Acerbic Resonance

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DIY SpeedLite Diffuser

Are you frustrated by the ugliness that results when you try to take a picture with your camera’s flash?  Well, I was, so I recently built a diffuser for my SpeedLite in an attempt to mimic a Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible. Why not just buy one of Gary Fong’s diffusers?  Well, first some background:

While I’ve been an avid amateur photographer for most of my adult life, I’ve only recently managed to pick up my first SLR camera – a Canon Digital Rebel XTi.  This thing is great – I’m finally able to capture the fine nuance of what my eye sees in vivid detail… well, as long as there is enough light, that is.

See, when you take a picture of an object, your camera is actually capturing the light that bounces off of that object from whatever light source you happen to have handy.  Regardless of the camera you are using and the subject of your photo, when you have great light, you can wind up with great pictures.  However, if you have poor light even the best photographer will wind up with poor pictures.

So, what is great light?  Well, it really depends on what you are trying to do.  Do you want sharp shadows?  Do you want strong contrast?  Do you want your colors to be vibrant or subdued?  Do you want light to be stronger on one part of your subject and weaker on another?  Do you want to bounce a blue light off a red object to make it look purple?  The variation of light sources and their resulting effects is nearly infinite, but there are 2 main types of light that I look for and use as a photographer:

  1. Hard Light:  I call it this because it casts hard shadows.  This is produced by lights with a very small surface area.
  2. Soft Light:  So named because it casts very soft shadows and provides very even light.  This is produced by lights with a very large surface area.

Now, to produce really flattering images of people (or pets, or products, or whatever you want to shoot) you need VERY soft light… not necessarily dim – but SOFT.  This means you need your light to come from as large a surface area as possible.  The flash on your camera is not large at all.  In fact, on most SLR cameras it is only about a square centimeter or so.  Using this flash as your main source of light is a great way to shoot horrible pictures.

A “SpeedLite” or detachable larger flash will provide better pictures, but shooting it directly at your subject will still produce unflattering results similar to the on-camera flash.  If you have a lightly colored wall or low white ceiling available, bouncing your flash off them can produce much better results because the whole wall winds up acting as your light source.  But what do you do if there are no great options for bouncing?  Well, you’ll need a diffuser.

A diffuser accomplishes 2 different goals:  Spreading the light and making the light source surface area larger.  When looking for a diffuser for my flash, I quickly found the Fong Lightsphere and was impressed with the quality of the photos it produced – and decided to buy one.

Then I looked in my wallet.

Now, let’s be honest:  Fong’s diffuser is not all that expensive.  If you have the means and want to spend the money, I highly recommend shelling out some dough and picking one up.  But if you are at all like me, you’ll try to come up with something similar for much cheaper.  In fact, as it turns out Google knows all about people like me who have tried to come up with their own diffuser design.  In digging through these, I found the DIY Gary Fong Lightsphere site, and after wading through all the advertisements and attempts to make me become a “pro” member of their site, I decided to see if I could come up with something similar.

There is no IKEA around here, so I headed to my local home improvement store: Lowes.

I picked up 2 items at a total cost of $14.21.  The items are pictured below:

Drawer Liner and Velcro. That's it.

Totally guesstimating, I measured 5 inches off the end of the roll and cut it carefully with a sharp pair of scissors.

Size this to be approximately 2 times the width of your flash.

Then I slapped some velcro on the ends and that was that.  I attached it to my flash and started running around the house taking test shots and muttering to myself about the results.  A quick word about the velcro:  There are 2 sides to this drawer liner – a very smooth side and a very bumpy side.  You want to put one piece of velcro on the smooth side and one on the bumpy, or else they won’t attach to each other when folded over your flash.  That’s the only hard part about building this thing – get that right and you’ll be all set.

My diffuser mounted on the flash. Notice what a larger surface area it provides?

So, jonesing to see some results?  Before we jump into that (unless you just skipped ahead… ) I wanna say this:  This diffuser (and any diffuser) will not instantly make your photos look fantastic.  This will merely manipulate your light in new ways.  For me, the results were unexpectedly good in some instances, but unexpectedly bad in others.  You’ll have to get used to when it is right to use a diffuser to get the most out of it.

Here are some comparison shots I did with the diffuser on and off.

No Diffuser. Bounced off the ceiling at about a 20 degree angle. Notice the deep shadows and muted colors.
Shot with the diffuser on the flash, same position as the shot above. Notice how the colors are brighter, the light much more even, but the shadows are sharper.

With this set there are a few surprises :  I was surprised to see the sharper shadows in the second image above, but now understand (after shooting a bunch more comparisons) what is going on here.  The flash was pointed up at the ceiling as in the first image, but the light was being bounced around and redirected out the front face of the diffuser as well.  Effectively, this produces 2 light sources:  There will still be plenty of light hitting the ceiling and bouncing back, but there will *also* be plenty of light forced out the front of the diffuser directly at your subject.  This is important to understand, as it can produce some very unexpected results.

Here is another comparison:

No diffuser. Flash bounced off the wall and a portion of the ceiling to the right of the camera. Great depth and warm colors from the off-white wall.
Same as above, but with diffuser on the flash. I actually hugely prefer the non-diffuser version of this shot.

These 2 images illustrate how using a diffuser can be the wrong choice sometimes.  In the bottom image, we are getting too much light directly diffused off the flash towards our subject, and losing the great texture and depth of shadow that the first shot captures so well.  Also note the much cooler tone of the image with the diffused flash.

Now for an example that uses the above effect for better results than a typical bounce flash:

No diffuser. Flash bounced off the ceiling at a slight angle
Same as above, but with diffuser attached to flash

The differences between these 2 shots are very subtle, but come down to using the right combination of the light bouncing off the ceiling and the light coming out the face of the diffuser.  In the top picture, the colors are subdued slightly and flatter.  In the second picture the highlights on the petals (especially the lily) are much more pronounced.  These highlights were brought out by the light emitted from the face of the diffuser, and make the difference between the somewhat flat first image and more vibrant second image.

“What about portraits?  I heard that diffusers were great for portraits!”

Well, here are a few (this is my wife’s “folding laundry” face):

No diffuser. Bounced off the ceiling at a slight angle to the subject. Whoops! The ceiling is too tall (20 feet) for the flash bounce to be effective.
Same as above, but with diffuser. All that light being tossed out the front of the diffuser lights the subject's face, while the rest of the room is lit by the bounce of the rest of the light off the ceiling.

This comparison is what really gave me the “ah ha!” moment about how the light was being manipulated by the diffuser.  Yes, the light on her face can be improved further (keep reading!) but With the diffuser you get great depth to her hair, and very even light with softer shadows than you would get with a direct flash – better capture of the contours of her face for sure.

Thinking it would be more fair to point the flash directly at her for a better comparison, I took these next 2:

No diffuser. Flash aimed directly at the subject, using ETTL.
Flash with diffuser attached. Flash was aimed at the ceiling.

What a difference!  Great highlights and much more even hair, you can see the texture of her sweater, and her face is much more evenly lit.  I knew I could get it to produce even better results, though.

This next comparison is of 4 types of flash: built-in pop-up, SpeedLite aimed at subject, SpeedLite bounced off the wall, SpeedLite with diffuser bounced off the wall:

Not the SpeedLite at all: pop-up on-camera flash. Totally flat textures with hard shadows galore.
SpeedLite aimed directly at subject. Improvement over built-in flash, but still not great. Cooler tone.
SpeedLite bounced off the wall. No diffuser. Much softer light, but subdued highlights. Good catchlight in the eyes.
SpeedLite bounced off wall with diffuser. Wow! Even softer light than the first bounce, with better highlights and more vibrant colors.

Now I can see what all the fuss is about with diffusers!  This last shot is leaps and bounds better than the first with just the built-in flash, and is noticeably better than the best I was able to do in this setting with a bounce off the wall.  I’m thoroughly convinced that my $14.21 was money very well spent!

Here are some other interesting shots of the diffuser and the pattern of light it throws.  Note that it is not a perfectly even light (as I’m sure the Fong diffuser does) – at the corners it will throw sharper light than from the faces:

Turned down the power to better show the way it manipulates the light.
No diffuser.
You can shoot with the smooth side in or out. I did not notice any difference.

Based on my experiments with this diffuser, I’d say that it can definitely improve some shots, but can also make some worse.  Learning to anticipate what it will do with the light from your flash is an exercise left for the reader. 😉

Oh, as an extra bonus, this thing rolls up nice and small and fits easily into my already cramped camera bag.

Side Note: When I bought the roll of drawer filler stuff, the smallest roll they had was 6 FEET long.  I only used 5 inches.  Similarly, I had to buy tons more velcro than I actually needed for this project, so I have enough leftover material to make about 10 more of these things.  If you want one, I’d be happy to make it for you and ship it anywhere in the US for $10.  Just drop me an email and let me know what sort of flash you’ll be putting it on so I can make sure it will be big enough.  You can paypal me the money or send a spiffy $10 bill in the mail.  I’m only going to make these for other people until my material runs out – I’m not looking to get rich here, just want to get rid of my leftovers.  Thanks!

Would love to hear your comments or suggestions below.


7 responses to “DIY SpeedLite Diffuser”

  1. That’s awesome!!! I’ve been using the “a better bounce flash” concept (using paper or white vinyl), but I’m thinking that this will be better and more “durable”.

    Going to give it a try this weekend!

    FYI – My Tiger Moth 400 is still about 95% done, still adding some scale details (windshields, landing gear bracing, insignias, pilot). 🙂


    1. Cool! Would love to see your results.

      Good luck!

  2. J.Hofman Avatar

    Very good and appears simple enough, thank you.

    I do not live in the States so thought I’d try this. I am a little puzzled, and perhaps a bit dense, you say “stick velcro on both ends, but opposite sides, of the length, of the width, which appears to be about 8” or so wide?) “… is one side then folded in, in order to velcro it to one another. Cannot really see from the pic as velcro seems to go right around stopping just abov3 the 430………EX, fold paper in half and both same sides meet Would be much obliged if you would help me as this seems a fairly simple set up, apart from that! Thank you in anticipation of your help


    1. I’m glad you found this article useful. I’ll try to better explain what I meant about the velcro:
      In my tutorial, I used some drawer liner material for the diffuser – this is very thin, rubbery-like sheets that are intended to be put inside a drawer to keep things from sliding around when the drawer is opened and closed. I cut out a piece of this material in dimensions that would fit around the body of my flash as shown in my pictures above.

      So, for the purposes of explaining how the velcro works, picture the diffuser material as a sheet of paper. This sheet will have 2 long edges, and 2 shorter edges just as any rectangle does. It will also have 2 faces or sides – a front and a back. What I was trying to convey is that along one of the short edges, place velcro on the front of the sheet, while on the other short edge, place it on the back of the sheet. This way, when you fold it over the top of your flash, the velcro matches up and is able to attach.

      If this still does not make sense, just try it – as soon as you have cut out your diffuser material and tried to wrap it around your flash, what I’m talking about here becomes obvious.

      Best of luck – and I’d love to see how yours turns out!

  3. Jazmine Ludwig Avatar
    Jazmine Ludwig

    HI! My name is Jazmine, obvioulsy. I am a fifteen year old freshman in high school and I am doing a project for my EAST class. EAST stands for (E)nvironmental (A)nd (Spatial) (T)echnology. We are making a video on local as well as national bullying. I know it may seem pretty worthless to try, but we would really like to know that we did everything we could to help reduce the amount of youth suicides caused by bullying and peer pressure. Anyhow, me and my group members have been trying to come up wih the equiptment and money to make a light diffuser to enhance the quality of our video. We have tried without any kind of lighting or diffuser and it isn’t bad, but it isn’t great. I was looking around on your website here and I thought maybe you could help us out. I didnt have time to read all of this, I’m pretty pressed on time. I’m also a quick typer, anyhow, if you would, we would be so very appreciative if you would send me an email( with a list of the things that we would need. please send it ASAP.
    We watched a video, but it didn’t tell us what we needed or how much of it we needed.

    1. Hi there, Jazmine!

      Your project sounds interesting – hopefully my tips will help. As far as what to buy, there are really only 2 things: Drawer liner and Velcro. Both are widely available. I bought mine at a local Lowe’s store for less than $15, back when I wrote this post a few years ago.

      But I think that perhaps I should back up a bit – the diffuser I describe in this post is designed for flash photography, not necessarily for video lighting. But, in general the way to improve lighting (for video and photos) is to increase the surface area of your light – i.e., make your light source as large as possible. There is almost no end to how you can do this. My post is really just one approach… but it works very well for flash photography.

      If you can share the specifics of what equipment you already have (cameras, lights, etc?) I’d be happy to make suggestions that would incorporate what you already have.

      Thanks, and good luck!

  4. thank you for your thoughts and pictures showing the differences. As an amateur photo buff, I am always looking to learn better ways to take more appealing shots.

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