How To Improve Christmas and Holiday Photos of Family and Friends (Part 2)

Posted Dec. 23rd, 2011 by Daniel J. Cox

Yesterday I wrote about a technique that involves using flash and ambient light to improve your holiday photos of family and friends. Today I want to discuss another trick that deals with lighting that is equally beneficial for improving your holiday pictures. It too includes the use of flash but with some minor changes that can make all the difference between harsh, unattractive light and soft, pleasing light. It’s called bounce lighting.

Bounce Lighting For More Attractive People Pictures
I’m pretty confident that a lot of people who have used on-camera flash pointed directly at their subjects, would agree that direct flash is not very pleasant to look at. It typically produces harsh shadows, contrasty images and lack of depth. The reason for this is due mainly to the fact the flash is coming directly off the camera, blazing straight into the subject. In our Invitational Photo Tour Workshops, when we talk about light, I always remind my students to look for directional light that is low, coming either from the side, right or left, or from directly behind the subject.

Image #1: My father and mother and sister with her little dog Pebbles – taken with a flash on camera pointed directly at them.

Light from either of these three places helps to produce the feeling of three dimensions, or 3D, in what is actually a 2D medium. What I mean by 2D is that a digital chip or a piece of film are two demensional in nature. There’s no way around that, it is what it is. To try and overcome the 2D effect, a good photographer works to create the feeling of 3D by using light in the manner I’ve described. Finding this kind of lighting in nature typically requires being out early in the morning or late in the evening and positioning yourself to either side of your subject or behind. The same effect can be accomplished with people and a flash by setting the flash to either side or behind the subjects as well.

Image #2: My father, mother and sister with her little dog Pebbles – taken with a flash pointed at a low white ceiling.

Another more common option is soft or bounced light. This type of lighting is very pleasing to look at and resembles the type of light we would have if we were outdoors on a cloudy day. It’s neither harsh or direct. It’s pleasant to look at due to lack of contrast and harsh shadows. In a perfect world, low, directional light is always more dramatic, but soft difused light can be very effective as well, especially for portraits of animals and people.

This image shows you how low and white the ceiling is so you can understand the concept I’m discussing for bounce lighting.

To accomplish the type of lighting I have in the image labeled as Image #2, I pointed my on camera flash directly at the ceiling. That’s what is called Bounce Lighting, in other words I bounced it off the ceiling. It was very helpful that my parents’ home has a very low ceiling that is white in tone. Whenever you are bouncing light it always helps for the ceiling to be light-colored, and the lower the better. When you bounce your flash keep in mind that pointing it at the ceiling dramtically diminishes the power of the light that is hitting your subject, therefore, your flash will not seem as powerful as it is when you point it directly at your subject. The higher the ceiling, the further the flash has to go before it bounces. When it does bounce, it then has to travel the same long distance to come back down to your subjects. With this in mind it is always best to use the most powerful flash possible such as an off camera variety like the Nikon SB 900 that I used for this shot.

Nikon SB900 flash with paper sheet used as bounce reflector.

The other little trick that makes a huge difference is adding a piece of paper to the head of the flash. Above is an image of my setup. It’s difficult to explain, but by looking at the image you should be able to get it. The idea of the paper (I used just a plain old sheet of 8×11 office variety) is to take some of the light that is headed towards the ceiling and have the paper reflect it, or bounce it, 90 degrees straight out toward the subject. This fills in some of the shadows that might occur from all light coming off the ceiling and provides a highlight or sparkle in the eyes.

Unfortunately, the little on camera flash that is part of many cameras today, is not able to be turned up for bouncing nor would it be powerful enough if it could, however, there is a new device I’ve heard really good things about that helps to diffuse the light. It’s known as the Gary Fong Light Diffuser. You can follow this link to Amazon to take a look. I haven’t used one but it looks promising and one photographer, shooting Santa Clause for Costco, said it worked wonders for the small, on camera flash of his Nikon D7000.

Gary Fong Puffer flash diffuser for small on camera flashes.

So that’s my second tip for improving photos where you need to add flash this holiday season. Give it a try and let me know what you think and how these suggestions either did or did not work for you. Drop me a note here at the blog if you have questions or other things you want to share. Good shooting, have fun and make lots of pictures. You’re family will love you for it.

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There are 2 comments on this post…
  1. Heidger MarxOn Dec. 24th, 2011

    thanks for the blog post, it is difficult to overestimate the value of this, as so many of us are still struggling with the concept of flash and bounced flash.
    Happy Holidays!

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Dec. 24th, 2011

      Thanks Heidger, Always nice to know people are interested. Thanks for reaching out.

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