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We all know the best times to shoot in great light, but schedules don't always work at the extremes of sunrise or sunset. That's why it pays to know how to create soft light from harsh sunlight.
Wrangling Harsh Sunlight
I love shooting with flash or strobe, but sometimes it just isn't practical. It's a commitment to bring lights, stands and modifiers out in the field. It can take a toll on your spontaneity.
Sometimes we get lucky with a passing cloud, or even a day when the whole sky gets obscured and turns the sunlight into a large, flat source. Maybe you can find some shade with directional light passing through an opening.
When you aren't lucky, you're stuck with harsh light and shadows. Not exactly appealing for portraiture.
That's when you have to change the odds in your favor. Break out your diffuser and reflector. Scatter the light to even it out.
Creating Soft Light With A Diffuser
When you're choosing a diffuser, size matters. Most of us will make the same mistake buying a diffuser as we will with buying a tripod. We'll first buy something small and cheap and then have to spend more money buying something that really works.
Using a diffuser to soften harsh sunlight means that you're changing the source of light relevant to your subject. The sun is small and harsh. Put a diffuser between the sun and your subject and it becomes the light source, and it's much larger to your subject than the sun.
Larger sources of light create softer light.
So why then do so many of us go out and buy a small diffuser? It's good for a headshot, at best. When you want to shoot more of the body, those small diffusers just can't do the job. Harsh light starts peeking around the edges, as in this photo.
My friend Kevin used a pretty large 4×6′ diffuser for this shot, but it still wasn't big enough to cover the scene. You can see the harsh light on her leg showing the crosshatch from the open window, and also note the harsh sunlight on the left door. It's out of balance with the soft lighting in the rest of the frame.
Imagine if we tried to capture this scene with a small 24″ or 36″ diffuser.
When it comes to diffusers, bigger is better. Look for something like the 42″x72″ 5-in-1 Collapsible Oval Reflector from Impact or other vendors.
Get the most for your money by looking for a diffuser that comes with a reversible cover so it can also act as a reflector with gold, silver, white or other shades.
Working with large diffusers can be a team sport. It's nearly impossibly to hold one of these large beasts while composing a photo, so bring a friend and take turns shooting and assisting.
You can also find diffusers with a frame that will attach to a light stand, for those times when you have no friends.
For the best results, get your diffuser as close to your subject as you can without it being in the frame. In fact, I don't mind if I see a bit of the diffuser in a corner of the frame if it's in a place where I can crop it out.
That's because your subject gets a glow of directional light when the diffuser is close – about a foot or less – compared to the flat light we see in the image above.
For example, here's a shot of that glow by using a diffuser just outside of the frame.
You can see how the light transitions from his right to his left, compared to having flat, even light through the whole image.
Creating soft light from harsh sunlight with a diffuser really only requires two things. Get big and get in close.