Light — with regard to photography — is an endless topic, but today we’re just going to focus on one tiny aspect of it — diffusing it.
Most boudoir photographers use natural light that pours in from a window to light their subject but depending on the time of day and angle of the sun, often times it can be too harsh. That’s usually not a very desirable look because it can be too bright and create hotspots, or rather, areas that are blown out that conceal detail in skin and clothing texture.
It can also create very sharp or hard contrast. Without diffusion there can be areas in your image that are extremely bright right next to much darker areas where the sunlight is blocked by the pane of the window or even the model’s arm if raised up. Not the most flattering of looks… but hey, if you’re into that, knock yourself out.
So, what are 7 simple ways to diffuse sunlight for boudoir photography? They are sheer curtains, a scrim, a 5 in 1 reflector, a white sheet, with a soft box, window screens, and paper towels.
Sheer white curtains (or similar piece of fabric) is probably going to be your easiest and cheapest solution. You can position them in front of the window so light has to travel through before reaching your subject. You can find sheer white curtains at Target for around eight bucks. (Sweet!)
I bought two packages in case the sunlight is really strong and I need a double layer, like when Mars is in retrograde (I know that makes no sense but it sounds cool).
They’re also available on Amazon if there’s no Target conveniently nearby.
These are the folded-up-stuffed-in-a-plastic-bag-with-a-zipper-opening kind. They work great because you can just fold them up into a small square when you’re done and stick them back into the bag. They’re super light weight and can easily be stuffed into your gear bag. Don’t worry if they get a little wrinkled. They’re made mostly of some kind of synthetic material so the wrinkling isn’t too bad.
But Do They Have To Be White?
Yes, they have to be white.
White is best for one very important reason. Any other color, like red, blue, green, etc. may cast a slight hue of that color onto your subject. Not from the diffused light that it’s filtering through the window, but from the ambient light in the room that’s hitting the curtain and bouncing back onto your model if she’s standing too close to it.
But that’s true with any colored surface your lady is standing next to, like a wall that’s painted pink, let’s say. You may not see it or even notice it with your naked eye but when you eject that data card from your camera, slap it into your computer, and fire up that high resolution monitor you paid way too much for… you’ll see it… clinging to your lady like a slime… light slime (there, I’ve just given it a new name), haunting your images like a poltergeist.
So be careful. It’s happened to me. My lesson was learned.
Keep It Simple
Some of these curtains have fancy designs or stripes but that’s so they can charge you more (I know what they’re up to) but we don’t need those… unless you want to show that design in your image. Also, don’t buy the ones with the “tab top”, those are the individual slots the curtain rod slips through.
You want just plain white with the “rod pocket” (boy, reverse those two words and I’ll have to give this article a PG-13 rating). That’s the single tube-like pocket that the rod slides into (okay, you can make up your own joke for that one).
Fastening That Sucker To The Window
One word — duct tape… okay, that’s two words, but it’s one thing.
Bring it. If you’re shooting at the client’s home, in a studio, or hotel room you’ll most likely be fastening that $8 sheer curtain you bought to the window with duct tape.
You can bring your own curtain rod but then you’re gonna’ have to hang it onto something, and that “something” may not exist where you’re shooting. But assess the situation and bring what you feel is appropriate if you think the top of the curtain will be seen in any of your shots. After all, you don’t want ugly gray blotches of duct tape that you’ll have to Photoshop out later showing up in your images.
Another option, which is more expensive but not necessarily better, would be to use a scrim.
A scrim is a piece of durable white fabric that is stretched across a frame to shield or diffuse light. They come in all sizes but are mainly used outdoors to block or diffuse the sun in modeling shoots and filmmaking.
If you do a lot of shooting of scantily clad women outdoors (which are modeling shoots and not boudoir shoots in my opinion) and you have the money to spend, it would probably serve you well to invest in buying one. Just make sure you either have an assistant to hold it in place or bring sandbags so the wind doesn’t blow it over, or worse, onto your model… who then sues you for your 70-200mm 2.8!
Using a Scrim Indoors
You could use a scrim indoors in front of a window but that probably wouldn’t be very practical because you’d still have to have a way of positioning it in front of the window. You could use a C-stand but then you’re just having to haul all that equipment around and that would be a lot more hassle than it’s worth.
Plus, a scrim is not something your model is going to look good cozying up to if you want her closer to the light. Sheer white curtains work much better and much cheaper.
The 5 In 1 Reflector
The 5 in 1 reflector is a 20” diameter portable diffusion/reflector hand-dandy flat panel that’s used to bounce light but also diffuse it. It’s kind of like the Swiss Army Knife of reflectors. Just select the diffusion panel and tape it up in front of your window and that will soften your hard direct sunlight.
You probably won’t want to frame your shot to include the panel in the window, that’s why the curtains are still a better way to go, but if you don’t have any curtains this would be the next best solution. Plus, you can pick one up for around $20
What To Do In a Bind
What if you arrive to your location and you don’t have sheer white curtains, scrim, 5 in 1 reflector, or you forgot ‘em?
A White Sheet
One thing you could try would be to use a white sheet. Since you’re shooting boudoir there’s bound to be a bed somewhere so chances are there might be white sheets around as well.
If so, just tack it up with duct tape.
Or, any sheer piece of fabric could work. However, beware if it’s colored that the model doesn’t stand too close to it for ambient light to bounce off it and cast a hue onto your subject’s skin.
Soft Box Diffuser
If you’re shooting in a photography studio, they may have some soft boxes around. Most of those have a removable sheet of diffusion (a scrim) on the front that’s held in place by Velcro. You could remove that and tape it up onto the window.
If the place you’re shooting has window screens (the wire mesh kind) that can be easily removed, doubling or tripling up on some of those could work rather nicely. They will reduce the amount of light coming into the room so you’ll have to adjust your camera settings accordingly.
By the way, where’s that roll of duct tape?
Okay, now we’re getting desperate… and looking rather pathetic… not to mention unprofessional but hey, it could just save the day. I’ve never tried this before but if you absolutely had to come up with something to make the shoot work, I’d give it a shot.
Who knows, you might become known as the MacGyver of Boudoir.
It would take several rows to cover the window and you’d want to cover the entire window and not just where the model would be standing adjacent to the covered section. This is so that the light coming through the window in front of your model is still being softened and continue to wrap around her with soft light.
If you did do this and the results were good, I’d immediately show the images on the back of my camera to the client. Just to reassure her that she didn’t hire some lunatic and that the result was turning out as expected.
By the way, did I mention you’d need some duct tape to fasten it to the window?
Note to self: Bring duct tape to every shoot.
Why duct tape?
Use masking tape or even regular tape just once on a shoot and you’ll find out soon enough (he said as he twirled the ends of his evil mustache laughing maniacally).
By the way, Gaffer’s tape is also just as good.
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Thanks for your time!
Founder / Lounge Boudoir