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Flash – DIY Bounce Cards and Flags

By David L. Tong

In our last article, we touched on the subject of how to control the direction of light for beautiful portraits that won’t appear like an unplanned, direct-flash photograph. We know that we can swivel and tilt most flash guns to alter their firing direction, but unfortunately, even if you point the flash head to a certain direction, there will always be some light spilling from the edge of the light beam as the fresnel lens in front of your strobe scatters light in a pre-determined pattern. You can have greater control with where the light is travelling using basic physics and common sense. The easiest, cheapest, and most portable way to achieve that would be through do-it-yourself bounce and flag sheets.

Before I go further, the use of bounce and flag cards aren’t new ideas as they have been around since portable, swivel heads were invented. Their applications are nothing new, but with today’s access to faddish accessories, many people don’t bother with traditional techniques and fall for modern marketing flash gadget attachments instead, even if the former is more effective.

The size you want/need will depend on your shooting style and flash gun size. The examples I’m providing fit most modern flash heads.

Materials required:

  • Something to block/reflect light – You can use cardboards, illustration boards, thick paper, or my preference, foam paper. The reason why foam paper is preferred is foam paper is durable and highly malleable. You can roll it for a shorter card, you can get it wet, you can fold it without worries. Also, get foam PAPER, not foam BOARD, as the board can’t be bent. They’re a bit hard to find if your place doesn’t have a good arts and crafts store, but keep trying.
  • Scissors or Cutter – Well, duh…
  • Ruler – Most folks won’t need this, I’m an idiot with straight lines, so…
  • Cutting Mat – So you won’t slice your nice dining table (care to guess why I brought this up?)
  • Velcro or elastic bands. – To attach the card to your flash.

Let’s get started.

1) Here are the two pieces of foam paper, one black for flagging, one white, for bounce, I used Foamtastic sheets from Nicolecrafts.

The foam paper’s size is about the same as a Letter paper size (8″x10″), both sides are identical in texture. They’re cheap and easily found in kids’ arts and craft websites like Nicole Crafts. If you’re based in Singapore, they’re available in Art’s Friend in Takashimaya or Bras Basah. If you’re from the Philippines, sorry I have no clue.

If you’re still confused as to what foam paper look and feel like, just think of those small, giveaway foam jigsaw puzzles that stores give out for free, or those alphabet shape foam that kids use.

Image Courtesy of Craft Creations

Image Courtesy of Craft Creations

2) Now we measure. The Canon 580EX II flash head covers about a third of teh paper’s short edge. If you curl the edges, you’ll have a good idea how much you need to trim off. I suggest trimming just above the top edge of the flash.

Being the craftsman that I am, I “tried” to measure but still ended up cutting the foam paper short. The reason why you want to make sure you’re covering the edges well is to prevent light from spilling off the side of your flash. This is important if there are people standing close to you who are not being photographed, your flash will be quite annoying to them. Anyway, mark where the edges of the flash are with a pen and those will be your cutting points.

3) We will now trim the sheet so we’ll get a trapezoidal shape. I left the black foam paper underneath so the white sheet is more visible. From those two marks you made in Step #2, draw a line all the way to the top corners of the foam paper. Again, you can see how “good” of a cutter I am.

4) Next, we need a way to attach the foam bounce sheet onto the flash. I chose to use velcro as my wife and neice won’t give me their elastic hair straps. I prefer Velcro to make it easier for me to ‘stack’ one sheet over another if the need arises, as well.

I suggest you stick the rough, “hook” side of the Velcro onto the flash and use the softer, felt-side of the velcro as a strap so you won’t scratch your flash body when twisting the card around. I cut off a strip of Velcro about the width of the card for some “adjustment” leeway onto the bounce card. The photo below is incorrect as I stuck the soft side instead of the rough side. I found out the hard way so I’m telling you NOT to use the soft side on the card itself.

I then stuck the hook side of the velcro onto the mounted strip and wrapped the card and strap around the flash head. Trim the rough Velcro so that you can wrap the strap all the way around with little effort. You’ll end up with something like the image below.

Both sides of my Velcro has double-sided tape, which makes it really ugly. So try to get Velcro straps without adhesive from fabric stores instead of art-stores. As you can see, my white card is short on the sides, that’s NOT how it should be, make sure yours go over the edges of the flash. I can teach you photography, but can’t teach you how to cut a straight edge.

I then trimmed the foam paper down to about 4-inches above the flash head as I’m not a big frontal-flash bounce user. I just wanted a larger bounce card than the one included with the flash unit in case the need arises.

Do the same with the black flag (I’ll explain what it’s for later.) but make it longer than the white card’s height. Please ignore the fact that I still screwed up the measurement and the black flag is still short off the edges!

Now let’s talk about what they’re for. As mentioned previously, the white card is a bounce card. It allows the flash to fire upwards while the bounce card will throw light forward at the same time. If you read the last article about light direction, you’ll remember that firing a flash up towards the ceiling will soften the light but will cast shadows under the eyes and such because the light is travelling from the ceiling towards the subject. The white bounce card will throw light directly forward the subject but with much less intensity, just enough to lift shadows.

The advantage of using a foam material is you can control how much light goes forward by reducing the height of the bounce card. The lower the card, the lesser the light directed forward.

The black flag card (or half-snoot) prevents light from traveling forward if the flash head is pointed at different angles. It forces the light to travel a certain direction only, preventing spillover light from hitting your subject accidentally. This is very useful when you want to introduce distinct directional lighting when you’re bouncing the light off surfaces. The open top allows some light to hit the ceiling to lift the ambient light a little without affecting your subject’s lighting too much.

As a combination, you can add a small white card in the middle of the black flag to throw more light to the open area of the black flag.

You can also check out A Better Bounce Card videos for more information.

With such bouncing tools, you can say goodbye to unflattering pin-light, direct flash, and say hello to nice, directional, figure-shaping photos.

If you want to see how the pros do it, check out Neil Van Niekerk’s site :)

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