Diffuse & Conquer: Improve Your On-Camera Flash Shots

It’s a good thing that early photographers didn’t have to pass through airport security with their flash equipment. The pyrotechnics they used to light a scene would surely have merited more than a pat down. Many years ago, long before the flash tube or flashbulb, a century or so before the Flashcube, cameramen used a flash powder called thermite.

In the right hands it could illuminate a subject sufficiently for correct exposure. In the wrong hands it could burn a hole through a thick plate of steel. (Thermite did not explode; it emitted a tremendous amount of heat and radiation.)

As you can imagine, controlling the output of such a science project was, to say the least, unpredictable. Ever since, photographers have been looking for sure-fire ways to make portable flash photography natural looking and convenient. Not to mention less hazardous. This quest gave birth to the flash diffuser, the miraculous product that attaches to the flash unit and physically modulates the output of the light that passes through it.

Flash diffusers are available in several different forms and serve multiple purposes. The three primary styles are dome, softbox, and stocking cap. All attach—in one way or another—directly to the portable flash unit. In addition to softening the burst and filling shadows, diffusers broaden the coverage area. Shots taken with a wide-angle lens become more evenly lit. Diffusers also reduce the flash intensity, thereby facilitating close-up and macro flash photography. Outdoors, using a diffuser-equipped flash will remove shadows from subjects’ faces and brighten colors. They’re very useful for outside flower and insect photography, too.

Left: Aiming a shoe-mounted flash toward the wall or ceiling to bounce the light onto the subject is helpful, but not as effective as a diffuser. Right: This image was taken using a Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible.
All Photos © Jon Sienkiewicz

Is there a downside? Of course there is—diffusers eat some of the light output during the dispersion process. That’s simply an unavoidable matter of physics. How much they absorb (or inappropriately scatter) depends on the style, construction, color, and material. But at normal portrait range, the light loss is not a serious shortcoming. Here’s a brief sampling of some of the products that will do the job, with an understanding that there are many more in this product class that deserve your consideration.

Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible
Gary Fong products are popular among pros because they are well made, reasonably priced, and deliver predictable, high-quality results. The Lightsphere Collapsible Inverted Dome Diffuser is round, soft, and flexible. It’s designed to accommodate virtually all standard-size shoe-mount flash units and retracts within itself for easy portability. It’s also light in weight, yet appears to be hard to wear out. The Lightsphere Collapsible is translucent, and the inside is textured to intensify light diffusion. Optionally available colored filters drop inside for special effects. Contact: www.garyfongestore.com ($59).

The Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible spreads light evenly in all directions.
Courtesy of Gary Fong

LumiQuest SoftBox III
A true softbox, this unit presents a large (8x9”), flat, rectangular surface toward the subject and spreads the light from the flash unit quite evenly. The surface area is about 20 times larger than the size of a typical flash head alone. Made of reinforced vinyl, the SoftBox III is light on its feet and folds up flat to slip into most gadget bags. Although it drops about a 1 f/stop output, operation is fully automatic with all of today’s TTL flash metering cameras. Contact: www.lumiquest.com ($47).

The LumiQuest SoftBox III converts your shoe-mounted flash into a studio softbox.
Courtesy of LumiQuest

Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce
The Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce is the archetypical dome diffuser. It creates a scattered bare-bulb effect that delivers even coverage across the entire frame, and is effective with lenses ranging from 15mm to 200mm (35mm format). Made of one-piece molded, translucent plastic, the Omni-Bounce is easy to attach and remove and fits directly on the flash head without a fastener. It weighs next to nothing but is very strong (virtually unbreakable) and easy to pack because it’s also quite small. The unit I use on my Nikon SB-400 measures roughly 2.5x2x1” but is large enough to deliver additional flash diffusion and allows the flash tube to be tilted at a 45˚ angle. Contact: www.stofen.com (about $20 depending on flash model).

The Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce is a single piece of translucent plastic that fits snugly over the head of a flash unit. It’s small, light, and convenient to carry. When the unit is angled at 45˚, light is evenly dispersed.
Courtesy of Sto-Fen

Harbor Digital Design Bounce Diffuser
Harbor Digital Design offers a wide selection of flash accessories.

The Bounce Diffuser is a basic half-dome shaped design that attaches to the front of the flash by way of the included model-specific flash adapter. The half-dome design, which has a healthy forward bulge, provides a larger diffusion surface area than most domes and spreads the light evenly and over a larger area. Results are similar to those obtained by much larger units. Like the Omni-Bounce, this product is durable, compact, and deserves a spot in your gear bag. Contact: www.harbordigitaldesign.com ($20).

The Harbor Digital Design Bounce Diffuser has a large, convex surface of frosted plastic that evenly spreads light from the flash unit.
Courtesy of Harbor Digital Design

Adorama Strobo-Socks Nylon Fabric Diffuser
Strobo-Socks from Adorama are clearly the most universal diffusers you can buy—as well as the lowest priced. Imagine a tiny nylon shower cap that was designed for a child’s doll. Now, stretch that shower cap over the top of your flash unit and puff it up so that there is some space between the top and the flash tube. Simple yet effective and unarguably the easiest to pack (fold and stuff it in a shirt pocket), the elastic opening fits even the 5” round reflectors of systems like Quantum, etc. They can be doubled-up to reduce flash intensity for macro work, and if they become soiled they can be washed and air-dried. Contact: www.adorama.com ($12).

Adorama’s Strobo-Socks are inexpensive and easy to use—and they work like charm!
Courtesy of Adorama Camera, Inc.

Note that like all of the diffusers mentioned in this article, Strobo-Socks are intended to be used with portable shoe-mount flash units, and never with flash units that have continuously burning modeling lamps.

Which works the best? The answer is too subjective to be absolute. All perform as advertised. Smaller units are easier to pack but provide less light dispersion. Rigid units are more durable but a bit harder to stow. Some fit more than one flash model, so even if you have more than one camera system you can still use the same diffuser. You may have to compromise, although all are so inexpensive that you may end up owning several. The important thing is that if you don’t use a diffuser, you owe it to yourself to try one.

You can read Jon Sienkiewicz’s blog at: www.shutterbug.com.

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This is one of the best articles on diffusers I have seen. As a newbie I would like to purchase my first diffuser and found this very helpful. They say that bigger is better so I am leaning towards either the Harbour Digital or the LumiQuest SoftBoxIII with a preference for the latter, but since I can only afford one right now (saving pennies for lenses takes precedence for now) versatility is most important. Can the LumiQuest be used on-camera as well as off-camera? Or will it block/shadow my lens? So far I have a Nikon D3100 and a 55-300mm lens as well as an 18-55 kit lens. I want to buy the SB-700 and would like to purchase a diffuser at the same time.

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