I’m a snob about lighting, which means I won’t make a picture if the light isn’t good enough. When I have the opportunity to influence the light on my subjects, the one tool I use most frequently is the diffuser, or scrim, from my 5-in-1 reflector kit. It’s extremely inexpensive and does a fine job of softening and redirecting the light on my subjects.
What’s It Do?
A diffuser makes a small light into a big light and that makes it softer and more flattering for every subject. The sun is a tiny little light in the sky, but when it shines through the diffuser its light becomes spread out and large and that makes the shadows on a subject softer—they transition gradually from light to dark. We can also use it to change the direction the sunlight is shining from by bringing it around our subject. If the sun is directly to my subject’s right, I can hold the diffuser slightly in front of her and twist to the left so the light shining through is also hitting her left side—assuming my diffuser is large enough to do so.
In this picture, I used the diffuser to soften the direct sunlight and redirect it so it’s lower instead of being overhead of Abbie.
Here’s a full sun portrait of a couple of graduates followed by the same portrait with the sunlight diffused, making it softer and less harsh. Click to view larger images.
Bigger is Better
I’ve owned several reflector kits and my favorites are always the biggest. My first was about five feet long and four feet wide, and the only problem with it was that in a breeze it was very difficult to control because it was so big. The common reflector kits are about 43” circles, which is the minimum size I would buy. Right now I’ve got a 40” by 60” oval that’s pretty good, and it cost about US$30 on amazon.com. There are many brands, and some are very costly. I’ve found that the biggest difference between them is the quality of the zippers on the covers. So, I buy cheap reflectors and take care, and my cheap sets have actually held up better than the one I paid over $100 for. Size is the most important feature, though, because you need to cover your subjects and a big one covers more. A 43” round diffuser will barely cover an engaged couple if they are snuggled closely together.
Here’s the behind the scenes shot of the portrait above.
My diffuser was large enough to cover Abbie, but not her entire stand-up paddle board. Fortunately, I was also working with a film crew, so I asked them to stand in for a moment and shade the rest of the board with their shadows. Filmmakers call a diffuser a ‘scrim’. I use the tool so much that this crew calls me ‘Levi Scrim’.
Carlos is helping me hold the diffuser above, and he’s doing it perfectly. One important tip about positioning the diffuser is that the person holding it doesn’t block the surface with his body (or else light can’t come through).
In this picture, I’m using a 7’ white umbrella from Paul C. Buff as a diffuser. It’s nice and large and can cover several people at once.
I used the same diffuser as above on the paddle board for this photo, but it’s not quite large enough to cover the ground in front of Abbie. It’s not too bad, but I’d much prefer all the light to be diffused, which I could have done with a larger diffuser.
Get Close…Then Get Closer
You’ve heard the saying, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, it’s because your camera isn’t close enough.” Well, the same goes for diffusers. From far away, it acts as a shade, and then the closer you bring it the brighter the light on your subject will be. I bring it as close as possible without being in the frame. But, if it is in the frame, I try to put it in a place where it can be easily removed in Lightroom or Photoshop.
It’s a Versatile Tool
I use a diffuser every time I’m shooting outdoors in direct sunlight, but I’m always open to other uses. Any light shining through it will become softer, so I often use it indoors to soften overhead lights, or I shine a speedlight through it for the same effect. Remember, though, that the diffuser also makes the light darker, so you’ll have to adjust your exposure settings.
Here, I positioned the diffuser in the window in this little cafe to regulate the window light shining on Jane.
And here, I put the cover back on used the white reflector to shine sunlight back into Abbie’s face.
Considering the cost of photography equipment, a 5-in-1 reflector kit which includes a diffuser is cheap and extremely useful. Get the biggest one you can find, train your helper how to hold it close to your subjects, and take control of the light in your photographs.