What’s unique about a China ball is that, while they provide diffuse light like a softbox, they distribute that light in every direction. That makes them specially suited to provide soft illumination that’s lower contrast than a typical softbox because the omnidirectional nature creates a lot of bounced light, which fills in deep shadows on the subject and background. They’re not for every application, but when you want natural looking light from above, it’s hard to beat a China ball.
That said, they’re also useful for beautiful soft lighting in portrait situations, for instance. I also like to use them for shallow depth-of-field portraits, as in the example shown here.
Lighting with a China ball can be done in several ways. The first and most straightforward approach is to purchase a photo-specific nylon modifier that’s built much like a typical softbox and designed to be affixed to a studio strobe. The downside of this approach is that store-bought China Balls can be a bit pricey—particularly if you’re planning to assemble several of them in a group. And where’s the fun in that? Why buy when you can D.I.Y?
As long as photographers and lighting directors have used China Balls as light modifiers, they’ve gone the do-it-yourself route and deployed inexpensive paper lanterns outfitted with bright tungsten bulbs to light their sets and stages. The very real issue with this approach—which, to be clear, I don’t recommend—is that putting a very hot tungsten lamp close to a flimsy paper lantern is a recipe for disaster. It’s a terrible fire hazard.
But with the advent of LED bulbs that are affordable, low-energy, high-output and, most importantly, cool-to-the-touch, paper lanterns become an affordable, accessible and much safer option for soft studio lighting. (No light source is completely foolproof, of course, so proceed with caution as you would when working with any other photographic lighting equipment.)
Start with a simple pendant lamp cord set (what Ikea calls the “Hemma,” for instance, which retails for just $7) and add to it a high-output LED bulb—preferably something daylight balanced or close to it—like the 100-watt-equivalent Philips A19, which can be had for about $5. The pendant fixture suspends from its cord, which can be easily anchored to the ceiling or clamped to a light stand and positioned at any height. Then just affix the paper lantern to the cord, which is typically designed to grab on with friction, so no special connections are needed. Paper lanterns can be found in various sizes, but in general the bigger the better. Many home décor stores sell them for a few bucks each, but I purchased in bulk—they ship flat and pop out on a basic wire support for use. That puts the total outlay for each fixture, LED bulb and lantern at just over $15 per kit. Not bad, especially since it takes no special tools to assemble and the only thing better than one paper lantern is several of them used together to make a cloud in your studio.
Whether you want to use one up close for a portrait or hang three or five of 15 of them together to create skylight style lighting, paper lanterns outfitted with LED bulbs make a surprisingly versatile light source for an investment of just a little time and even less cash.