How many times have you heard that there are certain times of day you shouldn’t photograph people? For example, at midday in harsh sunlight. The logic is pretty sound. Direct, hard light can lead to unflattering shadows and ultra high contrast, which can result in unsatisfactory portraiture. However, if you follow this advice blindly, and only wait for the golden hours each day, you’re missing out on an enormous amount of time that could be spent photographing people.
There are several options to combat this problem, but one of the easiest and most effective, is a piece of gear called a diffusion panel.
What is a diffusion panel?
At its most basic, a diffusion panel is a piece of translucent material that allows harsh direct light to pass through it, so it effectively becomes a light source of its own. This softens the light and can allow you to obtain great, flattering, natural light portraits, in unfavorable conditions.
There are many types of diffusion panels available ranging from very small, handheld ones, to giant ones that are many meters across and require dedicated stands.
When size matters
Small diffusion panels are useful, and if you happen to have a 5-in-1 reflector, you probably already have one. These are indispensable for still-life and tabletop work; however, in terms of portraiture, their small size often limits them to closely cropped images and headshots.
This is where the Lastolite Panelite Reflector comes in. At 6×4 feet (1.8m x 1.2m) it’s large enough to cover enough area for full length portraits. At $128 retail, its price also means that it isn’t way out of reach for the serious portrait photographer.
Putting it through its paces
To test it out, I took the Lastolite Panelite Reflector out on location, at mid-afternoon on clear days. The sun was low at this point, but still very harsh, and the high contrast would have been difficult, if not impossible, to manage without a modifier.
Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of using this light panel.
PRO: Two stop diffusion
When working with the extremes of bright sunlight, it can be difficult to get away from small apertures like f/16. This is a problem because these settings won’t allow for a shallow depth of field. By reducing the light on your subject by two stops with the diffuser, that hypothetical aperture of f/16 becomes f/8 and makes background blur much easier to control.
This thing is huge. It’s not the biggest on the market, but it’s big enough for full length portraits, which is a major plus. I did not yet have the opportunity to test it on groups of people, but I believe it should work well for up to four people, with careful control.
Like a lot of Lastolite’s product, the diffusion panel is collapsible, and folds up to a tiny fraction of its size. Packed in its case, I would compare it to the surface of a medium sized cafe table. Combined with its light weight, it’s easy enough to throw in the back of a car, and carry along on location with you, without strain.
At $128, this is not a budget tool. However, for photographers serious about location based portraiture, the Lastolite Panelite Reflector comes in cheaper than lighting modifiers of moderate quality and unlike those, this doesn’t require lights to go with it.
CON: Extra hands
The Lastolite Panelite Reflector is large, and you will find it very difficult to manage without an assistant to hold it for you. If it needs to be held much higher than ground level, you may well need two people. It may be possible to rig it to some stands, but this leads into the next point.
CON: Be wary of wind
The only real problem I came across while testing the Lastolite Panelite Reflector was that the slightest gust of wind will send it flying, and folding in on itself. Whoever is holding it for you needs to have a sure grip on it, and even then the whole process is still irksome.
If you’re into slapstick, this can be hilarious to watch, but any time spent trying to get the diffusion panel to play along, is time not spent taking photographs.
Like white reflectors, softboxes and white umbrellas, the Lastolite Panelite Reflector is really, really white and will be hard to clean when it inevitably gets dirty.
To sum it up easily, the Lastolite Panelite Reflector does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s portable, creates a beautiful diffused light, and is relatively affordable. Although, it can prove tricky to handle under some conditions, I found the results to be well worth the extra logistics and effort, and I am looking forward to a long an extended relationship with it in my photographic arsenal.