Many people avoid using their camera’s flash because it washes people out, creates harsh shadows, and usually overpowers the background of the photo. Read on as we show you how to avoid common flash problems with a simple flash diffuser.
Why Do I Want to Do This?
There are many situations where using your camera’s flash is the difference between a pitch black or severely underexposed photograph and a photo you can actually look at later and enjoy. In this regard, the camera flash is regarded as a necessary evil by most people. Yeah, the photos look washed out and the lighting is less than ideal, but at least you’ve captured the picture and it’s not a blurry mess.
You don’t have to settle for blurry photos or photos that look like you blasted your friends in the face with a searchlight, however. Even a simple flash diffuser can radically change the way the light of the flash illuminates your subject and the surrounding environment. Whether you use free parts you scrounged out of the junk drawer in your shop or buy a commercial diffuser, the results are so fantastic it’s borderline criminal to keep taking photos that make your friends and family look so bad.
For example, the photo above (of our trusty tutorial-writing sidekick Spawn) was taken in a dark basement media room. Without the flash, we couldn’t have even taken the photo as the tiny basement windows didn’t provide enough light and the subdued media lighting in the room wasn’t much help either. Direct on-camera flash, however, created the washed out blast-to-the-face effect seen on the left. Only when we diffused the flash did we end up with the much softer and more pleasing image on the right.
Let’s take a look at more sample photos to highlight the difference between the harshness of direct flash and diffused flash. In the photo below we have a lily, photographed on the left with a direct flash and photographed on the right with a diffused flash bounced off the ceiling:
In the direct flash photo you can see several problems introduced by the direct flash illumination: the filaments and anthers (the little stems with the pollen-covered bits on them) are casting a shadow directly back onto the petals, the flower itself is casting a shadow back onto the table, and as a result of a close subject (the flower) reflecting a lot of light, the background (the table surface) is darker than it should be.
In the second photo, the flash is diffused and bounced off the ceiling. In this photo, we’ve achieved a nice even illumination: the flower is well lit, there are no unnatural and glaring shadows, and the background (the table) is also well lit and represented in its true color instead of appearing multiple shades darker than it does in real life.
Let’s look at one more example, some marbles scattered over a LEGO base template:
Marbles are a fun thing to use to demonstrate the effects of flash diffusion because they’re shiny and round so they highlight the differences in light reflection and cast very distinct shadows. In the first photo, much like the lily photo, we have harsh shadows, colors that are a bit too dark (including a dark background), and a very tiny point of light on each marble–that’s the little flash blasting right into the face of the marbles.
In the second photo, you can see significant changes: the color of the base template is more true to life (as is the wall behind it), the marbles aren’t casting hard little circular shadow but diffuse soft shadows (even though the surface they are casting the shadow on is a fraction of an inch beneath them), and the point of light on the marbles isn’t so much a point as it is a nice soft spot.
That’s the power of good flash diffusion: everything just looks better. People look younger: the diffuser scatters the light so fine lines and wrinkles are not as apparent. Light-skinned subjects look less washed out (they look less pale when the flash is diffused) and it helps dark-skinned subjects stand out better from the background (direct flash exposure tends to severely underexpose backgrounds in many situations, which blurs the visual boundaries between the subject and the background). Even when you’re not photographing people, it helps create a more natural light; in the case of our lily photographs above, the direct flash photo clearly looks like a photo blasted by a camera flash and the diffused photo looks like it was taken outdoors under natural light. In short, diffusing your flash makes everything look better, and there’s little reason to avoid diffusing your flash in most situations.
What Exactly Is a Flash Diffuser?
It’s all well and good to show you how awesome diffusing your flash is, but it doesn’t help you any if we don’t show you how to do it! First, a word on flashes themselves. There are two kinds of camera flashes: the built-in flash (e.g. the little flash that pops up on a DSLR camera or that sits on the face of a point-and-shoot camera) and external flash units (e.g. stand alone flashes that you attach to your DSLR via the camera hotshoe)–all three types are displayed in the reference photo above. There are other types of external flashes (like the stand-mounted flash units used in studio photograph), and principles of flash diffusion certainly apply to them too, but for the purposes of this tutorial we’re looking at the flashes you’d have attached to the camera. These devices, be they attached or external, exist solely to pump out a huge amount of light to compensate for lack of natural light in a given situation.
A flash diffuser, then, is simply any material you use to diffuse the intensity of the light blasting out of the camera’s flash.One of the simplest ways to think about flash diffusion is to think of the humble lamp shade. Without a lampshade, a naked light bulb casts a hard light outwards into the room. The light is intense, it makes you squint, and it casts a clear and harsh shadow behind anything that stands between it and the walls.
Now imagine that same lamp with a nice thick white shade on it. Suddenly the light is soft, and some might even say romantic. If someone were to sit down on the couch next to the lamp, they wouldn’t be illuminated in the harsh beams of an interrogation-like-lamp, but the soft wash of the heavily diffused light from the shaded lamp.
That is, at its heart, the essence of flash diffusion: using some sort of material, just like a lamp shade, to diffuse the very intense light of the flash. Big, small, DIY or store bought, a flash diffuser is ultimately just a little lamp shade for the flash to help spread the light around instead of blasting it straight ahead.
What Kind of Flash Diffusers Are There?
There are more flash diffusers on the market (and listed on DIY tutorial sites like Instructables) than you can shake a stick at. You can find diffusers in all shapes and sizes ranging from little stick-on cards to silicone spheres to pop-up contraptions that look like little white-lined kiddie play tents.
It would take us the rest of the year (and then some) to individually review and highlight every conceivable flash diffuser design. Thankfully, however, the concepts across the designs are largely uniform and we can easily show off common commercial and DIY solutions with ease. Let’s take a look at the most common ways both amateur and professional photographers control and diffuse the light of their camera flashes.
Bounce Flash (Natural and Simulated)
The simplest type of flash diffusion available is what is known as “bounce flash”. When using a bounce flash technique the photographer bounces some or all of the flash’s output either off a large white card attached to the camera or off a nearby light colored surface.
Now, if we’re being technical here, when you use a flash diffuser you’re almost always spreading the light out and bouncing it off adjacent surfaces (which is how you end up with a nice evenly lit room without harsh shadows). That said, in this case we’re talking about effectively pointing the flash directly at a large white surface (like the ceiling of the room) and using it to spread the light out.
Bounce flash is most effective with a powerful external flash unit. Most external camera flashes allow you to adjust the angle of the flash head from a 90 degree angle (wherein the flash is pointed directly ahead at the subject) to a 180 degree angle (wherein the flash is pointed straight up and aligned with the rest of the flash body). In this fashion, the flash can be easily bounced off a low, light-colored ceiling and evenly diffused across the subject. Quite frequently, photographers will attach a small white card, like an index card, to the back of the flash head so a little bit of light is also bounced forward onto the subject (to avoid shadows under the eyes and such).
Bouncing the flash in this fashion is very effective when you have a large and lightly colored nearby surface, but quickly becomes useless in a situation where there isn’t a nearby surface to bounce/diffuse the light off of (e.g. you’re trying to photograph your child after her piano recital and the ceiling is darkly colored and 80 feet above the piano she’s standing in front of). In such cases you need to have a very large surface attached to the flash body itself (as seen in the photo above) to bounce the light off of as there are no nearby surface.
While bounce flash works amazingly well for external flashes in the right conditions, it doesn’t work so well for on-camera flashes, as on-camera flashes are generally less powerful and less user-adjustable. Especially in situations where you’re bouncing the flash off a built-in flash and using the camera’s Auto mode, you’ll often end up with underexposed photos because too little of the bounced light is falling on the subject (and the camera auto-metered the exposure for a full-power blast of the flash).
If you want to capture the general effect of a bounced flash without relying on actually having a nice large, white, and low ceiling nearby, there are plenty of commercial and DIY solutions to capture the effect with minimal light loss.
The RogueFlag, seen in the photo above, is an example of a commercial bounce card you can attach to an external flash). Another common design, more of a shell than a card, is The Shell Bounce Flash Attachment. For the DIYers out there, there is this simple Printable Bounce Shell from the Los Angeles Digital Imaging Group and this sturdier Craft Foam DIY Bounce Shell to consider.
Another common type of flash diffuser is a simple and small plastic cap or shell placed over the flash head. The Stofen-Omni-Bounce flash diffuser is a long-produced example of this kind of simple design. It’s essentially a milky white plastic cap molded to fit the body of the particular flash model. You can easily make a cap like this out of just about any small container of milky white plastic. Many people have created DIY versions out of all sorts of things like the squared milky bottles rubbing alcohol common comes in, thoroughly-washed heavy cream containers, and even little travel shampoo bottles and plastic flasks.
Alternatively, for built-in flashes, there are small diffusers you can clip over the flash like Gary Fong’s Puffer diffuser. A common DIY version of this design revolves around taking a white plastic film canister–the photo above is courtesy of a great DIY film canister tutorial over at Photojojo.
The benefit of these little diffusers is that in most situations they get the job done (especially if you’re getting a nice supplemental bounce off a nearby ceiling or walls), and they add very little bulk to your camera rig.
Flash Diffusion Domes and Soft Boxes
The bigger sibling of the little flash diffusion caps we just looked at, the diffusion dome is significantly bulkier. The model seen in the photo above is the one of the best known on the market, Gary Fong’s LightSphere (it’s also the same flash diffuser we use the most and used to take the header image of this tutorial). Because the LightSphere is a bit pricy at $60, there is a plethora of DIY versions online that have recycled everything from deli salad containers to bubble wrap to silicone mats–one of our favorite DIY tutorials features repurposed IKEA silicone drawer liners.
A close cousin to the diffusion dome is the diffusion softbox which is, essentially, a very tiny version of the huge soft boxes used on studio flash strobes. The Opteka brand mini-softbox seen in the photo above is a very common and inexpensive model. These diffusers aren’t as popular as the hard plastic diffusion caps and domes as they tend to be more fiddly to put on and they don’t offer as much general diffusion as the sides are usually opaque/black. There are DIY tutorials floating around but, as you can imagine, making one is also quite fiddly and requires a lot of different materials, cutting, sealing, etc. Given that you can pick up the Opteka for $10, there isn’t much motivation to build a DIY model at a cost of $2-3 and a few hours of your time.
Whether you opt for a dome or a box, outside of bouncing the light off a nice broad white ceiling, this method of flash diffusion is about as broad and diffused as you’re going to get short of pulling out some studio strobes with a 4′x4′ softbox attached.
Whether you spend $3 on a DIY diffuser or you buy a nice easy-to-mount commercial product, the sooner you start diffusing your flash and softening the light that falls on your subjects, the better. Diffused light makes for beautiful and flattering photos, whether you’re snapping a picture of a living room, an item you want to list on eBay, or your family.