Part One: In Search of the Perfect Flash Diffuser
So you purchased a shiny new DSLR only to find out your indoor flash pictures create the same "deer in the headlights" look in your subjects’ faces that your old point-and-shoot camera did. Set on remedying this problem, you picked up an external flash. With renewed confidence, you mount your new flash on your camera’s hot shoe, aim it at your subject, and blast away...only to find you get the same result. I’m guessing at this point you decide simply to stop using flash altogether, raise your ISO to the stratosphere and set your shutter so slow that dinosaur bones become oil while it’s open, and suffer through grainy and blurry images. Yup, problem solved.
Working in photo retail, I run into customers almost every day who say they simply "don’t like the look of flash." But the truth is, not all flash is bad. In fact, when used properly, flash can not only improve your photos objectively, but even add some creative flare not possible with other kinds of lighting. I’m no Ken Rockwell (har har) but I have my fair share of experience shooting flash in the field, so I thought I’d put together a little three-part guide on how to improve your flash photography. In this first part, I’m going to start with the basics: how to achieve an even, soft, natural light from your external flash (also known as a "Speedlight" or "Speedlite," depending on the brand.) While there are ways to improve the quality of your built-in flash, I will not be going over those here. Also, let me clarify that I am writing specifically for people who have a DSLR camera, but most of what I mention will be directly applicable to any camera that can accept an external flash. I am also assuming you already have a cursory knowledge of how to control your exposure, and a working vocabulary of camera jargon. Still with me? Let’s roll.
Don’t be the paparazzi.
We’ve all seen them: blood-thirsty photographers lining the red carpet, firing their bare-bulb flashes directly into the faces of celebrities. They’re professionals, so they must know what they’re doing, right? Wrong! The first rule of flash photography is never point your flash directly at your subject.* If you do this, you are essentially turning your $1,000 DSLR and $400 flash into a $200 point-and-shoot camera. Skin tones will be washed out, objects will cast harsh shadows, your subject will appear "flat," and people will get annoyed at you for flashing them. To fix this, we need to soften, or diffuse, the light.
The first way to do this is aim the flash somewhere else. You’ve probably noticed that your flash head can tilt and rotate. Chances are, most of the time you will be using a flash will be indoors. And, chances are, when you’re indoors you’ll be somewhere with either a white ceiling or white walls. If you have a white ceiling, try tilting the flash head directly up. Now, when you depress the shutter button, your flash will fire upward, the light bouncing off the ceiling and spreading out as it comes back down. This will "paint" the entire room in a soft, even light. It will completely remove harsh shadows yet still illuminate your subject. The result will be an image that does not necessarily look like it was shot with a flash. This technique is called, quite simple, "bounce flash." Try bouncing your flash off different surfaces (walls, doors, mirrors, go crazy) and see the different results you get.
So what about when you don’t have a good bounce surface, say when you’re outside or in a large building with ceilings that are too high for your flash to reach? That’s when you need a diffuser. Essentially, a diffuser acts in the same way as a white ceiling: it provides a larger surface of light (compared to the bare flash head), the result being a softer output. There are many different flavors of diffusers, and there are some better suited than others to particular situations. I will go over a few of the more common ones below, their differences, and their uses.
The Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce.
The Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce is perhaps the most notable brand of "cap" diffuser, although many flashes include one straight from the manufacturer. Perhaps this is why this is generally the one type of diffuser that novice Speedlighters are aware of. It is small, light weight, inexpensive (around $15), and easy to carry with you (you pretty much never have to take it off your flash). However, of all the diffusers I list here, it is absolutely the worst in terms of the quality of light it produces. It is simply too small to provide sufficient diffusion, and often leads to only slightly-less-harsh shadows than bare-bulb-in-your-face flash. Despite its benefits, I am not a fan of the Omni-Bounce diffuser simply because, well, it doesn’t do a whole lot. Its one area of true usefulness is for outdoor fill-flash, when there is not a wall or other backdrop directly behind your subject.
Usability: Awesome! Price: Awesome! Light Quality: Meh Value: Meh
The Gary Fong Lightsphere.
Commonly referred to as "tupperware," the Gary Fong Lightsphere is a wildly successful plastic diffusion solution. It features a bulbous "cup" with a removable lid. The main benefit of the Lightsphere is that when you’re working indoors, it allows you to both bounce light off the ceiling (by removing the lid) and send a soft, diffused light directly forward onto your subject (via the cup). One of the problems with normal ceiling-bounce flash is that it often casts a small shadow in your subject’s eyes (as their hair/eyebrows/eye sockets block the light coming from above).The Lightsphere remedies this. When shooting outdoors or with a high ceiling, you can put the lid back on so as to not waste light out the top and save some of your flash power. The one potential problem of the Lightsphere is that it sends light all over the place; you don’t have much control in directing it. The more obvious drawbacks are, of course, the size. It looks funky on your camera. You’re going to get some weird looks from people. Even if you’re a hired professional at an event where these sorts of things are common. But I digress... Also, even if you opt for the "collapsible" version, it’s not the easiest piece of equipment to squeeze into an already overloaded camera bag. And it runs about $50 for the standard universal version, which isn’t cheap. There are a few different ways to use it, as well as accessories like color-corrective lids, so some experimentation is required to figure out what works best in each situation—but put in the time, and you’re gonna like the way your flash shots look. I guarantee it.
Usability: Meh Price: Fair Light Quality: Awesome! Value: Fair
The Rogue Flashbender
I’m not going to lie: this is my new favorite flash modifier. I used the Lightsphere for years, but the $40 Flashbender is far more badass. Fundamentally a simple bounce surface, the Flashbender sits just behind your flash head and bounces the light forward. Like the Lightsphere, it allows you to send light forward and bounce it off a ceiling at the same time. However, unlike the Lightsphere, it does not spread light all willy-nilly about the room. It is made of a highly reflective, shapeable, optically white surface that ensures you get maximum power efficiency and a true white light. If you don’t want to bounce off the ceiling, you can add an optional $20 diffusion panel to the front which serves the double purpose of cutting off the upward-bound light and further softening the light shooting forward. Rogue also has a myriad of other accessories available, such as gels and grids, so you can really get down and dirty with your flash photography if you want to. The diffusion panel almost seems like a requirement for the type of work I do, so I’m including its cost in my overall evaluation of the Flashbender’s price—which at $60 makes it the most expensive of the diffusers reviewed here. However, because it folds flat and can fit into almost any pocket in a camera bag, it’s almost as easy as the Omni-Bounce to take with you. And as it gives comparable light quality to the GaryFong, yet with more control, I conclude it to be well worth the price.
Usability: Fair Price: Meh Light Quality: Awesome! Value: Awesome!
The Venerable 3x5 Card.
Camera salespeople may be reluctant to tell you this, but the folks down at Office Depot also sell some very capable diffusers. They’re called 3x5 index cards, and you may have made flashcards out of them for Biology class. It’s a flash card, get it?** Truth is, a simple 3x5 card rubber-banded to the back of your flash head can provide 90% of what the Lightsphere or Flashbender can do, at about 5% of the price (for a pack of 100!) If you don’t have the money for a "real" diffuser, seriously give this a shot. You probably have one lying around the house. Try to find one that is as white as possible, as the off-white cards will cast a different color temperature and confuse your camera (which, knowing the flash is active, is expecting a white light.) In all honesty, this is a better solution than the OmniBounce (sorry, Sto-Fen.)
Usability: Awesome! Price: Awesome! Light Quality: Fair Value: Nearly Infinite
Alright folks, thanks for sticking with me this long. I hope you found this at least a little bit useful. I don’t claim to be the most knowledgeable source of information on this topic, so I highly recommend doing your own research if you’re looking to improve your flash photography. That said, if you feel like you got something out of this, I will be back with two more entries focusing on flash photography. Next up, I’ll be talking about the different flash exposure modes as well as some more advanced techniques for getting creative with your Speedlight. (Or Speedlite. We really need some standardization of nomenclature here.)
*All rules in photography are meant to be broken. But trust me: try it my way first. Then find ways to creatively break the rules.
**Please excuse my stupid pun.