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What Is a Flash Diffuser (And How to Use One!)

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When I first started using flash photography, the only thing the flash seemed to do was to create dark shadows on the background and harsh light on the subject.

But my hatred of flash photography quickly turned into a passion after using a diffuser for flash.

So what are flash diffusers? And what do they do? Here’s everything you need to know about them and how you can use them for your next shoot!

A photographer holding a dslr camera with a flash diffuser attached[Note: ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here.]

What Is a Flash Diffuser?

A “naked” camera flash produces hard light that looks unappealing.

But using a light modifier for camera flash creates softer light, with more gradual transitions between highlights and darks.

A light modifier is any semi-translucent material that’s larger than the light source itself. Subsequently, it spreads the light and softens its intensity.

There are many different types of light modifiers for studio lights and off-camera flash. You can use umbrellas, beauty dishes, and large softboxes on an off-camera strobe. The only problem? You can’t walk around with an umbrella mounted on top of your camera.

This is where smaller flash diffusers come in. Like other light modifiers, they spread the light over a larger surface area to create soft lighting.

But the difference is that a diffuser for camera flash is typically smaller than regular light modifiers. Since it’s portable, you can bring it anywhere.

A photographer shooting an indoor portrait with a dslr camera with a flash diffuser attached

What Are the Different Types of Diffusers?

Diffusers are almost as portable as the strobe itself. Made of white translucent plastic, they fit right on top of the flash head. You can use them on-camera as well as off-camera. While compact, these lighting accessories still come in a few different types.

Most flashguns have a built-in diffusion panel. You can pull it out of the flashgun’s head to help spread the light. Unfortunately, a camera flash with diffuser doesn’t do very much. You’ll need a separate snap-on option to see the best results.

Dome Flash Diffusers

Dome flash diffusers are one step above built-in diffusion panels. These lighting accessories have a translucent dome that spreads the light and helps reduce the intensity.

Mini Softbox

The next option is the mini softbox. What is a softbox flash diffuser, you may ask? Think of it as a three to a four-inch version of a studio softbox. This attachment has a square sheet of diffusion material that sits over the light.

softbox flash diffuser

Sphere Flash Diffusers

Sphere flash diffusers create a larger surface area for the light while offering a bit sturdier mount. The most popular options include the Gary Fong Lightsphere and the MagMod MagSphere.

I use the latter so often that it rarely comes off my flashgun unless it’s in my camera bag.

Sphere diffusers tend to be more expensive. But they are easier to use and offer more softening power than a dome version.

Bounce Flash Diffusers

Bounce flash diffusers provide a different approach to softening the light. Instead of shooting the strobe forward towards the subject, they “bounce” the light away from the scene.

Bounce diffusers tend to lose more light than a sphere or softbox. But they can create nice soft light by bouncing off a much larger surface area.

Pop-up Flash Diffusers

What if you only have a pop-up flash? There are diffusers for that too.

They’re called pop-up flash diffusers or pop-up flash diffuser cards. These accessories attach to the camera to soften the light coming from a built-in flash.

DIY Diffusers

Some photographers choose to create DIY diffusers, instead. They use milk jugs or white plastic containers, velcro, paper, cardboard, and more.

DIY diffusers can improve the look of your light without spending much at all.

In general, commercially available diffusers are inexpensive. But DIY diffusers can be even cheaper.

There are some great tutorials out there for creating your diffusers for just a few bucks. However, the odd look and questionable longevity of the DIY option is not the perfect choice for every photographer.

All diffusers are better than shooting without one at all.

You should also consider how easy your light modifier is to get on and off your strobe. And of course, how much space it takes up in your bag.

What Is the Best Flash Diffuser to Use?

If possible, it’s best to avoid using on-flash diffuser. Since it’s just a simple white card, it doesn’t diffuse the light as much.

You should also avoid using DIY diffusers if you’re thinking of doing a professional gig. Don’t get me wrong. They work well don’t look as good. So ditch them for a real one before you start taking pictures of paying clients.

The best options include sphere, bounce, and mini softbox diffusers. They create the softest light, and they work well in most situations.

Outdoor portrait of a couple kissing under an umbrella

How Do You Use a Light Diffuser in Photography?

Diffusers are reasonably easy to use. You can even pair them with additional techniques for getting great results.

You need to fit Dome, sphere, softbox, and pop-up diffusers over the flashgun with the head pointing towards the subject. The light shoots through the diffusion material.

For bounce diffusers, you’ll need to point the light into the diffuser. The large surface area of the diffuser — not the strobe — should face the subject.

Bounce diffusers can vary on use based on the brand you get. Check with the instructions that come with your light modifier or look for a video tutorial with your specific model.

To use a diffuser, all you have to do is strap it on your flashgun’s head, and that’s it. You’ll get even better results if you try your light modifier with some (free) flash photography tips.

When I learned using strobes, I added in both a diffuser and manual flash mode. I then went even further with off-camera flash.

Using manual mode lets you turn down the intensity of the strobe yourself. It’ll help the light blend with the rest of the scene, especially when using flash diffusers.

The manual mode uses fractions to turn your flashgun from full power to dim to send the right amount of light. A 1/1 strobe setting is full power, a 1/2 half power, a 1/4 a quarter power, and so on.

When I have a diffuser on my flashgun, I often use a 1/128 or 1/64 power in an average lit room or the shade. Doing so adds a bit of contrast, catchlights to the eyes, and a bit of fill light.

So can you use a flash diffuser outside? Absolutely!

When trying to overpower the sun, I increase the power often to 1/8 or 1/4. Then, I check the image and turn the power up or down as needed.

photo of a man taking a photo with a camera

To dive more into manual mode, read more here.

Conclusion

A bare flash can be used to create drama and drown out the background light. But diffusers can help the strobe seamlessly blend with the rest of the scene for a more natural look.

If you want to add a bit of light, contrast, fill light, or catchlights, then diffusers are essential accessories.

Diffusers come in many types. Most are a relatively affordable photography accessory, so consider investing in them.

Want to learn more about basic photography techniques? Check out our ebook Photography Unlocked next!

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