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Bounce Flash Made Easy

December 3, 2018

By: Eric Stoner

If you’re like many people out there, you have certain expectations when it comes to pictures taken indoors with flash. And while most auxiliary flash units do a fine job properly exposing a subject with direct flash, they sometimes leave us wanting a more natural-looking result.

Adding flash to a scene is often a necessary evil because the scene is either too dark or the lighting is just plain bad sometimes. Flash generally corrects for these issues but also presents some new ones in the process. One of the first problems that comes to mind may be that many pictures don’t reflect the mood of the lighting that was present when you took the photo (i.e. room lighting). Direct flash on-camera has a look all its own — harsh shadows, dark backgrounds and dimensionless. See exhibit A below.

Photo of young boy taken with direct on-camera flash - result is flat and uninteresting

Exhibit A: Direct on-camera flash — flat and uninteresting

The good news is that there’s a better way of using on-camera flash: bounce flash! Many of today’s flash units have the ability to move the flash head in several different directions, allowing you to aim it at a ceiling, wall or other structure to reflect light back onto your subject. This is called bounce flash and it’s a great way to soften the light coming from the flash to illuminate your subject with a much more natural look. It’s also easier on the eyes of your subjects. There are some problems with bounce flash, however, which include:

  1. It’s more difficult to learn initially.
  2. You must constantly monitor your surroundings and move the flash head to the best angle.
  3. It’s just not convenient especially during peak moments, when all you want to do is capture decisive activity.

What if I told you that a new technology has been introduced to completely automate the process of bounce flash to aid you in taking much better and natural-looking photos? Would you be interested in that? You’re not alone! Canon has introduced such a flash that will change your flash photography for the better, freeing you up to concentrate on the action in front of you, instead of the technical issues typically associated with flash photography. It’s called the Canon Speedlite 470EX-AI, and it introduces a totally new capability called Auto Intelligent Bounce.

Canon Speedlite 470EX-AI

Canon Speedlite 470EX-AI

Not long ago, I was explaining this flash unit to a family friend. Full disclosure, they are complete photo novices. They do own a Canon EOS Rebel T7i but mainly use it indoors with the built-in pop-up flash as the main source of illumination. I asked if they would mind trying the new Speedlite out at their son’s birthday party. With some very brief and simple instruction on how it works, I set them loose to take photos. I also asked them to take some pictures using direct flash so they can see the difference between direct flash and bounce flash.

One of the first issues many people notice when using an on-camera direct flash (especially vertical compositions) is the harsh shadows, as evidenced by the picture below.

Photo of young boy with harsh shadows from direct flash present issues and don't look natural

Harsh shadows from direct flash (especially vertical pictures) present issues and don’t look natural.

Now, for the next picture we’ll activate the AI.B switch (above the LCD panel) and set it to the “F” (Full Auto) position. Prior to taking the picture, aim the camera at your subject and simply press the AI.B button. The Speedlite will send two small powered test flashes, one directly forward and one with the flash head angled directly towards the ceiling, to measure where the best bounce flash opportunities exist in the room. The flash head moves automatically to take the measurement so there’s no need for any input on your part other than pressing the AI.B button to start the process.

Photo of Canon Speedlite 470EX-AI showing AI.B in the 'F' position

With the AI.B switch in the “F” position, aim the camera at your subject and press the AI.B button. Once proper bounce angle has been set, it steadily glows blue.

Here is the next image, with Auto Intelligent Bounce flash activated.

Photo of young boy taken with the AI.B settings in the 'F' position - no harsh shadows

The image is much more natural-looking, with soft shadows falling under the chin of the boy.

Here’s another example of direct flash vs. Auto Intelligent Bounce:

young boy sitting on staircase young boy sitting on staircase Woman taking photo of young boy on staircase

Notice the hard shadows on the picture to the left vs. the picture in the middle with bounce activated. The picture on the right shows the scene.

There’s no question that using bounce flash while taking pictures indoors will go a long way to improve your flash photography!

Let’s take a look at more examples of the process:

Photo of woman changing the settings on her Canon Speedlite 470EX-AI

Aim the camera in the direction of your subject and press the AI.B button.

Woman taking a photo of a young boy on a sofa with her Canon Speedlite 470EX-AI

Proceed with composing your picture in the camera’s viewfinder or Live View. Don’t be surprised if the flash head automatically swivels so it’s pointing slightly backward, as in the picture directly above. This is normal when nearby walls and ceilings are detected by the Speedlite 470EX-AI’s Full Auto Bounce system.

Young boy curled up smiling on a sofa

It’s pretty amazing and doesn’t even look as though flash was used at all! And if you switch from a horizontal to vertical camera position (or vice-versa), just tap the shutter button twice. The flash head will automatically move to maintain the same angle determined previously.

Close up headshot of young boy smiling

The 470EX-AI does a terrific job for those of you wanting complete automation, but it also has a semi-automatic feature for when you feel more confident and want to set your own bounce angle manually. Slide the AI.B switch to the “S” position.

The process is very simple in Semi-Automatic Mode — again, point the camera at your subject, then physically move the flash head to your desired bounce angle by observing light colored walls or ceilings and push the “ANGLE SET” button atop the right side of the Speedlite to register the bounce position. Unlike most flashes, there’s no release button you have to press to move the 470EX-AI’s flash head.

Woman changing the settings on her Canon Speedlite 470EX-AI

Once set, the Speedlite will remember that bounce angle for when you change the composition from horizontal to vertical. Simply double tap the shutter button, and the Speedlite will reset itself back to the bounce angle you manually set previously.

Woman taking a photo with her Canon Speedlite 470EX-AI of two young boys blowing out birthday candles

Two young boys blowing out birthday candles

Semi-auto Bounce technique is designed for those of you who perhaps are a little more experienced and want to infuse your own creative technique and also for photographers wanting to speed up their workflow with a level of automation.

While the photo above is nice, it might be a little bright, not allowing us to see as much of the ambience from the candles. We still wanted the flash to go off during the exposure to illuminate the room but just not as much as the first photo. With regards to E-TTL II automatic flash exposure, sometimes the flash power needs to be adjusted to a more or less powerful setting. This is known as Flash Exposure Compensation and it couldn’t be easier to set on the 470EX-AI Speedlite. Simply push the +/- button on the control wheel and turn the dial clockwise for more power or counterclockwise for less power. Simple!

Close up of settings on Canon Speedlite 470EX-AI

Since we wanted the candles to be more prominent, we lowered the power of the Speedlite to -1. Mission accomplished! The resulting picture looks great, allowing the candlelight to take over as the primary source of light, and the Speedlite filled the rest of the room with dim but useful light compared to the first picture.

Two young boys blowing out birthday candles

At the end of the day, this Speedlite will empower you with confidence to take more flash pictures in challenging lighting environments with a very natural look to them, making YOU the new pro in the circles you hang with.


Two young boys helping woman cut the birthday cake

Woman putting frosting on young boy's nose

Family photo with the dog on the couch - mother, father, two young boys and dog