Improvised Lighting Modifiers


TPF Noob!
May 18, 2012
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Sometimes you don't have the piece of kit you need, maybe it broke, you left it at home, or you're like me: Incredibly cheap, so you own nothing.

Here's some stuff I did this morning. This isn't a tutorial in how to use a pillowcase as a diffusor, although it shows that, it's meant to show you what you can do with the stuff you have on hand. Engineering, I have heard it said, it the art of making what you want out of what you've got. Be an engineer.

First of all, here's a little triptych of a still life I threw together. SOOC JPEG, uncropped, unedited. Resized, but nothing else. From left to right:

- un-diffused light, moderately harsh
- pillowcase used as diffusor (bump up flash 2 stops). Note spillover of light onto background, frame-right.
- pillowcase as before, with a hunk of cardboard as a "barn door" to contain some spillover.

Exposure's a bit.. ad hoc. So it goes.

$Diffusion Triptych.jpg

Here's the, uh, studio setup, let's call it. That's probably an overly ambitious name.


Here I am using the diffusor, and the barn door. This is a re-enactment, lighting placement is pretty approximate.

$Diffusor Setup.JPG

The pillowcase is not a softbox, it creates a wild mass of bouncing crazy light that spills all over the place. But it's manageable. If light goes where you don't want it, just stick something in the way to cast a shadow there instead. The closer to the light, the bigger the shadow. Barn doors, snoots, grids, all that stuff is just things in the way that replace light with shadow.

Here's a couple photos with snoots made out of rolled up newspaper and cardboard and tape. Left is my favorite snootlike object these days, which is a sort of flattened funnel shape, it casts a sort of smudgy stripe of light, like a sunbeam between the curtains. Right is just a regular old tube. SOOC JPEG, resized only, no edit.


And here are re-enactments of the uses:

$Snoot Setup.JPG

Free your mind. Tape, newspaper, towels, pillowcase, bits of cardboard. Tape. Lots and lots of tape. Lots. Of. Tape.
I had a photography instructor who left me with this great tidbit...
"I shoot with available light....any F-ing light that is available, I'll use"

He also told us of the time, while on a shoot, he needed a very, very precise snoot. Being in a large city's downtown, he went into an alley and found some old carpet tubes and taped two of them together to create something like a 20' snoot.
To add another cliche: necessity is the mother of invention.

As I often tell the students in my lighting class...very few photographers have 'everything' the will need....and the best ones, are very creative and tend to use whatever is on hand, to get the results that they want.
I have a one-gallon milk jug that's just dying for an introduction to you, amolitor!
I have a one-gallon milk jug that's just dying for an introduction to you, amolitor!

Send her along! She sounds beautiful.

Light modifiers I have used:

plastic bowls, metal bowls, newspaper, drafting paper, tissue paper, paper towels, bath towels, pillowcases, cardboard, letter size paper, Ilford VC filters, and many many things fabricated from the previous list using tape and string.

Light modifiers I have never used:

Anything actually designed to modify light.

I'm pretty sure that virtually every light modifier that you can BUY is actually a commercialized version of some improvised piece of crap someone cooked up out of available garbage in a pinch. That said, the commercial stuff looks SO MUCH easier to use. Holy cow. If only I was willing to spend money.
amolitor[ [B said:
Light modifiers I have used[/B]:

plastic bowls, metal bowls, newspaper, drafting paper, tissue paper, paper towels, bath towels, pillowcases, cardboard, letter size paper, Ilford VC filters, and many many things fabricated from the previous list using tape and string.

Dude--you're forgetting two of the very best found modifier materials!!!!!! What are these overlooked gems you ask? Why, they are the rectangular, crinkly foil wrappers from cream cheese blocks, and the deliciously softly diffusing/reflecting round, crinkly foil lids from sour cream containers! Of course, you gotta wash these things before using them.

You good sir, are in desperate need of one of my own inventions: the styrofoam ice chest softbox. You will need one steak knife to cut the aperture on the bottom of the styrofoam chest so it makes anice tight press-fit for the Vivitar. You can line the interior with the silver cream cheese wrapper pieces you've collected from eating all those bagel and schmears, or whatever, and then tape or pin a piece of high-quality diffusing paper over the top of the softbox. If you want an interior baffle, well, the lid from a big coffee can, held in center on wires, works great. This thing is so light that the 285's click-stops on the head can hold it in angled positions.
I am totally using those next.
I am totally using those next.

If you have any hillfolk relatives or friends, better not let them see you using such high-falutin' gear! They will surely feel envy! ;-)

ANother odd thing: some of the larger, Costco-sized foil potato and vegetable crisp bags are made of a very tough, highly reflective mylar that's silver on the inside, and when cut open, those puppies make one heck of an efficient reflecting surface on one side, and the other side can accept PAINT!!!
My pappy always said that if you couldn't git the light you wanted out'n just leaves, you could smear a lil spent mash from the still on 'em and that oughta do 'er.
Here's my jug light:

$DSC_0160 - Version 2.jpg
Just finished this one, I have a shed full of the frames that the old owner left behind, the plan is to make both black and white ones that will attach and detach for various configurations :)

I've made a light tent (have to do it over to make some refinements), and I've mentioned those sheets of foamcore. I also have plans to build some large diffusers similar to the one shown above by PixelRabbit.
It's fun to improvise. I have a series of snoots I made out of cardboard from a beer box, and I hold them on my speedlights with elastic bands so they're easy to attach, detach, and reuse. I've used a plastic bottle full of green dish soap as a flash gel to color a background.

I snooted my flash through a BIC pen that I sawed off on both ends and used it to "inject" light into a hole in the back of an egg to get this picture:

View attachment 48691
You like those shorts huh? lol

I'm all about some DIY, thanks for posting your experiments!
Hah! Yeah, I love those shorts. It's summer on the VA/NC border, there ain't no pants here.

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