Photography is expensive. Now, I am not one to shirk at spending money on quality equipment. Lord knows I have been burned enough in the past to have learned that if you spend that little bit more for the quality product it will pay you back several times. But that rule does not apply to every piece of photo gear that is out there. Some of the stuff on the market, while great ideas, just have too big a price tag for the commercial version. Besides, I am, while not a Tim Taylor of photography, not exactly a total klutz. So when I see a cool idea for light modification that somebody wants to charge me $20+ for, I will jump at an opportunity to go the el-cheapo route and score one for the little guys!
One of the drawbacks of using a speed light on camera is that the light source, no matter what you do to it, is just too damned small and harsh to make nice photos. (its one reason why your Facebook photos taken with your cell phone camera suck…sorry, its true). So photographers who want to use on camera flash go to great lengths to make a small light source a bit bigger and softer. Bouncing the flash off of walls, ceilings, etc can make a huge difference in the quality of light on your subject.
One such modifier that I have seen advertised in various places by various different manufacturers is a flexible white card that attaches to the top of your flashgun and makes a larger bounce card right on the flash. The same concept can easily be achieved with a simple sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 printer paper. A more durable (slightly more expensive) version is using a piece of foam sheet that can be purchased at an art supply store like Michaels.
Simply cut the sheet into a trapezoid shape (about 5 inches on the bottom and 7 inches on the top by about 7 inches tall…but it isn’t exact, so play around with the size until you get something you like). Then you simply attach it to your speed light using a rubber band and voila, you have now increased the size of your on camera light source by several fold. This modifier comes in very handy if you do not have a wall or lower ceiling to bounce your on camera flash off of.
So what kind of a difference does using a flash modifier (a cheap one at that) make to your photos? Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
This first example is of a subject with a reflective surface. The direct flash illuminates the scene nicely enough, but the harsh light source is seen to be reflecting strongly off of the side of the bottle facing the flash.
When we put this flash modifier on and point the flash up towards the ceiling (in the same orientation as in the photo of the modifier on the flash above), the white reflector now becomes our larger (and hence softer) light source. From the same position with this modification, you can see the direct reflection of the flash on the bottle is much diminished.
While this example is a bit subtle, perhaps, it nicely illustrates how the DIY bounce card modifies the quality of the light on the flash.
Here is another, more common example of the difference this kind of modifier can make with the speed light mounted to the hotshot of the camera.
This is another ambient light scene where we want to use the on camera flash as a fill light to balance the shadows of on the subject. In the direct, on camera flash example, even using the Nikon iTTL feature of the flash, it still manages to cast a harsh shadow along the jawline of the subject. This is not the effect we are looking for and the photo looks marginally better than a drivers’ licence photo.
If the DIY modifier is added to the flash with our sophisticated rubber band system, rotating the flash unit to the side with the back of the bounce card facing the subject, a larger, slightly off camera axis fill light now strikes our subject on the right side (his left). Note how much softer the shadow of his jawline appears. While not an award winning photo, it is still a marked improvement over direct, on camera flash.
While photography is an ever expanding hole for us to sink our money into, often there are inexpensive solutions that can yield very nice improvements to our images. All it takes is an idea of what we want to achieve and some ingenuity. Most of the solutions we invent will be a copy or an improvement of something we have seen somewhere else, after all, there is nothing really new under the sun. Often, our lack of funding is our biggest motivator. Whatever the reason, the point is to have fun with our photography and find all of the little tricks that can make us better photographers.
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