am a Food Blogger with a dark kitchen and lighting gives me fits. I will have to try this out.

  4. What a great post Pam… I do not use a flash too often, and when I do it is mostly with my macro shots. But, I hope to have a studio someday and this will be a great read to tuck away for later. Thanks for linking with Life Thru the Lens… I think others will really enjoy this read as well.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Lisa. It is amazing how a simple thing like bouncing the flash can result in images that look much more professional.

  5. Hi Pam,
    It sounds like you know a lot about photography! Thanks for writing this so the rest of us can learn.

    1. Thanks so much, Janice. Learning bounce flash was probably the thing that has helped my indoor photography the most. It is such a simple trick that makes such a huge difference.

  6. This is so good! Since I often photograph food, I shy away from using my flash. However, there are so many other times where I really would enjoy my photography more with good light. Thanks for sharing these excellent tips. I can't wait to give them a try.

  7. Great tips, lighting well is probably the biggest issue with photography so any tips are always welcome.

    1. Thanks so much. Yes, lighting will make or break a photo for sure. I couldn't believe how dramatically bounce flash helps, but it absolutely changed my photography so much for the better.

  8. Gosh how I struggle with indoor shots and that flash! I am not a photography person but want decent pictures for my homestead blog. I have taken to shooting most shots outside since my cabin is darker. I will try the business card and tissue thing to see if that works for me at all.
    Thanks for your tips!
    Melissa | Little Frugal Homestead

    1. I understand how difficult it can be! My husband gifted me with my speedlight years ago, not long after I got my first DSLR. I can't tell you how much frustration is has saved me. I do hope the card and/or tissue work for you! If the business card doesn't work, try an index card. Bost of luck!

  9. Thank you Pam! I needed this post so much! Indoor pictures are just the hardest thing for me. I had a class scheduled last year that was cancelled due to Covid. I have it rescheduled now but this is great info! Thanks again and have a great week!

  10. I have a new camera and haven't learned all of the tips and tricks just yet. Thanks for sharing your experience with the flash. #HomeMattersParty

  11. Great tips, Pam. I need to spend more time learning photography 🙂

    Thanks so much for linking up to Creative Mondays. I hope you can join us again tomorrow 🙂 #CreativeMondaysLinkUp

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