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Soft, Diffuse Lighting

Front, back or side lighting. Sometimes any direction is the wrong direction if the lighting is too harsh. Here are a few brief thoughts on softening things up a bit.

The traditional solution to this dilemma is to purchase a commercial lighting diffuser. You can make one yourself, but I've never been convinced you could save much by trying. There are a number of brands that are all constructed in a similar fashion consisting of a rolled metal hoop with a translucent white nylon fabric covering. If you're looking to purchase one, get one from a quality manufacturer or you may find that it breaks on you in the field. I've been partial to Photoflex since the days when there weren't many other good options even though now there are. Check that the point where the two ends of the metal forming the hoop meet is securely welded or riveted. Over the years, I have seen more than one circular diffuser fail when this joint came apart.

These things come in various sizes. I should know since I own quite a few. Small ones can seem convenient since they are lightweight and easily packable but I've found on more than one occasion that the one I so easily brought with me on a hike was too small for the subject I wanted to use it on. It doesn't take much of a diffuser to soften the lighting over a single flower blossom but don't forget the light shining on what's behind that blossom. You can clearly use a diffuser larger than necessary to good effect but one that's too small is hard to work around. A diffuser that folds up to fit in your pocket is of no use if the area you need to photograph is larger than what you can cover with that diffuser unfolded.

Speaking of folding a diffuser, if you want to quickly separate the experienced nature photographer from the beginner, hand them a diffuser and ask them to fold it up. If you don't already know, these round hoop-shaped diffusers all fold up to one third of their expanded diameter. But only if you can figure out how to do it. Start by grasping the frame with your hands, placing one hand on one edge and the other hand on the diametrically opposite edge. Your natural grip should be basically similar to that of holding a car's steering wheel with your palms more or less facing each other. Now let go with one hand and grab the frame again at the exact same point after rotating your wrist a hundred and eighty degrees. Your palms should now both be facing left or right rather than inward towards each other as they were when you started. Finally, twist both wrists in opposite directions and keep on twisting. As you do, the spring metal frame should collapse in on itself, twisting into something of a figure eight with three loops. The finished state should yield a flattened triple hoop with the fabric twirled up to accommodate the contortions of the frame. The process is definitely easier to actually do than it is to describe. Once you manage to do this yourself the first time you'll understand, even if mentally to follow along with me now twists your mind more than the diffuser ultimately has to.

Diffusers and reflectorsBy the way, it can also be fun to fling one of these things open in front of an unwary crowd. Quickly expanding as it will to three times its initial size, it can seem almost like magic. I always feel like voicing a "ta da!" or perhaps even a "shazam!" when demoing diffusers and reflectors when teaching a photography class.

If you're in the market for a diffuser, consider getting one with a zippered cover that allows the same frame to be used as a reflector. I have one diffuser that came with a reversible cover sized for the expanded frame. The cover has silver coating on one side and gold on the other. Turn it inside out and you'll find a reflective white surface on one side and a silver/gold (soft gold) coating on the other. Unzip and remove the cover and it becomes a diffuser. Zip the cover on the frame either as is or turned inside out, and it becomes a reflector with any of four surfaces. Such five-in-one combo diffuser/reflectors are a great deal if you actually need even a few of those options and can save you from carrying a whole pile of rolled metal frames strung with different materials.

When using a diffuser, the tendency is to hold it at length from your subject but this isn't really the best way. At a distance, it serves to cast a shadow on your subject rather than diffuse the light that reaches it. You want to hold the diffuser as close to your subject as practical while still being out of the camera's field of view. In this way, the light on your subject is predominately passing through the diffuser rather than being reflected around it, off other surrounding objects. Color temperatures in the shade can be unflatteringly cool. Diffused light retains the ambient color of the light source with only the harsh edges removed.

One last note: owning a diffuser does little good if you leave it at home or in the car. You have to carry it with you before you can even begin to consider putting it to use.


Date posted: September 16, 2012

 

Copyright © 2012 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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