When I first started out in photography, I hated my flash. 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. A flash diffuser was responsible for a big part of that transformation.
But what is a flash diffuser? What does a diffuser do? What’s the difference between the different types of flash diffusers? And even more importantly, how do you use a diffuser to fall in love with flash photography?
Here’s what you need to know to overcome the fear of flash using a simple, inexpensive lighting diffuser.
What Is a Flash Diffuser and What Does a Diffuser Do?
Lighting diffusers soften the light, reducing the intensity of both the light and the shadows that light creates. With a diffuser, a light will create softer light, with more gradual transitions between lights and darks.
A “naked” flash produces hard light with an abrupt transition between the light and dark areas. A flash with a diffuser creates much more subtle shadows.
Often, a flash diffuser (with some other adjustments) can offer all the benefits of a flash. And it won’t be obvious for the untrained eye that you used a flash.
A flash diffuser is a lighting diffuser designed to fit over a flash. There are many different types of diffusers for studio lights and off-camera flash. A flash diffuser is portable enough to mount on top of a camera.
You can use umbrellas, beauty dishes, and large softboxes on an off-camera flash. But you can’t really walk around with an umbrella mounted on top of your camera. This is where a smaller flash diffuser comes in.
So what does a diffuser do? A diffuser spreads the light over a larger surface area, essentially creating a larger light source.
Flash diffusers can make the size of the light larger and spread the light’s power over a wider area. This can help eliminate those odd and obvious flash shadows.
The larger the light source is, the softer and more flattering the light is. Flash diffusers use a semi-translucent material that’s larger than the flash itself. This makes the light larger and softens its intensity.
Types of Flash Diffusers
Flash diffusers come in a few different variations. First, if you are using an off-camera flash, you can use the same lighting diffusers available with studio lights. These include umbrellas, large softboxes, and beauty dishes.
These types of diffusers are larger than the typical flash diffuser. This means they create an even soften, even more flattering light. Make sure to choose a diffuser that can be mounted to your specific flash. Some are designed specifically for studio lights only.
Flash diffusers are designed to be almost as portable as the flash itself. This allows for use on-camera as well as off-camera. While compact, these flash diffusers still come in a few different types.
First, most hot shoe flashes have a small diffusion panel. This pulls out of the flash head to help diffuse the light. This little piece of plastic doesn’t do very much to diffuse the light. It doesn’t actually increase the size of the light. This is how most diffusers create that softer light.
It’s better than nothing. But this built-in diffuser isn’t really a good indication of the difference a good flash diffuser can really make.
Dome diffusers are one step above that built-in diffusion panel. Dome diffusers are semi-transparent plastic pieces. They sit over the light and help reduce the intensity.
Again, these types of flash diffusers are better than shooting without. But they don’t really increase the surface area of the light. They don’t soften the light as much as some other diffusers.
On the plus side, these dome diffusers are compact, inexpensive, and easy to leave on your flash 24/7.
Mini softboxes do increase the surface size of the light. A smaller version of a studio softbox, these flash accessories are sleeves that sit over the light. They spread the light out over a larger surface area through a semi-transparent white shape at the front.
These accessories create a nice, soft light. They are often attached with velcro. This means they can be a bit more flimsy than other types of flash diffusers.
Sphere diffusers create a larger surface area for the light while offering a bit sturdier mount. The most popular options for sphere diffusers are the Gary Fong Lightsphere and the MagMod MagSphere.
I use the latter so often that it almost never comes off my flash unless the flash is in my camera bag.
These types of diffusers tend to be more expensive. But they are easier to use and offer more softening power than a dome diffuser.
Bounce diffusers take a different approach to softening the light by redirecting the light. Instead of shooting the flash forward towards the subject, bounce diffusers direct the flash away from the subject. A large white panel bounces some of that light back.
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.
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 diffusers attach to the camera to soften the light coming from a built-in flash.
DIY flash diffusers can improve the look of a flash without spending much at all. Flash diffusers, on the whole, are inexpensive. But DIY flash diffusers can be even cheaper.
The odd look and questionable longevity make the DIY option not right for every photographer. But there are some great tutorials out there for creating your own flash diffuser for just a few bucks.
All diffusers are better than shooting without a flash diffuser at all. In general, the larger the surface area of the flash diffuser, the better the light quality will be.
You should also consider how easy the diffuser is to get on and off the flash. And how much space it takes up in your bag.
How to Use a Diffuser
Flash diffusers are fairly easy to use. They are best paired with additional techniques for getting great results with flash photography.
Dome, sphere, softbox, and pop-up flash diffusers need to be fitted over the flash with the flash pointing towards the subject. The light shoots through the diffusion material.
Bounce diffusers need to point the light into the diffuser. The large surface area of the diffuser — not the flash — should face the subject.
Bounce diffusers can vary on use based on the brand you get. Check with the instructions that come with the flash diffuser or look for a video tutorial with your specific model.
Using a flash diffuser is as easy as putting the diffuser on and turning the flash on. You’ll get even better results if you mix that new diffuser with some (free) flash photography tips.
When I learned to love my flash, I added in both a flash diffuser and manual flash mode. I then went even further with off-camera flash.
Manual flash mode will turn down the intensity of the flash. It’ll help the flash blend with the rest of the scene, especially when using a diffuser.
Manual flash mode uses fractions to turn the flash from full power to a fraction of that. This is in order to send out the right amount of light to the scene. A 1/1 flash setting is full power, a 1/2 half power, a 1/4 a quarter power and so on.
Unlike your camera, your flash doesn’t have a built-in meter. This means a bit of guesswork and practice to get the right setting.
With a diffuser mounted, I will often use a 1/128 or 1/64 flash power in an average lit room or in the shade. I do this when all I want to do is add a bit of contrast, catchlights to the eyes, and a bit of fill light.
When trying to overpower the sun, I increase the power significantly, often to 1/8 or 1/4. Then, I check the image and turn the flash up or down as needed.
To dive more into manual flash mode, read more here. Using a diffuser even if you stick with auto or TTL flash is already a step in the right direction.
A bare flash can be used to create drama and drown out the background light. But a flash diffuser can help the flash 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 without making it obvious you even used a flash in the first place, a flash diffuser is an essential accessory.
Flash diffusers come in many types. Most are a rather affordable photography accessory that makes a big impact. Simple to use, flash diffusers can go even further when used with manual flash.