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Big Light is Beautiful Light

Published: 14/11/2012

This week a reader sent me an example of some flash shots where he was comparing different flash diffusers. The examples got me thinking about the various levels of diffusion for flashes and how important it is to understand what makes flash light look good. For those of you that are already using off-camera flash this may be old-hat but I know that about half of you need to be pushed into getting more comfortable using flash. When you learn to control the light you will get the best results.

A fundamental law of light: Big lights make soft diffuse light and small lights (your bare flash) make harsh shadows. To summarize: big light is beautiful diffuse light!

So since we don't want a bunch of harsh, ugly shadows in photos and the business end of a flash is very small, we need to do things to make flash appear bigger. Here are the three classic things that real estate photographers do to make the light from their flashes appear bigger and softer:

  1. Add a diffuser: These are plastic gadgets you can fasten to the flash. Examples are Sto-fen, Gary Fong and many others. While these add some minimal level of diffusion they don't make your flash light much bigger compared to 2 and 3 below.
  2. Shoot through an umbrella: The idea here is that you shoot your flash through an umbrella and in the process you little flash takes on the size of the silk umbrella that you are shooting through (43" is a common size). For this you need an umbrella, an umbrella adapter and a light stand. The benefit of an umbrella on a light stand is that you can move it around and point it in the direction you want better than you can a wall.
  3. Bounce off a wall or ceiling: One of the best ways to make your little flash appear big is to bounce it off a wall or ceiling or the joint where the wall hits the ceiling. The farther away from the wall, the bigger the light appears. This is the first thing you want to try since it usually works the best. The only thing stopping you from using this all the time is that sometimes there just isn't a wall where you want it. Long time PFRE reader Malcolm Waring made a DIY clamp that allows you to have a big portable wall. It works quite well, Malcolm made one for me.

Experiment with these techniques to get a feel how they work in various situations. Note that you can use any of these techniques whether you are shooting all flash or hybrid flash/bracketing. Always try to use 2 or 3 or a combination of the two because the apparent light size is much bigger than 1.

Larry Lohrman

7 comments on “Big Light is Beautiful Light”

  1. I too love the large light softness but instead use my large white/silver Flex fill round reflector, as it is more portable than an umbrella, and I can re-direct the light easier. Before I used multiple lighting (or in addition to my multi lighting) I place my on-camera flash pointing backwards and tilted up about 45 degrees. I set my camera to a 6 second delay so I can hold my reflector over my head with both hands and not have worry about tripping the shutter. The other advantage is now you have a nice white surface. You do not always have a white or neutral wall or ceiling to bounce your light, so you sometimes get a color shift which my Nikon does not always correct for. One issue I have found about bouncing off my reflector is glare on windows, glass doors or framed art work, so you need to be aware of these. I was wondering if Canon has better auto white balance.

  2. Sometimes small light is beautiful too. Sometimes big light is boring, lacking a sense of depth and contour. It all depends on how you use the light and on the subject matter.

  3. You can also bounce out of the inside of the umbrella. I find that this prevents the possibility of light spilling over the edge of the umbrella and causing a stark border between the diffused and undiffused light.

  4. Any difference in the quality of light with a reflective umbrella vs. shoot-through?

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