A little while ago I showed you how I used a translucent diffuser to create soft light with a speedlight and hot red hairdo in a hot red jeep. When you shine a little through a translucent material, it’s spreads out that light and makes it bigger, and a bigger light is a softer light. I love soft light.
But speedlights are expensive and calling them temperamental is an understatement. The diffuser can be had for well under US$50, however, and is the perfect complement to the largest, cheapest light source in the solar system: the sun. I’d go as far as to say that the cheapest, fastest way to make your portraiture better is to learn to use this simple tool. My preferred style is the 40 inch by 60 inch oval, and it comes with covers in black, white, silver, and gold; search for a “5-in1 reflector” and millions of choices will pop up (roughly 42,400,000 choices).
In the picture above, I’ve used two of these to create soft light on the subject’s face and a warm hair light from behind. The hair light is done simply by standing in the sunshine behind your subject and bouncing the light onto the back of her head. It sounds simple, but you should really practice finding the light and bouncing it the right direction. It’s especially tricky when the sun is setting low and long shadows get in the way of standing in direct light. Photographers usually ask me what to do if you don’t have assistants to hold these, and my answer is: get and assistant to hold these!
You can reflector holders that will mount to a light stand, but they are easily blown over in the lightest breeze. Plus, you’re missing out on an opportunity to build a relationship with a fellow photographer if you don’t ask someone for help. When you work with other photographers you build trust, learn new skills, and add resources to your network. That is the most valuable thing you can do as photographer or business person. Just ask someone in your camera club, or your Facebook group to join, and return the favor. My best friends are those who I have worked with helping each other on shoots.
Now, about that soft light on the face. The sun is the largest light in the solar system, but relative to me, it’s no larger than my finger tip, and that small light throws a hard edged shadow. Using the diffuser to shine the dune through enlarges that light and eases the edges of shadows making the transition from bright to dark very gradual and soft (that’s why it’s called soft light). Just check out the transition between the bright and dark sides of the model’s face in the picture; you can see that one side is brighter and one side darker, but you can’t point to one spot and say, “This is where the dark side is,” because it is a soft transition.
You’ve got this big light source, but there are a couple of tips that will make this tool really valuable. First of all, the closer you put the diffuser to your subject, the brighter your subject will be. For the image above, the diffuser is barely out of the frame, just 18 inches or so from her face. The closer it is, the brighter the bright side will be, but the darker the shadow side will be. I love that! I love to have shadows in my portraiture because they reveal form and texture and without darkness light is understated.
Second, place your subject in front of a dark background. the diffuser makes the light larger, but it also reduces the brightness. That means if the sun is shining on your subject and also shining on the house behind her, when you diffuse the light on her the proper exposure on her face will be darker than the exposure on the house and the house will appear blown out and there will probably be many distracting elements in the image. Placing your subject in the sunshine in front a dark background or a background in the shade will keep your viewers attention on the brightest thing in the image: your subject. Plus, since it darkens the sun, it often makes it easier for your subject to not squint.
Third, redirect the light. If the sun is directly overhead, you can hold your panel at an angle and create a different direction of light that is more flattering on your subject. That means I can create good light on a bride at high, and that should keep you from being grumpy about shooting weddings in the middle of the day.
In these wedding images you can see the difference the diffuser makes in softening the light, redirecting it, and darkening it. The light is high overhead, leaving hard edged raccoon shadows in the eye sockets. With the diffuser I’ve redirected the light so that shines more from the side, lightening their eyes and leaving a softer edged shadow. Without the diffuser, the exposure on the couple was f/8, and with it dropped to f/5.6. Note the difference on the spires in the background.
Lastly, pay attention to your own shadow, and the edges of the light. When I photograph a senior, the mom is often along for the shoot, and I’ve seen some photographers use her to hold reflectors for them. The thing is, you’ve got to be diligent about the placement of the light, especially with a reflector. If mom turns a little to the left, the light on the face disappears. It’s really tough for people who haven’t practiced to maintain a constant light for you, let alone find the right light to begin with. Mom can probably handle a hair light, but I need an attentive assistant to hod the diffuser and make sure their own shadow doesn’t block the light shining through. Then, while I’m looking through the lens, I’ve got to be sure that the all the light falling on my subject is coming through the diffuser so there are not hot spots as on the hands and sleeve at the bottom of this image.
It’s still a great expression, and the little breeze in her hair is nice, but I’d probably crop it so the light is more homogenous.
Photography is all about light, and using a the diffuser from an inexpensive 5-in-1 reflector kit will help you create great light anywhere in the world.
I’ve learned many of these skills working closely with other photographers and instructors at Skip Cohen University
. The classes are remarkably intimate, and the skills learned in classes are inculcated after class with other students and throughout the year in the online forums. It is the best education available in photography today, and I hope I’ll see you in Chicago in August.