Reflecting Your Hotshoe Flash

As promised, this article is centered around a camera technique. The technique we’ll go over here is expanding the use of your hotshoe flash, through the use of bouncing it, and the use of reflectors. It occurred to me that for many photographers, starting out or otherwise, sometimes you find yourself in the situation of being asked to do shots that require a little bit different lighting, but you haven’t got a lot of equipment with you, or lighting conditions to your liking.

For this exercise, you’ll need:

A camera
A Hotshoe flash with a swivel head
A reflector of some sort – white foam board from the dollar store works in a pinch.

We’ll start by looking at the simple bounce problem. Everybody does it, at parties or other events. You point the flash up at the ceiling or if you’re really adventurous, at a wall, to cut down those harsh shadows. You can also throw up your flash card to get those catch lights in the process. There are a couple of situations where this works really well, but unfortunately, most people don’t know them, or more importantly, know when not to do this. It has to do with angle of light. If you’re too close to your subject, then you get shadow lines under the eyes. If your subject is close to a background, and you’ve backed off to get rid of those shadows under the eyes, then you have a shadow line on the background. So what happens when your subject is close to a background (say a wall) and you have to get in close, but don’t want those shadows?

Some people invest in a diffuser of some sort, like the Fong Filter. It works well at softening or removing those shadow lines, but when used on its own, it can also lead to flat lighting with no depth to features. For me, I like to bring along a small reflector for when I get close. So let’s look at a few examples to see what kind of light you can get from a little creativity, in a tough situation.

My Father recently obtained for himself a new trombone. I don’t know too much about the instrument, but for those enthusiasts out there that play, it is a F.E. OLDS and SON from Los Angeles, made in 1930. It is a small bore trombone with a great Jazz sound, so he was pretty excited about having it. Having not had a portrait with a trombone in several years, we thought it would be fun to experiment a little with this particular challenge. So we went into a small room in the basement, with a trombone, a flowery shirt and a pair of glasses for some black and white shots with several issues to work around.

We started with some typical bounce shots, with the flash pointed at the ceiling and the camera on a tripod, to get a feel for the situation we were in.

Then I simply held a reflector in line with his face, with the flash pointed at the reflector, with a flash card.

You can instantly see the problems with reflections in the bell of the trombone, but we’re beginning to see more depth to the subject, and lessening of the shadow on the wall.  Part of the shadow problem is improved by the size of the light source getting bigger, as it bounces of of the much larger reflector.

So let’s get rid of the instrument for a minute to find the light we want first, then we’ll bring it back in when we can control that reflection.

Here we’ve moved the reflector around to the side and just above nose level for a side light.  We liked the depth of the shadow to the one side of the face, but not the shadow on the wall as much.  This is a good opportunity to talk about quality of shadow transition.  When I refer to shadow lines, as opposed to shadow, I am referring to something obscuring light, that causes an unnatural line to show.  The shadow on the background below his elbow in the first picture is a good example of a shadow line.  His face in this picture has contours and shape that fall in shadow, but they naturally follow those contours.  If you could imagine me putting my hand in front of the light, it would throw a shadow line over the face that would appear unnatural and out of place.  To help illustrate this, here is a shot withe the model holding two reflectors in a cross light, bringing up the shadow side of his face and one with only one reflector.

You’ll notice the background shadow isn’t effected, but the fill light on his face changes the mood of the image, and now we’re finding that the angle of the light is catching the glasses. Aargh, isn’t it grand lighting so many reflective surfaces in a small room!

So we’ve played with a side light, and a side light with fill, and we’ve shown a ceiling bounce.  We’ve improved the depth of the image, and found something that would give some mood, but we’re still dealing with the background shadow lines.  So let’s try a butterfly light.

For this shot He held a reflector in his hands, pointed up, and I held a reflector over the camera, with the flash bounced upward, with no flash card.  The flash card would have made a catch light in the glasses, and the reflector left a small catch light on the rim that I can remove easily in post editing if it’s too distracting.  This setup shows clearly that if the angle of light becomes too sharp an angle, when bounced off of the ceiling (creating shadows in the eyes), lower the ceiling (use a reflector above the camera), or use a fill reflector that your model can hold, if their hands are free.  In this case, I think I could have gotten a better result by raising the top reflector a little more.  But now we can take the shot we’re looking for.  One with him and his new trombone.

I liked the mood and feeling of depth from the side light, and wanted something close and intimate to capture the connection of musician to the instrument.  So I went for a blend of the side light and butterfly, and held the reflector higher then eye level and to one side, and by pushing it past him a little, it lit the background some as well, though that ultimately got cropped out.  You’ll notice also that the new pose got a much more pleasing reflection from the trombone, that showed its shape better.

Here’s a version done with bouncing the flash off of the ceiling for comparison.  I had to increase the exposure in post in order to see the face better.

So you can see now that using a simple reflector, and changing the angle of light can be used to expand the usefulness of your on camera flash.  In those situations where you are shooting with little preparation, you can conquer tough lighting conditions with little effort and a little practice.

A note on equipment and process.  All of the images in this tutorial were run through the same RAW settings to provide consistency and show the light under the same circumstances with the exception of the last one where it had to be brightened.

The flash I used was the Sony HVLF58AM flash which happens to have what I think is the best bounce option in the market.

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