The Single Best Tool for Better Nature Close-Up Photos…

…is an inexpensive light modifier that is known as a diffuser. Not a fancy, “fast” lens, not a camera with a bigger and better sensor. The diffuser will even make your cellphone close-ups better.

I’m using the Manfrotto-Lastolite brand* foldable “Tri-Grip” diffuser – they come in 1-stop and 2-stop varieties and are a little more expensive, but you can also find round, foldable 5-in-1 diffuser/reflector combos for as little as $20 online.

The “Tri-Grip”, as the name implies, has a triangular shape and a grip (yes, no kidding!). Here’s why that is beneficial:

  1. the triangular shape allows you to set the diffuser on the ground with one side, casting nice and even light onto any near-ground subject (including areas in front and behind it) when you have the sun coming from the side (difficult with a round diffuser!). The diffuser will stay in place without much effort.
  2. the grip allows you to hold the thing with relative ease even when it’s windy. I have the camera in my right hand and the diffuser in my left hand (kinda awkward when making hand-held photos, but it works). The grip also makes it possible to hold the diffuser away from your body, with your arm stretched out, so that you don’t cast a shadow onto the diffuser, blocking the light.

The 75cm/30″ model folds up nicely that it fits into the little space of my hiking backpack’s “air mesh” at the back, where it is easily accessible at all times. It also fits into the laptop-compartment (!) of a day pack that I’m using for shorter, local hikes. Extremely convenient and no hassle to retrieve, use, and then stow away again.

The point about casting a shadow that I’m making in #2 above comes into play when you’re alone and have the camera on a tripod, for example: you use the camera’s timer to make a delayed exposure and then hold the diffuser over your subject (depending on your focal length, perhaps even walking 3-4 feet away from the camera). With round diffusers, you often need both hands/arms to hold them steady when it’s windy.

As the saying goes: a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are two examples to show what a difference the diffuser makes**. Both photos are made hand-held, alone, holding the diffuser in one hand and the camera in the other.

The images aren’t perfectly aligned and the exposures are not directly comparable either, but you can see how much the photo on the right benefits from the diffuser usage: overexposure on the finer parts of the plant is eliminated entirely (the camera’s meter doesn’t “catch” those bright areas at all; you’d have to manually dial in exposure compensation to protect them from getting overexposed) and the shadows are filled much better due to the longer exposure time:

Arctostaphylos pringlei ssp. drupacea (Pink-bracted Manzanita) photographed under direct sunlight, near Chihuahua Valley, California. May 2020.Arctostaphylos pringlei ssp. drupacea (Pink-bracted Manzanita) photographed with diffuser, near Chihuahua Valley, California. May 2020.
Above: Arctostaphylos drupacea ssp. pringlei (Pink-bracted Manzanita), photographed near Chihuahua Valley in San Diego County in May 2020. First exposure (left) is in direct sunlight, 1/125s at ISO200, second exposure (with diffuser) is at 1/250s at ISO 640.

Here’s another. Again, the frames aren’t perfectly aligned (see above) but you can see how much the second image benefits from the diffuser:

Malacothrix glabrata (Desert Dandelion) photographed under direct sunlight, Joshua Tree National Park, California. March 2019.Malacothrix glabrata (Desert Dandelion) photographed with diffuser, Joshua Tree National Park, California. March 2019.
Above: Malacothrix glabrata (Desert Dandelion) photographed at Joshua Tree National Park, March 2019 – first exposure (left) is in direct sunlight, 1/1000s at ISO100, second exposure is with diffuser, 1/1000s at ISO200 (one stop slower).

In general, for the best effect I recommend to bring the diffuser as close as possible to your subject so that you don’t just shade the subject, but illuminate it with the light that the diffuser lets through. That way, you’ll get a nice “glow” and brightness – just without the direct sunlight and harsh shadows.

Seven of the twelve photos from yesterday’s “Flower & Plant Sampler” were made with the aid of the diffuser (the rest on overcast days). I hope the results convince you! ;-)

*) I’m not affiliated with Lastolite and have no beef in placing these links, ie. they’re not affiliate links.

**) are two examples with a before/after each worth 2000, or 4000 words then?! ;-)


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7 thoughts on “The Single Best Tool for Better Nature Close-Up Photos…”

  1. This is very helpful, Alex, thank you. I don’t tend to slow down enough to use a tripod or a diffuser, but you really made a compelling case. Bright sun is only a problem here for a few months a year but when it happens, it’s so annoying. The rest of the year, I get used to shooting in less contrasty conditions. Then in July and August I have to work with those bright highlights and shadows (and our days are very long up here so only going out at the golden hour isn’t always convenient). You answered all my questions , i.e. but wouldn’t it be too clumsy, too difficult, too awkward, too expensive, etc? Sounds like it wouldn’t be any of those things. :-)

    Reply
    • I had to chuckle about your statement of the bright sun being “so annoying” – only photographers will say that, I think! xD

      Happy to hear you found the article and examples helpful.

      Reply
      • Yes, I pulled up to the coffee takeout window yesterday and had that discussion with the barista, who longed to get out on such a beautiful day. And yes, it was beautiful, but I was not longing to get out , I was thinking, damn, the sun’s too bright! ;-)

        Reply
  2. I have a couple of the round diffusers and though I like them I’ve been eye’ing these TriGrip models since I first became aware of them. It’s great to hear from someone with actual experience with them. Does it fold up similarly to the round ones? Another potential benefit of the TriGrip: on very hot days it turns into a large fan! :-)

    Reply

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