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Chapter 7. Working with Light > Diffusing and Softening the Light

Diffusing and Softening the Light

Direct light can be harsh and glaring, especially if you’re using the flash built into your camera, or an auxiliary flash mounted in the hot shoe and pointed directly at your subject. The first thing you should do is stop using direct light (unless you’re looking for a stark, contrasty appearance as a creative effect). There are a number of simple things you can do with both continuous and flash illumination.

  • Use window light. Light coming in a window can be soft and flattering, and a good choice for human subjects. Move your subject close enough to the window that its light provides the primary source of illumination. You might want to turn off other lights in the room, particularly to avoid mixing daylight and incandescent light. (See Figure 7.7.)

    Figure 7.7. Window light makes the perfect diffuse illumination for informal soft-focus portraits like this one.

  • Use fill light. Your 40D’s built-in flash makes a perfect fill-in light for the shadows, brightening inky depths with a kicker of illumination. (See Figure 7.8.)

    Figure 7.8. The flamingo (top) was in shadow. Fill flash (bottom) brightened up the bird, while adding a little catch light to its eye.

  • Bounce the light. External electronic flash units mounted on the 40D usually have a swivel that allows them to be pointed up at a ceiling for a bounce light effect. You can also bounce the light off a wall. You’ll want the ceiling or wall to be white or have a neutral gray color to avoid a color cast.

  • Use reflectors. Another way to bounce the light is to use reflectors or umbrellas that you can position yourself to provide a greater degree of control over the quantity and direction of the bounced light. Good reflectors can be pieces of foamboard, Mylar, or a reflective disk held in place by a clamp and stand. Although some expensive umbrellas and reflectors are available, spending a lot isn’t necessary. A simple piece of white foamboard does the job beautifully. Umbrellas have the advantage of being compact and foldable, while providing a soft, even kind of light. They’re relatively cheap, too, with a good 400-inch umbrella available for as little as $20.

  • Use diffusers. Sto-Fen and some other vendors offer clip-on diffusers like the one shown in Figure 7.9 and 7.10, that fit over your electronic flash head and provide a soft, flattering light. These add-ons are more portable than umbrellas and other reflectors, yet provide a nice diffuse lighting effect.

    Figure 7.9. The Sto-Fen OmniBounce is a clip-on diffuser that softens the light of an external flash unit.

    Figure 7.10. Softboxes use Velcro strips to attach them to third-party flash units (like the one shown) or any Canon external flash.


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