Does That Little Flip Up Diffuser Actually Help?

Does That Little Flip Up Diffuser Actually Help?

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One question I receive in my workshops for beginners is about flashes. Particularly “What the heck is this for?”

PeterWestCarey-Flash-20120120-134917-9923

And, “Does it actually do anything?”

Not all flashes have these two items that cover the flash head and pull straight out, but if yours does and you’ve always wondered, here is your answer.

Those two items both serve different purposes. The one that flips over the flash itself is a diffuser. Its job is to spread out the light from the flash. You might have seen larger diffusers, such as a softbox over a flash. Those diffuse even more light than this piece of plastic. But it actually is better than nothing when it comes to spreading out light. At the same time you flip out this contraption, your flash will typically back up the light source inside of the flash unit (if it has zoom capabilities) to help project a wide swath of light.

These two actions work hand in hand to spread light and not make it so tight on your subject. The last piece of plastic, the more opaque one the at sticks out straight, helps bounce light that would have bounced away from the subject, get pointed back just a liiitttle bit more towards your target. This can be helpful when even more diffusion is wanted, or if the flash is being bounced off a ceiling and some catch light is wanted in the subject’s eyes.

Let me show you the difference a diffuser, coupled with the bounce plastic and a wide zoom in the flash, can make.

This first shot of a f-stop Gear Satori pack I was reviewing is taken at 85mm and a distance of about eight feet. This shot is taken with the flash pointed directly at the pack and coming in from the left side as I have tilted the camera, as I did not want to bounce the flash against a colored wall and couch.

PeterWestCarey-Satori-20120119-215604-9896

Notice the harsh shadow to the side of the pack caused by the flash? This is because the flash is coming from the side and is relatively close. That shadow is caused by the pack being another eight feet from the wall behind it (as your subject gets further from the background, the shadow will increase).

Now let’s try it with the diffuser in place, the bounce in place and the flash zoomed back to 14mm (all of which happens automatically when I pull out the diffuser).

PeterWestCarey-Satori-20120119-215609-9897

The exposure settings on the camera are exactly the same in both photos. The difference should be clear, that the second shot has much lighter shadows as well as a softer light on the pack itself.

The impact of this method is less pronounced when zoomed in further and the flash is now positioned above the camera in a horizontal orientation. Can you tell which shot is which in these two examples?

PeterWestCarey-Satori-20120119-215638-9898

PeterWestCarey-Satori-20120119-215645-9899

The clue is in the slight change in the quality of light. Because the diffuser’s light is not as intense as the straight flash, it allows in a bit more ambient light and this can be seen in the first image as a slight more orange is showing (from the overhead tungsten lights). The reflections on the buckle are also slightly less harsh.

Using this quick and easy diffuser which you will never leave at home can have its advantages. It’s not mean to replace a true softbox, but it will help when one is not around.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

  • Dan

    Thanks for the info, but I think a person instead of a black backpack might have been a better model.

  • Brian

    I believe the white flap is supposed to act as a catch light for the subjects eyes when the flash is pointed straight up. Otherwise when you bounce the light off the ceiling or a wall you’ll loose that effect normally used in portraits.

  • spence

    its literally called WIDE ANGLE DIFFUSER COVER, its used for wide angle lenses, if you shoot FF at 24mm or lower, you can often see the “cone” of light on the edges of your frame due to the flash geometry. the cover allows the flash to zoom out, and it diffuses the light in a much wider pattern.

  • Very nice article, with some good examples.
    You probably should have also done some examples with the pop up tent card (white card) as well since you even mention it in the third paragraph. I use the pop up tent card all the time on my flash as I find that it does splash out some very subtle fill forward when bouncing off a ceiling, and produces a nice catch light in a subject’s eyes. An example of with and without the tent card would have been easy to acomplish/show here, and could have been very useful for those wondering what it does.
    Cheers.

  • Those first two pics show a noticeable difference, but the latter two, I had a hard time judging which was which.
    Thanks for the visuals. They are a great help versus just explaining.

    Flickr:

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • @spence got there before I did.

    While it does perhaps soften the light, it is meant more to spread the light for wide angle lenses.

    The white card is there to help provide a catch light and a little direct fill into a face (for example) when bouncing flash off a ceiling or wall.

  • I don’t think what’s happening is happening because for the reasons given. Perhaps the description is not clear? In any case, allow me to dissect the lighting setup as I see it:

    In the first shot, the light is coming directly from the flash to the pack. As expected. That’s why there is a dark shadow on the wall behind the pack, and the light reflecting from the pack is rather cool.

    In the second shot, you have set the flash for its widest beam, then flipped down the “wide angle diffuser”. This device increases the width of the beam beyond the 14mm you said the flash was set too, so at this point, the spread is going to be VERY wide, like fish-eye wide. The bounce card is also extended, which is causing a significant amount of light to reflect from the card to the wall to the right. The total effect: Some light hits the pack directly, some light is bounced from the card to the wall on the right and back to the pack, which lights the right side of the pack better, and a lot of light is shot so wide that it’s hitting the ceiling, walls, and whatever else is in the room and then bouncing back to the pack and everything else that’s in the frame.

    Essentially, the beam width and bounce card have turned the whole room into a giant reflector. That is why the colour is warmer in the second shot — you’re getting colour-cast from the room and everything in it — and the dark shadow of the pack on the wall behind is now filled in, i.e. not nearly as close to black, and a touch softer at the edges.

    This is a great technique when you don’t happen to have umbrellas and softboxes handy and want to soften the shadows and light objects more evenly, but it should be made very clear that the “diffuser” that flips down from your flash is not intended to do the job of light modifier like a softbox. It is a wide angle diffuser so that the beam will light all the way to the outer edges of the frame when you’re using a very wide lens.

    Hope this helps everyone’s understanding.

  • For me it’s a little bit of fill and a catchlight when I bounce the flash.

  • With all due respect — those are the worst images to show as samples. Would it be so difficult to use a real life scenario rather than your backpack?

  • Hi

    I have essentially given up on Speedlights on Camera, light modifiers or not. Thei power is not too strong, and unless you creatively bounce – flat light! Now I use them for hair lights, background fill etc and use a more powerful Quantum Flash. This pictures shows what I mean.

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/behind-the-scenes/

  • @Erik — well event photographers like myself absolutely need to use speedlights on camera so such modifiers and techniques are still very necessary and useful. Why would you post a link to something that is completely off topic unless purely to try and drive traffic to your site?

  • Neil,
    Those are not the worst examples. I could have made FAR worse images. 🙂 And those are real life examples from a review here on DPS, as mentioned. The outcome is the same if the subject is a pack, a person or a panther.

  • The “softness” of a light source is determined by the apparent size of the source when viewed from the subject which is a function of the actual source size and the light-subject distance. The fold out flap does not impact either of these so does not impact softness.

    Spencer (first comment) got it totally right, the only use of this is to spread out the light from the flash more so you do not get darker corners when shooting wideangle. Sometimes, the wider beam pattern can cause reflections off other objects just out of frame, and these reflections can partly fill shadow areas.

    In the first example pair I see no softening of the light source, just a bit more shadow fill on the second, and a change in colour balance (second is warmer).

  • I’m pretty sure that the 2nd image is not any softer than the 1st, its simply spread more. If you were shooting in a wide room with a high ceiling, you wouldn’t notice any difference. That you do now is pretty much solely due to bounce. The only way to make light softer is by increasing the surface area of the light relative to the subject (ceilings and walls are very good for this).

  • Ray Lynch

    I’m sure Peter knows his stuff, but it was a very poor article. I had trouble understanding what he was trying to say. Not well explained at all. Also very poor image examples.

  • Scottc

    Quite a few opinions in these responses…..

    I think the article was, at the very least, a great reminder that these tools are “always there” and do work in some situtuations, at least in a pinch. I’m guilty of forgetting about them, deleted some photos as a result.

    Not the best example, you’ll have to read the description, but both were used in this photo and I think spreading the light does soften it to some degree and adjusting the bounce card can have an impact as well.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5687300117/

  • Jesus

    If you want to eliminate harsh light what mater is the size of the light source.

    The small differences we see in those examples are probably because using the wide angle flaps the light coming from the flash is bouncing around the room more as the beam of light is wider.

    The white flap is for catch light and a bit of fill.

    This article could be a little misleading.

    Thanks.

  • Christopher Parsons, thank you for explaining it more elegantly than I did.

    I was attempting to show what happens when you use it and my description was not as clear as yours.

    Thank you.

  • raghavendra

    i think many people are having a hard time in this!

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/

  • The “wide angle light diffuser” is something I use a lot. I almost never direct the flash at my subject rather angle the flash up or away and to improve light direction and help spread or difuse the light I use the “little white tab”.

    Angling up and away with the flash while using the “white tab” doe take practice but it helps soften the light hitting the subject, and the flatness you get from direct flash is diminished. Even when using the speedlight off camera that tab is out very often. In short a very useful piece of plastic.

    Now this flash was off camera, with the white tab out:
    http://dsdphotography.co.za/preview-baby-aurora-johannesburg-baby-photoshoot/

  • Bob Kopinski

    All the comments are good and helpful. But, in Peter’s defense he shows a novice like myself why a diffuser is needed and what it does. Soften, diffuse and spread the harsh light of a flash. Thanks Pete.

  • Mario

    Small lightsource (relative to object) = parallel rays of light => hard shadows
    big light source (relative to object) = different angles of light => soft shadows

    And I agree, the example pictures are not at all demonstrating the usefulness of this “little flip up diffuser” that is actually called bounce card!

  • I use the catchlight reflector almost al the time as i generally bounce the main light off a wall or ceiling but i never use the diffuser, it just sucks too much light away

  • I think the descriptions in this article might be a little misleading, the plastic pop-out is actually a wide-angle diffuser to be used when employing a lens wider than 24mm. You’ll see that if you use the manual zoom control on the rear of the flash, it will only go as low as 24mm until the wide-angle diffuser is pulled out, when the zoom will go down to 14mm and cannot be altered.

    The white plastic pull-out is designed to create catchlights, not to reflect light. The purpose is to point the camera straight up (or right or left) so that no light falls on the subject, pull the card out and the flash/strobe light will illuminate the card, creating a reflected catch-light in the eyes. This card isn’t supposed to be used for bouncing light, you’d really need something dedicated to do this effectively.

    However, these are common mistakes and, in my experience, students are often surprised to learn about the purpose of these two little add-ons. Thanks for bringing their use to a wider audience Peter.

    By the way, isn’t that Satori bag excellent? I love f-stop gear 🙂

  • If you have the English version of the 580EXII manual, you’ll find a more accurate description and diagrams of the purpose of the “catchlight panel” and the “wide panel” on pages 19 and 20.

    Catchlight Panel

    Wide Panel

  • Steve

    Mario… I think I know what you mean, but small light source parallel light rays.

  • Steve

    That should have read “small light source does not equal parallel rays” but the web form threw the angle brackets away.

  • Sam

    a better subject would be a person, rather than a black bag. it will show that much more difference in the shadows and contours of an otherwise dark face.

  • @ Christopher Parsons I agree and thank you for taking the time to express your shorter more concise understanding of it. I actually have used this technique before but my question (to add to your explanation) why the bag?

  • Just a little gripe about people leaving comments: Please try and read through the comments before replying – several of you have repeated what others have already said.

    By all means agree with previous comments, or even better expand on them. Sometimes they are almost verbatim!

  • Daniel Lee

    Can you use a flash diffuser on an in-built flash? I got a Canon 500D

  • Arturomar

    Thanks, first to the author, then to Christopher Parsons who allow me to further clarify the matter.

  • Neat post, but just not sure about the subject chosen for the photograph? Or am I missing the point lol

  • Naftoli

    peter west carey, im sorry but u are incorrect, the wide angle adapter seemed to give u softer light because u were shooting indoors with walls and ceiling close enough to direct the stray light around the room filling in the shadows, had u shot this outdoors or in a room with dark walls the pullout diffuser would not make a difference in the light “softness”. furthermore it appears that the overall exposure is brighter in the compared photos. were u using ttl? even if u were using manual power how would u know how much to compensate when using the wideangle adapter? unless u used an incident light meter, which i doubt.

    the bounce card which is pretty self explanatory is for when bouncing the flash toward the ceiling to give u a catch-light and to fill in the “top heavy” shadows caused by the overhead light coming from the ceiling.

  • Gazamonk

    @Erik @Jason
    I totally agree Jason, a blatant attempt to drive people to your site Erik (naughty boy) and if you have given up on Speedlights I suggest that the lighting isn’t the issue. You say “Then technical issues need to be fixed” and your right, so you should start with learning to focus before worrying about lighting. That models face is total blur bud.

  • Michael Owens

    Thanks.

  • thank you.

Some Older Comments

  • Gazamonk March 23, 2013 04:16 am

    @Erik @Jason
    I totally agree Jason, a blatant attempt to drive people to your site Erik (naughty boy) and if you have given up on Speedlights I suggest that the lighting isn't the issue. You say "Then technical issues need to be fixed" and your right, so you should start with learning to focus before worrying about lighting. That models face is total blur bud.

  • Naftoli December 8, 2012 04:27 am

    peter west carey, im sorry but u are incorrect, the wide angle adapter seemed to give u softer light because u were shooting indoors with walls and ceiling close enough to direct the stray light around the room filling in the shadows, had u shot this outdoors or in a room with dark walls the pullout diffuser would not make a difference in the light "softness". furthermore it appears that the overall exposure is brighter in the compared photos. were u using ttl? even if u were using manual power how would u know how much to compensate when using the wideangle adapter? unless u used an incident light meter, which i doubt.

    the bounce card which is pretty self explanatory is for when bouncing the flash toward the ceiling to give u a catch-light and to fill in the "top heavy" shadows caused by the overhead light coming from the ceiling.

  • Paul February 29, 2012 03:02 am

    Neat post, but just not sure about the subject chosen for the photograph? Or am I missing the point lol

  • Arturomar February 3, 2012 04:18 am

    Thanks, first to the author, then to Christopher Parsons who allow me to further clarify the matter.

  • Daniel Lee January 31, 2012 11:59 pm

    Can you use a flash diffuser on an in-built flash? I got a Canon 500D

  • Andy Mills January 29, 2012 11:54 am

    Just a little gripe about people leaving comments: Please try and read through the comments before replying - several of you have repeated what others have already said.

    By all means agree with previous comments, or even better expand on them. Sometimes they are almost verbatim!

  • Jai Catalano January 28, 2012 11:01 pm

    @ Christopher Parsons I agree and thank you for taking the time to express your shorter more concise understanding of it. I actually have used this technique before but my question (to add to your explanation) why the bag?

  • Sam January 28, 2012 12:13 pm

    a better subject would be a person, rather than a black bag. it will show that much more difference in the shadows and contours of an otherwise dark face.

  • Steve January 28, 2012 04:26 am

    That should have read "small light source does not equal parallel rays" but the web form threw the angle brackets away.

  • Steve January 28, 2012 04:24 am

    Mario... I think I know what you mean, but small light source parallel light rays.

  • Gavin Gough January 28, 2012 03:13 am

    If you have the English version of the 580EXII manual, you'll find a more accurate description and diagrams of the purpose of the "catchlight panel" and the "wide panel" on pages 19 and 20.

    Catchlight Panel

    Wide Panel

  • Gavin Gough January 28, 2012 02:41 am

    I think the descriptions in this article might be a little misleading, the plastic pop-out is actually a wide-angle diffuser to be used when employing a lens wider than 24mm. You'll see that if you use the manual zoom control on the rear of the flash, it will only go as low as 24mm until the wide-angle diffuser is pulled out, when the zoom will go down to 14mm and cannot be altered.

    The white plastic pull-out is designed to create catchlights, not to reflect light. The purpose is to point the camera straight up (or right or left) so that no light falls on the subject, pull the card out and the flash/strobe light will illuminate the card, creating a reflected catch-light in the eyes. This card isn't supposed to be used for bouncing light, you'd really need something dedicated to do this effectively.

    However, these are common mistakes and, in my experience, students are often surprised to learn about the purpose of these two little add-ons. Thanks for bringing their use to a wider audience Peter.

    By the way, isn't that Satori bag excellent? I love f-stop gear :)

  • Bryan January 28, 2012 01:27 am

    I use the catchlight reflector almost al the time as i generally bounce the main light off a wall or ceiling but i never use the diffuser, it just sucks too much light away

  • Mario January 28, 2012 12:05 am

    Small lightsource (relative to object) = parallel rays of light => hard shadows
    big light source (relative to object) = different angles of light => soft shadows

    And I agree, the example pictures are not at all demonstrating the usefulness of this "little flip up diffuser" that is actually called bounce card!

  • Bob Kopinski January 27, 2012 09:37 pm

    All the comments are good and helpful. But, in Peter's defense he shows a novice like myself why a diffuser is needed and what it does. Soften, diffuse and spread the harsh light of a flash. Thanks Pete.

  • Dewan Demmer January 27, 2012 06:59 pm

    The "wide angle light diffuser" is something I use a lot. I almost never direct the flash at my subject rather angle the flash up or away and to improve light direction and help spread or difuse the light I use the "little white tab".

    Angling up and away with the flash while using the "white tab" doe take practice but it helps soften the light hitting the subject, and the flatness you get from direct flash is diminished. Even when using the speedlight off camera that tab is out very often. In short a very useful piece of plastic.

    Now this flash was off camera, with the white tab out:
    http://dsdphotography.co.za/preview-baby-aurora-johannesburg-baby-photoshoot/

  • raghavendra January 27, 2012 04:35 pm

    i think many people are having a hard time in this!

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/

  • Peter West Carey January 27, 2012 04:06 pm

    Christopher Parsons, thank you for explaining it more elegantly than I did.

    I was attempting to show what happens when you use it and my description was not as clear as yours.

    Thank you.

  • Jesus January 27, 2012 12:21 pm

    If you want to eliminate harsh light what mater is the size of the light source.

    The small differences we see in those examples are probably because using the wide angle flaps the light coming from the flash is bouncing around the room more as the beam of light is wider.

    The white flap is for catch light and a bit of fill.

    This article could be a little misleading.

    Thanks.

  • Scottc January 27, 2012 10:21 am

    Quite a few opinions in these responses.....

    I think the article was, at the very least, a great reminder that these tools are "always there" and do work in some situtuations, at least in a pinch. I'm guilty of forgetting about them, deleted some photos as a result.

    Not the best example, you'll have to read the description, but both were used in this photo and I think spreading the light does soften it to some degree and adjusting the bounce card can have an impact as well.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5687300117/

  • Ray Lynch January 27, 2012 08:11 am

    I'm sure Peter knows his stuff, but it was a very poor article. I had trouble understanding what he was trying to say. Not well explained at all. Also very poor image examples.

  • Danferno January 27, 2012 06:29 am

    I'm pretty sure that the 2nd image is not any softer than the 1st, its simply spread more. If you were shooting in a wide room with a high ceiling, you wouldn't notice any difference. That you do now is pretty much solely due to bounce. The only way to make light softer is by increasing the surface area of the light relative to the subject (ceilings and walls are very good for this).

  • PML Photo January 27, 2012 04:01 am

    The "softness" of a light source is determined by the apparent size of the source when viewed from the subject which is a function of the actual source size and the light-subject distance. The fold out flap does not impact either of these so does not impact softness.

    Spencer (first comment) got it totally right, the only use of this is to spread out the light from the flash more so you do not get darker corners when shooting wideangle. Sometimes, the wider beam pattern can cause reflections off other objects just out of frame, and these reflections can partly fill shadow areas.

    In the first example pair I see no softening of the light source, just a bit more shadow fill on the second, and a change in colour balance (second is warmer).

  • Peter West Carey January 27, 2012 03:06 am

    Neil,
    Those are not the worst examples. I could have made FAR worse images. :) And those are real life examples from a review here on DPS, as mentioned. The outcome is the same if the subject is a pack, a person or a panther.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer January 27, 2012 03:05 am

    @Erik -- well event photographers like myself absolutely need to use speedlights on camera so such modifiers and techniques are still very necessary and useful. Why would you post a link to something that is completely off topic unless purely to try and drive traffic to your site?

  • Erik Kerstenbeck January 27, 2012 02:54 am

    Hi

    I have essentially given up on Speedlights on Camera, light modifiers or not. Thei power is not too strong, and unless you creatively bounce - flat light! Now I use them for hair lights, background fill etc and use a more powerful Quantum Flash. This pictures shows what I mean.

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/behind-the-scenes/

  • Neil Ta January 27, 2012 02:29 am

    With all due respect -- those are the worst images to show as samples. Would it be so difficult to use a real life scenario rather than your backpack?

  • Claude Angers January 27, 2012 02:21 am

    For me it's a little bit of fill and a catchlight when I bounce the flash.

  • Christopher Parsons January 27, 2012 01:55 am

    I don't think what's happening is happening because for the reasons given. Perhaps the description is not clear? In any case, allow me to dissect the lighting setup as I see it:

    In the first shot, the light is coming directly from the flash to the pack. As expected. That's why there is a dark shadow on the wall behind the pack, and the light reflecting from the pack is rather cool.

    In the second shot, you have set the flash for its widest beam, then flipped down the "wide angle diffuser". This device increases the width of the beam beyond the 14mm you said the flash was set too, so at this point, the spread is going to be VERY wide, like fish-eye wide. The bounce card is also extended, which is causing a significant amount of light to reflect from the card to the wall to the right. The total effect: Some light hits the pack directly, some light is bounced from the card to the wall on the right and back to the pack, which lights the right side of the pack better, and a lot of light is shot so wide that it's hitting the ceiling, walls, and whatever else is in the room and then bouncing back to the pack and everything else that's in the frame.

    Essentially, the beam width and bounce card have turned the whole room into a giant reflector. That is why the colour is warmer in the second shot -- you're getting colour-cast from the room and everything in it -- and the dark shadow of the pack on the wall behind is now filled in, i.e. not nearly as close to black, and a touch softer at the edges.

    This is a great technique when you don't happen to have umbrellas and softboxes handy and want to soften the shadows and light objects more evenly, but it should be made very clear that the "diffuser" that flips down from your flash is not intended to do the job of light modifier like a softbox. It is a wide angle diffuser so that the beam will light all the way to the outer edges of the frame when you're using a very wide lens.

    Hope this helps everyone's understanding.

  • Andy Mills January 27, 2012 01:51 am

    @spence got there before I did.

    While it does perhaps soften the light, it is meant more to spread the light for wide angle lenses.

    The white card is there to help provide a catch light and a little direct fill into a face (for example) when bouncing flash off a ceiling or wall.

  • gnslngr45 January 27, 2012 01:42 am

    Those first two pics show a noticeable difference, but the latter two, I had a hard time judging which was which.
    Thanks for the visuals. They are a great help versus just explaining.

    Flickr:

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Fernando January 27, 2012 01:40 am

    Very nice article, with some good examples.
    You probably should have also done some examples with the pop up tent card (white card) as well since you even mention it in the third paragraph. I use the pop up tent card all the time on my flash as I find that it does splash out some very subtle fill forward when bouncing off a ceiling, and produces a nice catch light in a subject's eyes. An example of with and without the tent card would have been easy to acomplish/show here, and could have been very useful for those wondering what it does.
    Cheers.

  • spence January 27, 2012 01:35 am

    its literally called WIDE ANGLE DIFFUSER COVER, its used for wide angle lenses, if you shoot FF at 24mm or lower, you can often see the "cone" of light on the edges of your frame due to the flash geometry. the cover allows the flash to zoom out, and it diffuses the light in a much wider pattern.

  • Brian January 27, 2012 01:02 am

    I believe the white flap is supposed to act as a catch light for the subjects eyes when the flash is pointed straight up. Otherwise when you bounce the light off the ceiling or a wall you'll loose that effect normally used in portraits.

  • Dan January 27, 2012 12:54 am

    Thanks for the info, but I think a person instead of a black backpack might have been a better model.

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