Soft Light from On-Camera Flash

Pictures with harsh dark shadows and thermonuclear reflections are for Halloween and you can easily get them with direct, on camera flash because it doesn’t give soft light unless it is modified.  Fortunately it is easy and inexpensive to soften light from flash so that people in your photos won’t have faces brighter than the sun or dark with deep shadows.  Diffusers and soft boxes will make a big difference.  So will bouncing the light from a nearby surface, provided the surface has a light tone with little color. (For more about bounce flash visit the post on redeye.)

mini soft boxMy personal preference indoors is to bounce the light from the ceiling provided it is close enough and white or nearly white. This just won’t work outdoors, so I usually turn to a softbox similar to those shown. They can be mounted on flash units with straps or velcro fasteners and have reflective inner surfaces that are effective in directing most of the light in the direction the flash is pointed. This is important because light intensity decreases according to the inverse square law, falling off quickly as distance from the flash increases. soft box
Something to be careful about is to assure that such attachments don’t obstruct the flash unit’s sensors if you will be shooting in any mode except manual. The sensors are usually mounted behind dark red plastic on the front of the flash unit.) This might not be an issue when used on off-camera flash units that are triggered by radio or light. The unit shown at left is shaped to avoid the issue entirely.

A less elegant solution is to cover the flash with white facial tissue or white fabric and I’ve done this in emergencies when other options were not available. Adjustment options are pretty much limited to choosing the number of layers of material over the flash.  Be sure to do some test shots and adjust as needed if you’re photographing something that can’t be staged or repeated.
soft box
The most common hard plastic diffusers are omni-directional.  They soften the light, but since it isn’t directed forward, much  of the energy is used to light the environment.  If the subject isn’t close to other surfaces the light not striking the subject is lost.  I use these when other objects are close to the subject and I want to make them brighter of reduce shadows.  I also keep one on each of my flashes when they’re not in use just to protect the flash lens.

soft boxA white cover also works on cameras with popup flash units. A commercial unit is shown and such devices work reasonably well.  Tissue will help in an emergency, but don’t expect great results from DIY contraptions. Try a few shots to get the feel of the setup before shooting something important.

Every option covered here will help soften on camera flash indoors and out, and you can use them outside to provide subtle fill flash for portraits of people and pets on days with bright sun or bright overcast.

Thanks for your time and I hope you’ve found this helpful.  Feel free to comment or ask questions about this post or any other photography topic. There’s a space just for your response a few lines below this one and I would love to hear from you.


PS – Be sure to have spare batteries for your flash or camera with popup flash so you can make all the light you need.

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