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HomeGearAccessoriesThe Best Flash Diffusers and How To Use Them Effectively

The Best Flash Diffusers and How To Use Them Effectively

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Flash diffusers help you illuminate your subjects with a much more appealing light than using bare flash. A flash diffuser scatters and softens the light from your flash. This is necessary to avoid the harsh light a camera flash head produces.

Flash photography is often avoided. This is because without a flash modifier and some understanding of how to use a flash unit well, flash light often produces dark shadows. It’s also common to have blown out, overexposed highlights when no flash light diffuser is used.

The reason for this is that camera flashes are small. They need to be, otherwise no photographer would want to carry one or more of them around. The very nature of camera flash is that it’s a small, portable light source. But when it comes to adding light to a photo, size matters.

What Does a Camera Flash Diffuser Do?

Flash modifier spreads and softens the light from your camera flash. It essentially turns a small light source into a much larger one. Because a flashgun’s head is so small, the illumination it produces is often harsh and will produce dark shadows in an image. Using a modifier with a flash makes the illumination a lot nicer.

Photo of a woman with a parasol outdoors with diffused flash.
Flash using a clip-on box diffuser. © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

A light that’s small in relation to your subject produces a harsh light. The larger the light is compared to what it’s illuminating, the softer light output appears. This is why photographing a person with a direct flash will cast a harsh shadow. If you photograph a small bug or a flower with a macro lens and use the same flash, the light will appear softer. This is because the flash head is much larger than most bugs are.

So, the larger the flash diffuser you use, the softer illumination it will provide.

At this point, you may be wondering how to attach a huge softbox to your camera flash. Don’t worry, keep reading and I’ll explain why you don’t need to.

young woman outdoors with flash using a small softbox.
Flash with a softbox diffuser. © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

When to Use a Flash Diffuser?

Use a camera flash diffuser any time you want to create a nice soft light. A diffused flash becomes a soft, even light source. Without a diffuser, your flash produces harsh lighting in most circumstances. Using modifiers with flash enables you to create a very different mood and feel to your photos.

Imagine taking a portrait with direct flash. You will encounter bright highlights and dark, harsh shadows. Add a flash light diffuser to soften the shadows and produce a much more flattering light. A soft light will help to hide skin blemishes and will not accentuate wrinkles like harsh light from direct flash does. Your model will thank you for this.

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Using flash diffusers is also very common with product photography. This is because harsh shadows are often a hindrance to showing off the product well. Using flash diffusers on two or more flash units, it’s possible to balance the light and avoid seeing any shadows at all.

With macro photography, it’s not normal to use flash diffusers. The flash can be positioned very close to a small subject. In this case, the flash is relatively much larger than the subject, so the light is softened without the need for a diffuser.

Two women at a cafe having fun. Lit with two diffused flashes.
Two flashes. One bounced off a reflector, and the other with a softbox. © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Different Types of Flash Diffusers

There are many types of camera flash light diffusers. They range from very simple DIY diffusers to large soft boxes that are used in photography studios. The best flash diffuser depends on the situation and location that you are taking photos. A very large soft box will not be suitable when you are out photographing a street parade or anything where you need the freedom to move. Likewise, a simple, DIY diffuser is not going to be so useful for taking studio portraits.

Knowing about the various types of flash diffusers will help you make the right choice for which one to use.

photo of a woman on a train, captured with bounce flash.
Bounced flash. © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

1. Plastic Clip-On Box Diffuser

This type of diffuser comes with many flashes when you buy them. The box clips onto the flash and are quite compact. This means they are easy to carry but also have limited effect. Size matters when it comes to light. This is one reason the on-camera pop-up flash is so impractical.

I leave my clip-on flash diffuser attached most of the time because it does scatter light and soften it somewhat. But, when I need very soft lighting, I’ll use a different type of flash diffuser.

Many flashes have a small pull-out plastic panel that can be used to cover the flash tube window. These are even less effective than the clip-on diffusers.

Image of a festival, using fill flash.
Flash with a clip-on box diffuser. © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

2. DIY Bounce Diffuser

A bounce card is simply a rectangular piece of card with a tab on it. This attaches to the flashgun’s head. The speedlight unit is pointed at a neutral-colored ceiling or nearby wall. The light is reflected off the surface, and the bounce card helps push it towards your subject. Bouncing the light from a flash like this makes it much more diffused.

Together, the neutral surface and the bounce card scatter light and produce a more natural look. This is a very easy, cheap diffuser with no fancy features. It’s very portable and can attach to the flash head with a rubber band, a cinch strap, or velcro when you need softer lighting.

This was the only lighting accessory I used for the many years I worked as a newspaper photographer. It was easy to carry in the flat pocket on my Billingham camera bag and could be used in a great variety of indoor locations to bounce light.

Many manufacturers of cameras and lighting accessories also produce bounce cards. These can be more durable than a piece of card, but it’s very easy to make DIY diffusers like this if you want to save money. You don’t need to purchase a store-bought card for bouncing light.

Turkish craftsmen.
Bounce flash. © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

3. Dome Diffuser

A diffusion dome has a universal fit and attaches onto the flashgun head, usually with a strap or velcro. This type of white dome diffuser is made of plastic. You can purchase them in various shapes and sizes.

This type of diffuser also has a limited effect because of its small size. It is larger than a clip-on box type diffuser, so it will soften the light more. But, the size means that it is less portable. You will not easily fit a dome diffuser into your camera bag. You also want to make sure this type of diffuser has a secure fit because they extend from your camera flash.

I do have a dome diffuser but have only used it once. It came in a kit with other light modifiers. I was not impressed with the quality of illumination if provided compared to other modifiers I use.

There are collapsible white domes available which are more compact and easier to carry with you. These have some attractive features, but the price can make them quite expensive to purchase.

4. Small Softbox Diffuser

This is my favorite style of a flash diffuser. I prefer a slightly larger one than the best sellers. These tend to be relatively small and can be used with on-camera flash. I have a 60cm square softbox that I can only use with off-camera flash. This is no problem because whenever I can, I prefer using my speedlight off-camera.

Having a larger size surface area means a softbox provides the best illumination for many kinds of photography. The important features of this type of modifier are a decent size, and they are collapsible, so they are easy to carry. They also produce a better quality of light than other camera flash light diffusers I have worked with.

The point of using a soft box is that it creates a quality of light similar to what you can achieve in a studio. But, because it’s so portable, you can use it outdoors or indoors anywhere you want to take a photo. I often use mine outdoors when taking portraits. I will use it to balance the ambient light on my subject and fill in harsh shadows. Sometimes I use it to create a hair light or a slightly stronger side light, depending on the style of photo I want.

Using a softbox is a little more cumbersome than other types of diffusers. But they will produce an image with better quality light than a small diffuser will.

Woman drinking water at the train station.
Fill flash with a softbox diffuser. © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Conclusion

Using a speedlight diffuser well provides you with better quality illumination than direct flash does. This can help you make your photography look more natural. Especially when you balance the illumination from your flash unit with the ambient light. Adding more light with a speedlight is often unbalanced and unnatural when you don’t use diffusers.

You can start with a simple card and bounce light off the ceiling. If you find this too limiting, you can buy a flash light diffuser dome or a softbox which provides other features. Depending on the type of photography you enjoy, one may be more suitable than the other. A small softbox can fit on the flashgun head as a diffusion dome does. With a larger softbox, you’ll need to use off-camera flash but will have a better quality of illumination.

Frequently Asked Questions About Flash Diffusers

How to Use a Flash Diffuser?

The main feature of the diffuser is to scatter and soften the light. So, anytime you want a soft light from your flash unit, you need to diffuse it. You can use a modifier when it’s mounted on your camera or if you prefer to work with it remotely.

Do You Use a Diffuser Outside?

Yes, I often work with a diffuser outside. You can use a diffuser anywhere; it will soften the light output from your speedlight effectively. You can make use of a diffuser anytime you want soft light. It can be either on your main source or fill light. The style of a diffuser will determine the quality of illumination.

Recording studio close up photo.
Bounce flash. © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

How to Diffuse a Pop-Up Flash?

There are various types of one size fits all pop-up flash diffusers available. They have limited effectiveness because they are so small.

What is a Softbox Flash Diffuser?

This is made of fabric and often pyramid-shaped. The inside is lined with a reflective silver lining. The front is thin white nylon fabric. There will often be another baffle made of the same fabric stretching across the inside of the box. A speedlight is placed facing through the opening at the narrow end of the box and projects light through the white nylon when the flash is fired.

coffee cup with light from a flash diffuser.
Flash with a softbox. © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Which are the Best Camera Flash Diffusers?

The modifiers I prefer using are softboxes. These are great to work with. Many have features like a collapsible speed mount design, making fitting it to your flash unit easy. They fold out to make a modifier with a larger surface area than many other types of diffusers. This enables them to produce a higher quality of diffused light. They can be a little cumbersome to deal with because of their size, but size matters when it comes to modifiers.

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KevinLJ
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he's covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who's willing to learn.
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