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How-to's Accessories Reviews

Basics of Flash Brackets and Diffusers

Russ MacDonald (Arkayem)


Keywords: nikon, speedlights, lighting, flash

I am often asked about diffusers and brackets. Photographers mostly want to know what they do and which ones are best.

Well, both the bracket and the diffuser were introduced into photography to solve problems of the small flash.

The problems of a small flash, when used pointed directly at the subject, are that it makes harsh, flat light, that often causes 'Red-Eye', and, when turned to the vertical, casts a harsh shadow to the side of the subject.


HARSH LIGHT

In general, harsh light comes from a physically small 'apparent' source. An infinitely small source is called a 'point' source, because the light comes from a single point.

I use the word 'apparent' because the both the size of the source and its distance from the subject cause the apparent size to change from the perspective of the subject. For example, one of the harshest light sources is also one of the largest - the sun. It is huge - over 800,000 miles in diameter, but it is so far away 93,000,000 miles, that it acts as a point source to a subject here on earth. In other words, its apparent size is very tiny. This type of light casts very harsh shadows and makes facial features appear dull and lifeless.


The solution to harsh light is diffusion. Diffusion is the process of scattering the light from a point source so that it acts like a much bigger source. Under harsh sunlight, a translucent diffuser is recommended between the sunlight and the subject.

Think of the sun on an overcast day. The light still comes from the sun (effectively a point source), but the clouds scatter the light as it falls on the earth so that is becomes some of the softest light you can find. In effect, the clouds have changed the apparent size of the sun from a point source to a source the size of the entire sky. You can make extremely good portraits on an overcast day outdoors, where the facial features have nice texture and seem to come alive.

The shoe-mounted flash is also very small in physical size (about 3 square inches) and is an effective point source beyond a foot or so. Consequently it makes extremely harsh light that is not suitable for portraits without modification (diffusion).

Now, some people think that simply placing a diffuser in front of the speedlight will make it soft, but this is not the case, because that does nothing to increase the apparent size of the flash.

 

 

 

There are two ways to create diffusion when using a small flash.
1) Utilize a physically large 'retransmission' system or …

2) Bounce off large surfaces.
You can also use a combination of these two.

A 'retransmission' system is usually made from a large piece of translucent material that is lit by the flash that then retransmits the light evenly across its surface. The Gary Fong Light Sphere II is such a system. It looks like an inverted Tupperware bowl that is mounted on the flash. Then, the flash is pointed straight up and when it fires the whole translucent bowl lights up. In fact the cross section area of the bowl is about 16 square inches. However, in this case, more important than having about five times larger area than that of the flash itself, what makes it unique and very effective is that it will be using all walls, the ceiling and most surfaces in the room or studio to bounce off the light. This softens the light so that portraits made within about five feet are noticeably softer than those made with bare flash.

20130902_081407_14.image-1_harsh_no-diffuser_800px.jpg

Image 1. Harsh light from direct flash

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12 comments

Franklin J. Ellias (Franklin43) on July 7, 2014

Great, easy to understand article. I have used a Strobe Frame bracket for many years and just (6 months ago) switched to the Gary Fong collapsable defuser. After many different deflectors and defusers, I am getting the best results from the Gary Fong unit. The rest are sitting on a shelf.

Clifford Maske (Cmaske) on September 7, 2013

Good information. Thanks

George Chapman (Icemann) on September 5, 2013

Donor Ribbon awarded for his support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014

From a newbie here and to flash photography Thank You.I got some very good advice from this article and I going to look into that bracket

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on September 4, 2013

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Steve, On image 1, an unsolicited helper turned the external flash directly upon the subjects. So it was considered a very illustrative user error by me, the editor.

Mark Page (mpage) on September 4, 2013

Russ, Thanks for the information. I had been using a Stroboframe for several years and it worked well. But I looked at the CB product you mentioned and like what I saw. I did a bit more exploring and found the perfect strobe bracket for me at the Custom Bracket Web site: http://www.custombrackets.com/ I ordered the CB Folding-TA Flash-Rotating Bracket with Arca Swiss Quick Release Clamp from B&H. I also ordered the optional CK-500 Arca-Swiss Plate Conversion Kit. http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/359998-REG/Custom_Brackets_CK500_CK_500_Arca_Swiss_Plate_Conversion.html Now I will not need to remove my Kirk L-Bracket to use the strobe bracket. With the CK-500 I can easily mount the camera with bracket onto my tripod. Unlike the Stroboframe the CB bracket folds up so it can easily be carried in a pocket.

Dino Cardelli (DinoCardelli) on September 3, 2013

Well done...thanks !!!

Steve Sint (SteveSint) on September 2, 2013

Hi Russ, Having shot over 4,000 weddings I'm pretty experienced with using flash on camera and your article was very informative. That being said, I do have two slight critiques to offer: 1. In "Image 1. Harsh light from direct flash", considering how high the shadows are behind your subject's heads, the shadow above the nose on the right side subject, the light under the nose on the central subject, and the shadow on the cake, it almost looks like you turned the camera and flash upside down to accentuate the problem. The direct flash lighting is bad enough even if you don't do that! 2. In your discussion of flash brackets you mention that either the flash or the camera can rotate and one design solution is not better than the other. However, if the camera rotates then the format of the camera is arranged vertically, while the reflector of the flash is positioned horizontally. Considering the hard edged pattern of most shoe mounted flash units, unless you use a flash unit with a round reflector (Lumedyne, discontinued Sunpak 120's, or the Quantum Trio or Q-Flash) you run the risk of having both the top and bottom of your vertical format being darker than the center of your frame. like I said at the beginning of this post...overall you wrote a good article. regards, Steve Sint

Alan Dooley (ajdooley) on September 2, 2013

Awarded for his frequent encouraging comments, sharing his knowledge in the Nikonians spirit. Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the 2017-2018 fundraising campaign

JRP -- I took the comment about "most professional photographers" to mean that was the right or best way. My bad! As I told Russ, his series of flash post is brilliant. I think I can see a book here. In fact, I have been copying each posting into a single document and have the ALL collected in case I can't find them on this site later. I don't want to lose this advice and will revisit it not infrequently.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on September 2, 2013

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Alan, All Russ is saying is that we need to make sure the flash bracket we select allows for rotation in the direction that best fits our camera shutter and shooting habits.

Alan Dooley (ajdooley) on September 2, 2013

Awarded for his frequent encouraging comments, sharing his knowledge in the Nikonians spirit. Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the 2017-2018 fundraising campaign

Wish we could edit comments! I offered my though ONLY about your closing discussion of which way a flash bracket should be designed to turn when you want to orient your camera vertically. Otherwise, as I said -- the entire series has been a remarkable effort on your part. Your willingness to share your experiences in such a concise and comprehensive manner is super!

Alan Dooley (ajdooley) on September 2, 2013

Awarded for his frequent encouraging comments, sharing his knowledge in the Nikonians spirit. Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the 2017-2018 fundraising campaign

Russ - This series of thoughtful articles is extraordinary. In fact, it would make a very useful book! I do however, question your discussion of flash brackets, as it applies only to the D3, D4 or a body with an added battery pack. Not everyone has those Nikon items, and for them, I believe a bracket that enables clockwise rotation and then reorientation of the flash may be their best solution.

Zita Kemeny (zkemeny) on September 2, 2013

Very explanatory. Thanks.

G