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Diffusing Sunlight for Pleasing Portraits

The tools and techniques that make sunlight a portrait photographer’s best friend

Wherever in the world you are, and whatever photography and lighting equipment you may have at your disposal, the one universal thing we all have access to is light from the sun. (Some of us have more of it than others, of course. Southern Californians, I’m looking at you.) And while indirect sunlight from open shade, pre-dawn glow or dusk lighting is gorgeous and soft and works great for a variety of subjects—especially portraits—harsh midday sun, and frankly direct sunlight of almost any kind, is not an especially forgiving portrait light source. 

What tends to make most people look great in pictures is soft illumination, because it’s forgiving to wrinkles and blemishes and generally flattering. And to turn the harsh light of direct sun into soft, pleasing portrait lighting, you’ve got to diffuse it. Thankfully there are a few easy-to-use, inexpensive tools that do just that. 

One of the most versatile and easy-to-use diffusion tools is the pop-up diffuser—like the pictured large oval diffuser from Neewer.  I think the bigger the better, because you cover more of your subject with shade, so I like to use a 5×7 oblong diffuser like the one above. But something as small as a 30-inch round diffuser is certainly useful too. The trick with such diffusion is it helps to have someone else who can hold the collapsible disc in place between the subject and the sun. One nice thing about such pop-up diffusers is they can also do double-duty as reflectors too. No, they’re not as versatile as opaque white and silver reflectors, but they’ll bounce light all the same. The bigger the diffuser, the more hands you’ll need. My 5×7 diffuser is just about the maximum a single person can comfortably wield. And if it’s windy, it’s going to be more difficult. 


For situations in which a slight breeze makes a large, flat disc-style diffuser too difficult to hold, or when I really need mobility and consistency, I instead use a Sunbuster diffuser from Photek.

This contraption looks a lot like a translucent patio umbrella—and it’s about the same size, too, with its 7-foot diameter. It’s fairly light and folds down relatively compact (though not nearly as compact as a collapsible disc diffuser) but it’s big and sturdy enough to be efficiently held overhead for long shoots. Plus, its articulating column makes repositioning it incredibly easy as the sun moves across the sky and as you change locations. While the Sunbuster makes it easier to diffuse the sun, its principle is exactly the same as any diffuser panel: to soften direct sunlight and turn it into more flattering illumination. 

When I’m working in a situation in which I can set up diffusion on a stand, I prefer a fabric silk stretched on a frame. I like the Scrim Jim from Westcott.


Its collapsible, anodized aluminum frame can be mounted to stands and arms in a variety of ways, and its hook-and-loop fastener edging makes attaching 4-foot, 6-foot and 8-foot diffusion panels quick and easy. My 6-foot frame kit includes ¾-stop and ¼-stop fabrics, as well as a soft silver to turn the panel into a strong reflector. I wouldn’t use the rigid panel in a windy situation, but I do use it with strobe, window light and sun in protected areas, or when I’ve got a couple of assistants to hang on to it in the great outdoors. It’s a little more cumbersome—well, a lot compared to a pop-up diffuser—but it is a great way to make a big, soft light source in a controlled environment. 

There are a variety of subtle differences in diffusion materials, from China silk to grid cloth and nylon faux silk. For the uninitiated, it’s not something I would suggest putting a lot of worry into. But what I would think about is the density of the diffusion material. Most diffusers are sold in quarter, half, or full-stop densities, and other combinations too. The thicker the diffusion, the less light will transmit and the softer it will be. When you’re using particularly thick diffusion you’re creating a darker shadow for the subject. For general purposes I typically want at least a half-stop of diffusion, and not more than one stop. With thinner diffusion you’ll get a hot spot in the center, making for a slightly more specular look. 

Another way I deal with direct sunlight is to position the portrait subject in open shade—a nice bright area that is protected from direct sun but still open to a large swath of bright sky. It’s the bright sky that acts like a reflector, bouncing that sun into the open shade for indirect, soft and bright light. But sometimes you’re forced to stick your subject in a darker section of shade, or you’ve only got a thicker diffuser available. In these scenarios, particularly where the background is still illuminated by bright direct sun, I like to use a white reflector—sometimes a pop-up reflector, other times simply a big white foam card—to bounce light from direct sun onto the now shaded subject. It’s technically not a fill light at this point because it’s bright enough to become a new key light, but the principle is the same. Because of this, be sure to position the reflector from above eye level if at all possible, to bounce light onto the subject’s face from a natural position. Too much fill from below and the photograph will likely look very unnatural.


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