Bounce Flash and Timing

The Academy of Okinawan Karate ran their Winter Tournament earlier this month, and as I’ve mentioned earlier, I decided to go back to shooting with flash rather than mess with focus problems due to uneven lighting. Rather than let a good lens continually compensate for rough skills, why not improve those skills, right?

Here’s what a nice bounce flash got me:

Mr Johnston Kanku Sho

Mr Joey Johnston, 4th-degree black belt, Shuri-Ryu

The lighting is soft and uniform, his gi is crisp and white, and there are no harsh shadows in the background or redeye problems in the audience.

The nice thing you wouldn’t catch right away about this shot, though, is it was easy to capture. I’m familiar with the kata he ran in the tournament, and I knew he would hit this pose and hold it for a moment. As soon as he struck the pose, I was ready with the shutter.

Where it gets tricky, however, is timing action shots. Continuous shooting modes help, but it takes a real toll on the external flash and I’m lucky to get bursts at all out of it sometimes. The more I fire it, the longer it takes to recharge the capacitor, especially as the batteries start to drain.

That’s when it takes good timing and a bit of luck. Consider this photo:

Ms Walker Kanku Sho

Ms Bree Walker, 2nd-degree black belt, Shuri-Ryu

Ms Walker ran the same kata, and there’s a point where the performer leaps into the air, kicks their hand (representing a kick to the head), and lands on one knee to scan for their next opponent. I knew when the leap was coming, tried my best to time the shot, and caught the moment of impact.

Once again I bounced the flash, so I have the smooth lighting I sought earlier, and a nice capture of the action.

I should add, too, that I do have RAW versions of each of these pictures. I shot RAW+JPEG for the convenience of getting these pictures posted to the web quickly. I’ll take the time to go back and play with the RAW files in the near future, but probably not until I finish writing The Pack: Lie with the Dead.

Another lesson learned: remember fresh AA batteries for the external flash. It became useless about halfway through the tournament, and I had to switch to the on-camera flash. Its recharge rate wasn’t wonderful, either, and even worse it wouldn’t let me shoot at all while it was recharging. (With the external flash, the camera just adjusted the settings to shoot without flash when it couldn’t fire.) Should’ve been a no-brainer, but I didn’t take the prep time the night before, and that morning I hurried out the door to make it on time because I lost an hour shoveling the drive first.

Ah, well. The goal isn’t perfection, the goal is always improving. The remainder of the tournament photos can be found on Flickr.

UPDATE: John made a good point in the comments — I haven’t mentioned my rig! I use a Canon Speedlite 430EX IIexternal flash. Though it’s capable of use off-camera, I’ve not experimented with that yet. May not be a bad idea at tournaments, but it’s not an expense I’m ready for right now. The dojo has a standard, white-panel drop ceiling, and I just angle the head of the flash toward the ceiling. It’s not straight up, it’s at about 45 degrees. In fact, I’ll bounce the flash about every chance I get, as that generally gets the most pleasing results to my eye.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.


  1. What’s the set-up? What’s the flash bouncing off, the ceiling? Is it attached to the camera, or handheld, or set up somewhere else and wirelessly connected to the camera?