Reception Lighting Basics – Bounce Flash

There is NO greater photography fear than walking into a reception hall and not being sure if you can capture the moments the way you envision them. There are sooo many variables in dark-lit venues that can sometimes be daunting! You have to be able to overcome all sorts of lighting issues like bouncing light off of glass windows, mirrors, dark or heavily colored walls, walls that are so far away you don’t have enough power to reach them.

There is a lot to talk about and we are going to cover all of it, and today we will start with the basics. BOUNCE FLASH.


Today we are going to keep it simple and build our foundation for shooting the first dance. So, we walk into the reception and here is the scenario (in posts to come we are going to work our way through other scenarios that pose other lighting problems and how to conquer them). We have:

– A dance floor with a stage or DJ in corner of the room
– Light or white ceilings and white walls
– Our super hot couple about to have their first dance

What do we do to get great looking images in this scenario using nothing but our bounce flash that is on our camera?

1. We find the best place to shoot from

The best vantage point to shoot from in this type of situation is NOT where the crowd of people are standing and watching the first dance. Usually, family friends are standing in a half-moon or U shape around the couple and everyone is facing somewhat towards the band or DJ. We don’t want to shoot in this direction because nobody wants to see the DJ or bands reaction to the first dance, they want to see the families. So, we always make our way toward the DJ or band and shoot back into the crowd so that they become our backdrop.

2. Positioning

We try and position ourselves about the same distance from all walls behind and to the side of us. That way, we will have a very similar exposure no matter where our flash bounces off from (we will be shooting the flash on manual). So, if the walls to the side are about 20 feet away, we try and get about 20 feet away from the wall behind us as well. It doesn’t have to be exact, just close.

3. Metering

We take an overall meter reading (with our in-camera meter set to evaluative metering) and adjust our camera settings so everything on the dance floor and behind the dance floor meters at exactly one stop under-exposed (or minus -1) so that if we took an image with no flash, the background would be a little bit too dark. (We covered this as well in our Reception Lighting Part 2. For more details, re-read that post).


The reason we set our camera one stop underexposed is because we want the background slightly darker than our subjects (twice as dark to be exact). This makes our subjects stand out from the background and helps them to be the focal point, while the family and crowd are the “supporting cast” if you will.


4. Histogram is our hero

Take a test image of an assistant, standing right where the couple will have their dance, with no flash on. Then, look at the histogram (usually by previewing the image and pressing the info button 1 or 2 times depending on your camera model) and it should look something like this.  (NOTE: Nikon cameras may have the histogram reversed – check your manual to determine which direction indicates brightness).



Note: There is no right or wrong histogram, but it is only a guide. The histogram will tell you what is bright and dark in an image and it is VERY accurate.

Notice that most of the spikes are closer to the left, which indicates that there is nothing too bright in the image. Any spikes that hit and move up the far left wall have ZERO detail in the shadows, and any spikes that move up the right wall have zero details in the highlights. THIS histogram has a darker exposure, but still has details in the shadows. Perfect! If you take a shot and it is too bright or too dark, then adjust your exposure.

5. Add the flash

Turn your flash on manual and power it up to about 1/4 power or so, aim it at a 45 degree angle directly behind you (so that it hits where the ceiling and the wall meet straight behind where we are standing). Take a test shot and look at the histogram. The histogram will either look exactly the same (not what we want) or will be brighter than it was. We can then power our flash up or down until the histogram moves all the way to the bright side, making sure that it does not hit the wall of the histogram (which would indicate something in that the photo is over-exposed).

Over-exposed histogram:


Correctly exposed histogram:


Our camera is set to manual (we are not changing any camera settings), and the only thing that we are changing changing is our flash power. So, as part of the histogram moves toward the center after we adjust the power for each shot, we know that what it is showing us is our subjects getting brighter (whatever the flash is hitting). Once it looks close to the one above, we now have a perfect exposure, so we are ready to shoot!

Using your histogram to check for exposure is one of the most solid ways to make sure that you have a good exposure. For those of you who are unsure how to get your histogram to come up in your camera, when you press the “play” button to view the images you just shot (talking to Canon users here), hit your “info” button until the histogram appears. Reading the histogram can be a little tricky, but it is way more accurate than simply looking at the image on the back of your screen.


6. Light Direction

The direction (or lighting style) that the light hits our subjects is critical. We don’t need to worry too much about the “style” of lighting that we are creating (more to come on lighting styles in later posts) but need to make sure that we evenly light our couple with every shot. We try and bounce the light up at a 45 degree angle into where the wall and ceiling meet so that the light will come back at a 45 degree angle and light the couples faces first, then the rest of their body. This way, we will get a nice catch light in their eyes and their faces will be the brightest part of our images that we shoot of them.

We always shoot the light so it hits both of their faces evenly, so, if our couple were standing with the groom’s back to us and both of them were looking to camera right (like in our mock example below), we would swing the flash around and bounce it off of the right wall (tilted up at a 45 degree angle) so that the light would come back and hit both of their faces.


The flash is on top of the camera, facing camera right so it hits the wall and comes back into our couple’s face (the extra lights are showing you the path the light takes). The crowd is ooohing and awwwing in the background and the DJ is mixing it up in the foreground!

Real life example:



Now, if our couple turns so that they were both parallel to each other with the sides of their faces facing us, then we would bounce the flash directly behind us (and up at a 45 degree angle) so it would hit where the wall and ceiling meet and then come directly back at them and hit both of their faces evenly.


Real life example:
We would do the same thing if they started turning to the left (see image below). We are constantly adjusting the direction of the light so that it hits our couple in both of their faces. If the couple were both facing to camera left and we bounced the light directly behind us, then the person closest to us would end up being brighter than the other, and we don’t want that!


More bounce flash images using this simple technique.

0205 0009 (3) 0017 (2) Picture8


PS.  Check out Part 1, and Part 2 of reception lighitng where we talk about shooting the details!