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The 90% DIY Diffuser

Regardless of the camera and lens combination and the flash head we use, once we start taking photos of insects in the field with a macro lens and a flash unit we always run into the same problem: Some (or many) of our photos have unwanted highlights or blown-out areas.

Nikon, Canon, and others make "macro flash" units that are supposed to be better than a traditional flash unit and come equipped with a diffuser. These may work in some applications but, IMHO, they are not acceptable for insect/amphibian/reptile fieldwork. There are two flaws: First, the light they produce is harsh and produces unwanted highlights despite their claimed diffusion. Second, they are too bulky to use around flighty insects that are easily scared when you bump a branch.

So what to do? Most bug photographers who've run into these problems will tell you the same thing: DIY diffusion coupled with an inexpensive flash is the way to go. There is a ton of information on how to build a macro flash diffuser on the web. You can also buy one of several excellent versions made and sold by enthusiasts. These can be quite complicated affairs and are usually custom-built for a specific lens and camera combination. The ones I’m familiar with work extremely well and put the commercially made ones to shame (are you listening Nikon and Canon?)

This article is written for people who are just getting into diffusion and explains how to make a quick and effective diffuser that will get you 90% of the way to the same soft light you’ll get if you build a more complicated box diffuser. You’ll also learn a bit about diffusion in the process of making this simple device because it requires some trial and error testing.

Fellow macro photographer Lou Staunton and I came up with this when we were first attempting to diffuse our flash lighting. You can find Lou's stunning photographs on Instagram here.

This design can be made to work with pretty much any full-frame DSLR and macro lens A Nikon with a 105mm micro lens is pictured.

The exact size of the diffusion panel is not critical. Your goal is to “shade” your subject from the flash by placing a translucent panel between it and the flash head. The panel that does the shading part can be 5” to 8” wide and 6” to 9” high — anywhere in this range will diffuse the light produced by the head. The diffusion panel needs to be set at approximately the same angle as is shown in the pictures and the rig works best when you are as close to the subject as your lens allows you to get.

You want to set this diffuser up so it as far away as possible from the flash head.

The best material we found from many we tested was two thicknesses of white paper kitchen towels -- but two or three layers of artists’ vellum work as well and I’m sure there are many other types of translucent, white material that will do as good a job (or even better.) It's fun to experiment with different materials and sizes since this is such an easy diffuser to make.

Once installed on the lens barrel you’ll use the flash compensation built into your camera/flash system to increase or decrease the power of the flash. You’ll obviously also be able to close down your aperture. It is important to remember that some creatures are more reflective than others and, regardless of your diffusion, it is always challenging to them because of their shape and reflective surfaces -- wasps, ants, and some beetle species come to mind. Even with the best DIY diffuser, it is sometimes impossible to get a shot of these species in the field that does not have highlights.


Scissors or Xacto knife.


* White paper kitchen towels (or artists’ vellum.)

* Peel-off, self-sticking clear lamination paper from an office supply store.

* Spray glue.

* Elastic band, tape, or kids' “slap bracelet" (search on Amazon.)

Method: Study the photo of the diffuser on left -- you are going to make something that works for your camera and lens based on the photo. Your lens will likely be a different shape than this Nikkor 105mm so take that into account.

Cut the paper towels or artists' vellum roughly to shape and glue two of them together with a light coating of spray glue. I'd make a second set using three at the same time.

Trim them neatly and then sandwich them between two layers of the self-adhesive plastic film used to protect documents or create presentations.  I get mine at Staples. This is the most difficult part since the sticky film wants to stick to itself.

Once the paper is sandwiched, neatly trim away excess film leaving a 1/4” strip of film around the perimeter to hold everything in place.

Remember, your goal is simple: You need to create a panel that will "shade" your subject from the flash unit mounted on your camera.

This diffuser is as simple as it looks and it will make an amazing difference to your light if you are currently using flash. Good luck!

Note: Since I don't stack images I'm not sure how this diffuser would work on stacks. I'm also not sure how it would work with the built-in flash that comes with modern DSLRs since I never tried it.

Update: My friend Lenz Lim in Singapore has an excellent article on diffusion as it applies to macro photography of insects here.  His content applies equally to full-frame, crop sensor, and micro four-thirds cameras and it is well worth reading.  You'll also find a lot of beautifully photographed insects and may even be able to pick up a discount on macro gear!

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