A small light source has a tendency of producing hard light causing unflattering shadows and pin size catchlights in the subject’s eyes. Sometimes this can’t be avoided — photographing in direct sunlight at high noon or using small LED lights. Here’s a little trick to make a small light source big to produce a more flattering light with softer shadows and better catchlights in the subject’s eyes.

Make the light source bigger with a diffuser

Like most beginners starting out, I saw the sun at high noon and thought, “Wow, I have lots of great light. I’ll have no problem lighting my subject.”

After shooting an entire roll of film, I was discouraged to see harsh shadows and really small unflattering catchlights in the subject’s eyes once the film was developed. I fixed the problem by photographing my subjects in shade or on an overcast day. Yeah, great fix.

Fast forward to the digital age. Once I got back into photography, I attended lots of classes and asked the right question — how can I photograph a subject at high noon in direct sunlight? An instructor explained the sun is really a small light source — especially during the afternoon — and to make it appear bigger, use a circular diffuser. That one little tip made a big difference but there was more to it. The second tip — moving the diffuser closer to the subject — was the piece I was missing and helped me achieve softer shadows and better catchlights in the subject’s eyes.

Soften the light by moving the diffuser closer to the subject.

Just adding a diffuser isn’t enough. Moving the diffuser closer to the subject was the piece I was missing. It made the light source larger producing a more flattering light with softer shadows and better catchlights in the subject’s eyes. But how do you determine the correct distance? This is where practicing and experimenting pays off.

The best way to experiment with the correct distance of the diffuser is to set your camera in aperture priority and choose an f/stop. This will allow the camera to do most of the thinking and for you to focus on being creative and the experiment. I like photographing females at f/2.8 and males at f/4 or f/5.6. An aperture of f/2.8 makes skin look smoother because of the shallow depth of field. An aperture between f/4 and f/5.6 still has a nice shallow depth of field, but not so much it makes a male skin look too soft.

Place your subject in direct sunlight against a wall. Have a fellow photographer assist you by holding the diffuser very close to your subject. Take a few shots and then move the diffuser further away. You should notice the closer the diffuser is to the subject the more even the light appears, shadows are softer and the catchlights in the eyes are larger.

This same concept makes small studio LED lights appear bigger

You can make small studio LED lights appear bigger by applying the same concept — place a diffuser between the LED lights and your subject. I recently did this for a test shoot for a project fellow photographer Michelle Tricca is working on. She will be photographing hundreds of people over a weekend for her “The Face of Immokalee” project. She needs all the images to have the same consistent light.

One solution is to use smaller LED lights and add the diffuser. Using this concept, she can set the lights once and not have to worry about them, allowing her to focus on the subjects. She did an experiment with about 11 kids in a very small space. The results came out great! This is a sample shot I took of my assistant Sebas Cardenas. Notice how small the catchlight is on the image without the diffuser.

The next time you find yourself faced with a small light source, remember to place a diffuser between the light source and your subject so you can produce a more flattering light with softer shadows and better catchlights in the subject’s eyes.