Modular Macro Diffuser

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    This post describes a simple flash diffuser solution I've been using a lot lately as a complement to my regular beauty dish style diffuser. The basic concept is nothing new: the diffuser is attached to the front end of the lens and wraps around the subject creating the equivalent of a small light tent.

    This type of diffuser is sometimes referred to as "cup diffuser" since the main component is usually some sort of white plastic cup (Stephen was the first I saw describing this idea so I consider him to be the inventor).

    Besides giving an extremely even and soft light this type of diffuser has another benefit since it makes it easier to get a well exposed background. A common problem with flash macro photography is that while the main subject is easy to expose properly, the background – being far away from the light source in relation to the foreground – becomes relatively dark or black (and if you expose for the background the main subject is over exposed or blown out). This becomes less of a problem with cup diffusers since the diffuser also acts as a shade, reducing the intensity of light hitting the main subject and thereby compensating for the fact that it's much closer to the light source than the background (which is lit by light coming from the flash directly).

    I've been using this type of diffuser for at least a year or so but there are a couple of things that I've found inconvenient:

    • Different lenses need different ways of mounting the diffuser. If it has a good fit on one lens, chances are it will fit badly on other lenses.
    • Switching between diffusers is fiddly. I often want to be able to quickly switch between this type of diffuser and a beautydish style diffuser attached to the flash (better for skittish bugs and sometimes gives a more dynamic (less flat) light).
    • Closely related to the previous point: mounting/unmounting the diffuser takes time. You either have to pack the gear with the diffuser attached (which often takes a lot of room in the camera bag) or spend precious time in the field mounting/unmounting it. And of course moving the diffuser from one lens to another becomes troublesome to the point where it might even put you off switching lenses.
    • As you use this type of diffuser in the field they are often subject to quite rough treatment. Some solutions I've tried has worn out in a few hours.

    The solution I've arrived at works by using several different small mounts, customized for each lens but with a standard fit for the protruding "light tent" part (referred to as the tent from now on). The mounts can be left permanently on the lens without interfering with different types of diffusers or making packing the equipment difficult. With the mount in place the tents can be mounted/unmounted using one hand in the matter of seconds. It's also very easy to make new tents if the old get worn or if you want a smaller/larger or differently shaped one.

    Obviously this idea can be implemented in many different ways and the one I'm showing here is just one that happened to suit my needs in terms of size, diffuser material properties and availability.

    Viyan Ateaa, opdc (in&out), and 213 other people added this photo to their favorites.

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    1. johnhallmen 54 months ago | reply

      @Siegfried: What camera body do you want to use it with? Will you use it primarily in the field or in a studio setup?

    2. Siegfried Tremel 54 months ago | reply

      Hallo John....i use the Nikon D300....primarily in the field....

    3. johnhallmen 54 months ago | reply

      Then I'd go with the SB400 – at least to start with. This is my favorite flash unit in the field for the Nikon system. I've only used it as a iTTL-unit but with the D300 I think you should be able to control it manually as well (from the camera menu). It's not as powerful as SB600 or SB900 but it's much more portable and the small size often lets you position the flash closer to the subject and that way the difference in power becomes cancelled out. Whatever you choose I think it's wise to get a TTL extension cord and some sort of bracket (if you don't wan't to handhold the flash – which can be a good option sometimes).

    4. anvancy 54 months ago | reply

      Thanks for sharing the details!

    5. DL Rohrer 54 months ago | reply

      Great post, thanks for sharing your lighting technique.

    6. tmrudy2009 53 months ago | reply

      Interesting, I always love to see what others are using and the results they are getting. Nice to see folks that share that information. Thanks.

    7. Jordan Lye 52 months ago | reply

      thanks for sharing

    8. reyes1478 52 months ago | reply

      un brillante trabajo y muy innovador. Felicidades

    9. StingrayPhil 52 months ago | reply

      Awesome photos. Thanks for sharing your technique.

    10. Marius Photographer 52 months ago | reply

      I just started with macro, you have given me a lot of ideas, thanks...

    11. wksevenleung 51 months ago | reply

      Every time I come here, I leave with knowledge and insight. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. You're genius. Pete

    12. AluminumStudios 51 months ago | reply

      Awesome photos!

    13. apalade [deleted] 49 months ago | reply

      Hi John

      Amazing shots and thanks for the information regarding your setup! However, it is obvious that without focus-stacking the images would have such a narrow DOF that they would not have as much impact. In other words, I think focus-stacking for such work is a must, don't you think?

      How do you manage to focus-stack do many pictures of, what seems to be, unprepared insects? I mean, are they all frozen as to keep them still while you take x number of shots?

      Also, what is your optimal number of pictures you think you must take to achieve your results?

    14. johnhallmen 49 months ago | reply

      None of the shots presented in this post is focus stacked. They are all stopped down single exposures and they are made in the field with regular, living, untreated subjects.

      I do a lot of stacking in the field as well – early in the morning before the bugs come to life. Unless the title says "Studio stack:" or the description clearly states otherwise all my images are made in the subject's natural environment and I've tried my best to disturb the subject as little as possible.

    15. apalade [deleted] 49 months ago | reply

      Thanks John, your pictures are certainly the most amazing super-macro shots I have seen. Hope to see many more!

    16. steb1 48 months ago | reply

      Great article John. An absolute mine of information. I've learned a great deal from your own insights into lighting. It was actually some of what you said about lighting that led to my lateral thinking that produced this idea. I simply thought, instead of putting the diffuser on the flashgun, why not put it around the subject. I really like your set-up. I had thought of using the Custom Brackets base for attaching a flash, but I'd never found a satisfactory arm. I hadn't realised how compact this Manfrotto arm was. Great thinking on the modular approach.

      I still use your beauty dish diffuser for fill-in on longer working distances. The only differences are that I use a rectangle of white packing foam for the blocker, and vellum paper for the front diffuser. However, I intend to try out a large concave diffuser for this purpose. Mainly to see if I can increase the light output for longer distances. The concave diffusers on the MT24EX heads are almost as bright as the bare heads. This is because the light is a focused circle, but the light is also very evenly distributed, with no bright centre (again inspired by your thinking). I was struggling to find a plastic dome of the right width. But I have an idea to use the top of a soft drinks bottle, and spray it with some white paint. It will basically just be a large version of the concave diffusers I use on the MT24EX heads.

      My current attachment for the light tent/cup on my MT24EX bracket, which I use with the MP-E 65mm and Sigma 70mm, is modular. Unfortunately, I don't have any images of it as it's a work in progress. Basically, it's a clear semi-circular plastic base cut from a container, that attaches to the front of the bracket with self-adhesive hook and loop pads (velcro). I use vellum paper for the cup. This attaches to the clear plastic base with the same type of self-adhesive hook and loop pads. I have a number of these sheets of varying sizes (lengths) i.e. short ones for when the long ones get in the way. Also I have stick on spacers that allow me to use a double thickness for more diffusion. It makes it a lot easier to carry these delicate diffusers around, as like yourself I often cycle to local sites. So my diffusers get crushed if I'm not careful. However, carrying flat sheets is a lot easier as I can simply put them between my silver and gold foil covered cakeboards, which I carry as small reflectors.

      In addition I have lots of little curved reflectors that stick on the bottom or sides of the bracket. I use them for fill in from below on beetles with dark underneaths etc. But I need them to be detachable as these lower reflectors get in the way for leaf shots - they scrape the leaf, and spook whatever's on it. I find that self-adhesive hook and loop pads are very good for these attachments. They are firm enough to hold it all in place, but easy to pull off when they get in the way. They also allow you to alter the angle of these mini fill-in reflectors. The only problem is that when it's warm the adhesive becomes less adhesive, and so you can pull the pad off. However, it's easy to replace them if they lose their stickiness. I just get long self-adhesive strips, and cut the pads to size. Bacisally it allows me to have a mini studio attached to the end of my lens, where I can attach fill-in reflectors. The idea is so I don't have to do as many local brightness adjustments in PP.

    17. [DAAN] 43 months ago | reply

      Awesome images

    18. armored_zoizo 43 months ago | reply


    19. robotboy66 39 months ago | reply

      awesome work. i have no idea what kind of gear is needed for pics like this.. until now. i want that rig!

    20. canon7dude 11 months ago | reply

      Great post, thanks!

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