Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Diffusing Light for Better Photos

I get a number of emails each month from folks asking what type of camera I use, how I take my photos for my Etsy shop, and if I have tips to offer. These emails are always very flattering, as I am self taught and really don't know the first thing about the "correct" way to use a camera, but I have picked up a few tricks along the way that I know to be solid, and I'm always happy to share them.

One of the most important aspects of photography is lighting, and today I want to talk about diffusing light and show you how easy it is to use this concept to improve your photographs.

When I first started photographing vintage items for my shop I realized quickly that the pictures I took on cloudy days turned out best. They had a certain glowy quality to them and did not have as many harsh shadows or bright spots where the sun reflected off the object creating a white mark, aka a "blown out" spot. The fact of the matter is that bright, direct light is not ideal for creating an even look in photographs. The spot where the light hits your subject is often super bright, and the harshness of the light creates dark shadows below it. The result is a subject that is hard to see clearly because of the strong contrast in light and dark. Bright, direct light also tends to distort colors, making it more difficult to accurately capture the true color and tone of the subject. This concept goes for photographs taken inside or outside, of people or products.

What was happening on the cloudy days when my photos turned out so nice is that the clouds were acting as a diffuser for the sun's rays, creating a soft, even light that gave me great photos. Fortunately, there are other ways to get that same pretty light without waiting for mother nature to do it for you. Enter diffuser panels, window frosting, sheer white fabric, or any other creative way you can come up with to soften the light before it hits your subject. If you are taking photos inside, the best setup I have found is to place the item next to a window, and use a diffuser panel or sheet of sheer white fabric over the window. If you are outside, hold up the panel or fabric between the sun and your subject.

Let's take a look at a quick example to make it more tangible. Below are two photos of a vintage globe, both taken on the same day within a few minutes of each other. The first photo does not use any diffuser over the window, and you can see the harsh light from the sun streaming in and the shadow below it.

Now let's see the globe photographed with a diffuser panel placed over the window:

And here is what the photography setup actually looks like:

Big difference, right? The diffuser is just translucent white fabric stretched on a hoop that allows natural light to come through, but breaks up the harshness of it. Very simple. A diffuser panel like the one I use can be ordered online for about $20-$30, but you can also make one by stretching sheer white fabric over a frame or simply tacking it taught over your window. This simple trick can make a world of difference in the quality of your photos and increase the number of days you can shoot.

Now of course there are fantastically talented photographers who know exactly how to work with bright, direct light, and can leverage it to get beautiful shots. Under the right circumstances it can be perfection, and I offer up this photo from Ray + Kelly Photography as an example:

Swoon, right? Those two are like magicians with a camera.

But if you're like most of us and don't have expensive equipment or photography schooling under your belt, do yourself a favor and try out a diffuser panel. It's such a simple way to get a more professional, polished photo. Good luck and let me know how it goes if you give it a try!


  1. Great Post! Okay since you are answering questions, I have one for you. Your found objects look so good once you have striped them. What are you using for stripper? Thanks

    1. Are you referring to the wood furniture I've refinished? I generally do not use stripper, but just sand them. I use an electric sander and start out with a rougher grade paper then once the paint or finish is off, I use consecutively finer and finer grade sheets of paper and sand by hand until the surface is smooth. I apply coats of stain between sanding with the very fine grit sandpaper. Hope that answers your question!