What is diffused light in portrait photography? (how to use it)

Diffused light is the most commonly used type of light in portrait photography. It’s so common that you might have used it without knowing what is diffused light in portrait photography. The power of diffused light is that it spreads light softly and evenly.

Diffused lighting is for all portrait photographers, both natural light photographers and artificial light photographers (flash and constant lighting).

So, if you don’t know what it is or how to diffuse light, but you want to take better portraits, you definitely want to learn about diffused lighting!

What is Diffused Light?

Diffused light is light that’s been scattered (diffused), resulting in a softer and more even indirect light source, like when fitting a lampshade to a bare bulb.

Diffused lighting is ideal for portrait photography, because it reduces harsh shadows and highlights, for a more flattering image. So it’s especially ideal for less than perfectly smooth skin.

No wonder it’s essential lighting knowledge for portrait photographers!

Model lit by diffused light of large umbrella with diffusion panel

I lit this portrait with my Profoto B1X strobe with large umbrella and diffusion panel. Keep on reading (or scroll) to see behind the scenes lighting setup of this studio image

4 ways to manipulate light for portraits

Diffusing light is one of the four ways to control light in photography. They are:

  • Reflection
  • Absorption
  • Diffusion
  • Blocking (aka flagging)

All types of light can be diffused – natural light, flash light, constant light and ambient light. You just need a way to modify the light, and it doesn’t have to be expensive or technical.

How to diffuse light for portraits

Here’s the quick answer for how to diffuse the glare of direct light, with much more detail further down in the tutorial.

  • Open shade – the easiest natural light technique for using diffused lighting outdoors is to place your subject in open shade
  • Light modifiers – fitted to artificial lighting and come in various shapes and sizes to soften artificial light from flash and constant lights
  • Reflector – bounce natural light or flash light back onto your subject with a reflector to diffuse light for softer shadows
  • Diffusion material – white translucent material placed between the subject and the source of light (natural or artificial) to diffuse harsh light

BTS of photographer using reflector outdoors

Behind the scenes shots of me trying to photograph and use a reflector outdoors as the wind got stronger – it’s not always perfect, but whatever gets the job done! You can see the image I captured further down.

First, you need to understand what is diffused light in photography and what makes it a great portrait lighting technique.

Light quality for portraits

When creating diffused light we’re altering the quality of light from hard light to soft light by scattering the light over a larger area. Sometimes the light is already soft, but we want to make it even softer with diffused lighting techniques.

The difference between soft light and hard light quality is a:

  • Soft light source creates soft light with soft shadows that gradually transition from shadow to light
  • Hard light source creates hard light and hard shadows with sharp edges and high tonal contrast

Just so you know, diffusion isn’t the only way to create soft light. The size and distance of your light source also affects the quality of the light. The larger and closer the light is to your subject the softer it’ll be.

For the ultimate soft light portraits, once your light source is in the right position, add diffusion for an even softer light that lights the subject more evenly.

Effects of diffused light on portraits

When diffused light falls on a subject, it produces soft shadows that are less intense than shadows produced by direct light.

Soft lighting:

  • Helps to smoothen skin texture
  • Creates a gentle, upbeat mood suited to portraits of children, families, and couples
  • Adds a three-dimensional feel to photos by creating form with soft shadows that also define the contours of the face and body

Diffused light for indoor natural light photos

Window light is a great source of diffused natural light and an inexpensive way to create soft light for portrait photography indoors.

For the softest type of diffused light indoors, use a window that doesn’t have direct light shining in.

You can use window light as your:

Model lit by diffused light of window

I used window light and a large sheet of white card to camera right to bounce light back into the shadows. Although you can’t tell from the image, each window pane has a semi-opaque mat plastic sheet stuck to it for privacy. The added advantage is that they’re great for diffusing natural light

3 techniques for diffusing window light indoors

Place your subject to the side of a window for side lighting or in front of the window, facing towards the window for front lighting.

  • Hang a sheer piece of fabric or white sheet in the window to act as a layer of diffusion to soften the light further and reduce harsh shadows.
  • Stick diffusion paper to the window to diffuse direct or indirect window light. It’s a special type of paper designed to soften light and reduce harsh shadows and can be purchased from most photography supply stores.
  • Place a reflector on the shadow side of your subject (the opposite side from the window  if using the window as side light) to bounce indirect window light back and fill in the shadows.

So for less than $30 you can create the perfect light for portraits that acts just like a softbox in studio photography.

Free ways to diffuse light indoors

If you don’t want to splash out on lighting equipment for natural light photos:

  • Instead of a photography reflector, use a piece of white card, or sheet of white polystyrene to reflect light. Even a white sheet or towel will work if you can hang it or have somebody hold it.
  • Instead of diffusion paper, stick baking paper (aka parchment paper) onto the window. This is especially useful for diffusing direct sunlight coming through a window. Just make sure there aren’t any gaps.

Everyone can create this type of lighting for photos that look like they were created in a professional photography studio!

Diffused light outdoors for natural light portraits

Photographing outdoors in direct sunlight can be very unflattering for portraits, but we have a few easy ways to turn hard lighting into soft lighting.

Use natural light outdoors to create diffused light for portrait photography by:

  • Manipulating light with diffusers and reflectors
  • Weather conditions, time of day and location

Model placed in shade of building for diffused light

I used open shade of a building for this natural light shot shortly before midday on a bright sunny day

1. Diffusing light on a sunny day

Photographing on a sunny day, in direct sunlight creates harsh shadows and bright highlights on your subject’s face, which can be unflattering in portrait photography.

The best way to photograph in these lighting conditions is to turn your subject so that their back is to the light, and their face is in shadow.

You then have a choice to set your camera’s exposure to expose their face correctly and possibly overexpose the background, or diffuse the sunlight with a diffuser or reflector.

Diffusion material

Position your subject with the sun in front of or to the side of them.

Use any type of white translucent material to diffuse direct sunlight by placing the material between the subject and the light source. The larger the material, the more light will scatter and the softer the light will be.

Examples of material you can use are sheer curtains, a white sheet, the translucent layer of a  5-in-1 reflector.

A reflector

Position your subject stand with their back to the sun and hold the reflector in front of or slightly to the side of your subject to bounce the sunlight onto your subject’s face for a softer, more even lighting effect. Ensure that you hold the reflector as close to your subject as possible without being in shot.

The type of reflector you use is very important as a textured surface (white) reflects soft light, while a shiny surface (silver or gold) reflects hard light. Plus, the color of the reflector impacts the color of reflected light.

Reflectors come in different shapes, sizes and colors. The bigger the reflector, the larger your light source will be relative to the subject and the softer the light will be on your subject.

So, for the softest, diffused light with a reflector use a large white reflector close to your subject.

A white wall

I clearly remember the first time I used a big, white, sunlit wall to light a bride and groom on a bright sunny day. I swear I could hear a choir go aaAAA when I looked at the photo. The light was gorgeous!

One of the easiest and most inexpensive ways to diffuse light in portrait photography is by using a white wall. It’s basically a giant reflector waiting for you to use it.

Simply position your subject facing a white wall with the sun behind them and let the light bounce off the surface to soften the light and reduce harsh shadows.

Model lit by soft natural light outdoors on overcast day

Here’s the shot I captured during the behind the scenes photos further up. It was golden hour on a cloudy day. The sun is just above the tree line behind her and I used a large reflector to bounce light back into her face (it was the white panel of my 5-in-1 reflector)

2. Diffused light on a cloudy day

On a cloudy day, light is naturally diffused by the cloud cover. So cloudy day photography is the best kind of light for portrait photography for flattering light without harsh shadows.

However, on a very cloudy day, the light can also be flat and dull. So, to add some dimension and depth to your photos, use a reflector or a fill flash to add some light to your subject’s face.

Top tip for cloudy days – even though it’s not easy to see, make sure you’re aware of the direction of light so that you can position your subject for the best light.

3. Time of day

The best times to photograph with diffused light are early in the morning and late in the afternoon, also known as the golden hour in photography. The golden hour is the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset.

Golden hour light is naturally diffused and has a warm color temperature suited to portrait photography. Plus, the sun is low in the sky ideally positioned at a flattering angle for lighting portraits.

A more advanced way to use golden hour light is as a backlight behind your subject with a reflector in front of or to the side of your subject to bounce diffused light back into their face for a two light setup.

4. Shaded locations

I mentioned open shade light earlier and this is what I mean by shaded locations. My favorite type of open shade is under some kind of canopy.

Examples of shaded locations for diffused lighting are:

  • Under the tree canopy of a forest
  • Covered spectator stands at a local sports ground
  • Inside the garage with the door open (and no direct sunlight shining in)
  • In the shade of a building

For the best results make sure that your subject faces towards the light for frontal lighting.

Lighting setup showing large umbrella with diffusion panel

Behind the scenes shot of how I lit the image at the top of this lighting tutorial. You can see how close the lighting was to the model to create soft light from my large umbrella with white interior and diffusion panel

Diffusing artificial light with light modifiers

Like with natural light, the key to creating a diffused light source with artificial lighting is to scatter the light. For studio portraits we do this with light modifiers attached to the light source or in front of the light source.

Here are some lighting tools to help you create diffused light:

Photography umbrellas

Umbrellas are a popular light modifier for portrait photography, especially with beginners as they’re cheap and easy to set up. They come in different sizes and materials and can be used with:

Photography umbrella with and without diffusion panel

My Profoto B1X strobe with large reflective umbrella with white interior. Without diffusion panel on the left and with diffusion panel on the right

2 types of photography umbrellas for diffused light are:

Reflective umbrellas

Reflective umbrellas reflect light back from a flash facing away from the subject pointed into an umbrella, which then spreads the light out in a softer, more even way.

The inner lining of reflective umbrellas can be white, silver or gold. White is the best to use for soft, diffused light. You can also add a diffusion panel to the front of the umbrella to diffuse the light further. In this instance it works much like a softbox.

Shoot through umbrellas

Shoot through umbrellas are white umbrellas that you point your flash into facing the subject for directional lighting. They provide a layer of diffusion between the flash and the subject to soften and scatter the light.

Of the two, reflective umbrellas (with white interior) are better for producing even, soft diffused light.

Softbox with diffusion panel for directional diffused lighting

My Profoto B1X strobe with 3 foot Octabox (aka softbox) with diffusion panel


Softbox light modifiers are the favorite of most professional photographers for soft light, and in my opinion the best for creating diffused light with flash.

Softboxes come in a variety of sizes and shapes and can be fitted with two layers of diffusion for extra soft light. They’re also used for directional lighting, but the light is easier to control than umbrella light.

Diffusion panels

I’ve already mentioned using diffusion material for diffuse lighting and a diffusion panel is the same thing. Diffusion panels work by blocking direct light from landing on the subject and scattering it over a larger area to create a large, soft and even light source.

While softboxes and umbrellas come with their own, bespoke diffusion panels, you can buy a huge variety of standalone diffusion panels for an additional layer of diffusion.

The smallest are handheld diffusion panels that come as one of the layers of a five-in-one reflector. The largest, called scrims, are giant diffusion panels fitted to metal frames and can be several meters high and wide.

Diffusion panels can be used with natural light or with artificial lighting equipment.

Diffused lighting conclusion

Diffused lighting produces soft light with soft shadows that are ideal for portrait photography. It smoothes out skin texture and creates a gentle mood, while adding depth and dimension to portraits.

Diffused light can be created with artificial light for studio photography or with ambient light indoors or outdoors.

There are many inexpensive ways to diffuse light in portrait photography by using shade, a white wall, white fabric, sheer material, or diffusion paper.

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