Bounce Flash at an Indoor Wedding Reception

Bounce Flash at Wedding Reception

A Flickr forum poster asked about how to use bounce flash for indoor weddings/events.

When I was starting out, I used to hate it when people would just tell me to give up. So I decided to actually write a substantive post on the matter.

Here is my reply: 

Stuff you'll need:
  • A wider lens like tomKphoto said. Even a cheap kit lens, but you need something just a bit wider for those group shots, otherwise you're gonna need to back way up.
  • 1/4 CTO filter for your flash. This is a slightly 'orangeish' filter that you'll slap on your flash with velcro or a rubber band that will help it to match the presumably tungsteny colored ambient light. If you don't do this, you'll need to correct the ambient WB in post.
  • I've shot with just about all the difusers out there. I've settled on bare flash, bounced on a cieling or wall up/behind me because it eats the least amount of light. Any other diffusers are basically just going to eat stops of light. 
  • If you MUST use a modifier (like you're shooting dracula's sister's wedding in a bright red room with black cielings), then I've actually had pretty good experience just bouncing off of a reflector held at a 45/45 angle above and to the side of my camera. In the early/ghetto days, I actually used a piece of 2'x3' $2.50 white foam-core board from the local drugstore. Not the most inconspicuous way to get 'candid' shots on the dance floor, but whatever it takes to get the shot in a tough venue like the 'Blood Crypt'.
  • Nowadays, I use off-camera lighting(Alienbees), triggered wirelessly(Cybersyncs). My whole off-camera setup was maybe 700-800 bucks. This may not be an option depending on your budget, and it would probably be too much to think about, but even a single other optically slaved off-camera flash at the other end of the room can do a lot to avoid the dreaded 'miner's helmet' look. Yeah, everyone else's flashes will set the thing off, so don't count on it, but at least it'll be nice when it does fire. I use a LumoPro LP160 as my cheapie go-to backlight and it is awesome. And off camera flash is pretty much the only way you're gonna do it if they suprise you with the fact that you're now shooting the reception outdoors at night, with nothing to bounce from.
  • Good wireless flash triggers are pricey, but they're awesome. If you can get your hands on some, do it.
What to do:
  • Shoot RAW. For the love of all that is holy. LR 3's noise reduction and WB correction is awesome, and as long as you don't royally screw up the exposure, you should be good. You might spend years in post, but as long as you can see something that looks sorta decent on the back LCD, you should be good.
  • Crank the ISO. You should be able to shoot up to 1600 ISO with no major noise issues as long as you're shooting at f 4.0 or wider. Don't worry too much about noise, the 5dMkII can handle it, and Lightroom will clean up the rest. Just focus on getting sharp images. 'Cause noisy is ok if they are sharp, but blurry and noisy is just a hot mess. You'll be refunding some money at that point.
  • Open up wide, but not too wide. Those L lenses are pretty sharp, even wide open. Hover around their sweet spot between light gathering and sharpness, which Ive seen is about f3-4. This'll also give you a little more leeway if you don't exactly nail the focus dead-on. Also, if you open up too wide, you'll need to watch your ambient for color temp and blur more. But you'll get better bokeh the wider opener you shoot. Also your flash wont have to work as hard to keep up, and you won't get stuck with dead batteries and abysmal recycle times just as they go to cut the cake.
  • Balance flash and ambient to taste. I don't personally like the directly lit 'miners helmet look where your background goes totally black. Uncle Bob can do that. You're right to bounce the flash. But even with bounce, you gotta decide whether you want lots of ambient still in there, or whether you want it to be a mostly bounce-flash lit shot with a darker background. Want lots of ambient? Crank it to ISO 1600 and lower your shutter speed to what you can reasonably hand-hold. Want less ambient? Drop to 800 or 400 and/or up your shutter.
  • For flash exposure, I'd just keep that sucker really simple and let the camera/580 do the work. I usually just set it at +1FEC(flash exposure compensation), and that usually does the trick for just about everything. Just remember to dial FEC down if you're in close or shooting direct flash at any point.
  • WHERE/HOW to bounce? I usually try to point the flash to an area of the ceiling/wall just above and slightly behind me. I know a lot of guys use the white cards, and I did for years too, but I like the softer light that a more indirect flash gives. Why slightly behind me and not just straight up? Straight-up bounce usually results in some darkish eye sockets. If I put the hot-spot a bit behind me, then I know it'll be lighting their eyes a tad more. Think of the flash's hot spot on the ceiling/wall as a big softbox that you can position wherever you want just by tweaking the angle of your 580's head. For extra control, more brightness, longer battery life, and bonus points, set your flash's zoom all the way in at 105mm or whatever to concentrate and shape that firehose of light you're unleashing.
  • Try bouncing off a wall for more directional/side light, but just watch out for color cast if the walls are painted.
  • Speaking of that, hopefully the venue doesn't have black or colored ceilings or bounce-killing beams/structures that are WAY up there. Otherwise, you'll be bouncing more off the walls, upping your ambient exposure, and bringing a whole lot more batteries to compensate.
  • Shoot manual(ish). Avoid setting your white balance to 'auto'. Try to set it to a fixed setting that looks pretty good and just roll with that the whole night. That way, you can fix white balance on the whole shebang instead of image-by-excruciating-image.
  • Don't chimp the whole night, but you gotta periodically check focus at 100% to make sure you're not stuck with 800 awesome-but-blurry images.
In post: 
  • One of my favorite quick ways to white balance the gross yellow/orange ambient in Lightroom if I forget to gel my flash is to drop into the Develop module, HSL tab, and just drop the saturation on the yellow by about 20 and the orange by about 10, give or take. It's like it magically just washes the pee out of your background and pretty much leaves your strobe-lit stuff OK. Here's where it pays to shoot a consistent, fixed white balance, you just need to copy(CTRL+SHIFT+C) that specific adjustment and paste(CTRL+SHIFT+V) that sucker onto all the rest of the images, and you're golden. 
  • I usually use about a 20-40 value on luminance NR and a 80-100 on chrominance NR and cut and paste that across all images as well.
Bounce Flash at Wedding Reception