It’s no secret that I am practically allergic to using my on-camera flash. The light is so harsh and it makes everything look so darn flat. Besides, if I’m looking at a scene that is magical the way it is, why on earth would I think that changing
the lighting would make the magic come across in my camera?
So, basically, I never use my flash. I might place a reflector here or there to make sure my subject is illuminated enough, but otherwise I go with the light I have. It’s a fun artistic challenge, and I end up with striking images that I absolutely love.
But there are some times when you really want to use a flash. Taking pictures of people is one of those times. You want to be able to get the shot you want, and you want to know it’s going to be exposed correctly, because it only takes an instant for the cutest expressions to change. There is nothing more frustrating than missing the perfect moment because you were twiddling with your shutter speed to get the right exposure.
But there’s also nothing worse than spoiling the perfect moment with the horrid light that your on-camera flash gives.
(NB to the camera enthusiasts: yeah, you can spend a lot of money on a fancier on-camera flash, but spare me. They might let you adjust your light or swivel the flash, but you still need to diffuse the light. Also, I don’t own one. I do, however, gladly accept donations toward camera equipment, or you can just book me for a photo session!)
Ok, so I love all things DIY. It’s a running joke with my husband, who loves all things The Best You Can Buy. Me, I’m like, man am I ever drooling over that $300 flash, but can I do the same thing with fifty cents worth of crap that I already have lying around? (The answer is no, you can’t jerry rig a $300 flash, but you can use some free stuff to vastly improve your existing flash!) So he thinks I should buy a super expensive flash (I can’t say I disagree) but in the meantime, I found myself wondering what I could do to mimic the effect of a light box and soften the harsh look of the built-in flash. I’ve read a few inspiring posts about how to make flash diffusers out of things like airplane barf bags, but since I haven’t flown on an airplane in quite a while I ended up doing some brainstorming to figure out what I have on hand that would give a similar effect.
So let’s shed some light on the subject. (See what I did there?)
How to make a grocery bag light diffuser
1. Get your grocery bag.
2. Fold it in half once
3. Tie the handles together to make a tube-ish sort of thing.
4. Annnnnnd pop it on your built-in camera flash!
5. Voila! You have made your own DIY flash diffuser from a plastic baggie!
If you fold it in half twice, it diffuses the light even more. Play with it and figure out which way you like best. You could also try coloring it with sharpies to give your flash some cool color effects.
Sooooooooo… Does It Work?
The short answer is, YES! It absolutely does work. You still get the front-on light that happens when your light source is coincidental with your camera. But the light is subtler and gentler, and makes your subjects look beautifully illuminated instead of deer-in-the-headlights.
I ran around my house taking pictures of my
poor, unsuspecting children favorite, beautiful models to compare the look of my redneck clever DIY flash diffuser with the regular built-in camera flash.
Regular flash: harsh, flat tones (yikes!)
DIY flash diffuser: softer tones, more natural look.
The baby on the porch: the on-camera flash would definitely destine this one for the bin, but the DIY flash diffuser gave it a soft, natural look. It might even be a keeper, if it weren’t for that chair and the pot handle sticking out of his head! (Like I said, I was taking pictures For Science and not for my portfolio.)
On-camera flash: harsh, flat light and distracting shadows
DIY flash diffuser: natural shadows, plenty of illumination, and a beautiful glow.
The boy sitting on the coffee table: the back lighting here definitely triggered the flash to pop up since I was using my auto settings (again, something I don’t usually do, especially because of the flash). The first shot is with the built-in flash by itself. You can see how flat the lighting is and how harsh the shadows are. The second shot is with the plastic baggie diffuser. It has a perfect glow and lets his happy expression come through. To my mind, a much more beautiful photo, though if I were putting it in my portfolio I’d probably run it through Lightroom and edit the background a bit. When the lighting is right, though, you really don’t have to do all that many edits.
The selfie: here we see the limitations of the DIY plastic bag flash diffuser. It seems that the light is diffused more when the camera is a bit farther away from the subject (I have a 35mm lens on my camera here). I had the camera at arm’s length (obviously) and it’s a little harder to tell the difference between the diffused flash and the non-diffused flash. Look closely, though – on the left the light is pretty darn harsh, and there’s a bit more interplay between highlights and shadows with the diffused flash photo on the right. (I thought about putting on makeup but then I realized that I would never get this post photographed and written if I did that, so I just went #nomakeup #nofilter. #noapologies.)
I’m not going to lie, as allergic as I am to flash photography, I think I will probably be using this trick in the future. There are just too many times when I need to get a quick shot and I don’t have time to worry about the light, or when I really need to be able to increase my shutter speed and need more illumination.
Tips for on-camera flash diffusion:
You can use this with aperture-priority or shutter-speed priority modes. Just push the little button next to your flash to make it pop up, and the camera computer will do the rest for you. You can also use it with manual mode, but you’ll have to balance your aperture/shutter speed/ISO yourself to allow for using the flash.
If you’re going to do this with an automatic setting (and if you’re using automatic settings, you should definitely be using a flash diffuser), I highly recommend that you use your portrait/landscape/children/other appropriate setting of your choice rather than just the plain auto setting. I’ll be doing another blog post on these settings later, so stay tuned!
It’s March and I’m offering Easter mini-sessions, so be sure to contact me and schedule your mini-session ASAP!