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How to control the light outdoors all day long using a huge DIY diffuser

Dee © Mandy Schoch


Note: This applies to all photographers, not just pet photographers. Keep reading and you'll see what I mean.


I adore animals, and photographing them is one of my favorite pastimes. So a few years ago I decided to devote my spare time to photographing shelter animals. I met with the director of the local animal shelter, and after showing her some of my work, we agreed that I would give it a go. That’s when she showed me the enclosed 20×20’ pen where I would be shooting.

Well, it wasn’t the most attractive spot, that’s for sure. A chain-link fence surrounded the area, and the ground was covered with rocks. I knew that a large backdrop would take care of the fence and rocks issue, but the biggest problem was that the pen received bright sunlight all day long. I had to figure out a way to diffuse it if I was going to make some decent images of dogs.


Jitterbug © Mandy Schoch

After some head scratching, I had an idea. I bought two 108×72” inexpensive white shower curtains made of a semiopaque, soft, silky polyester material. The curtain bottoms were sewn together, creating a 9×12’ piece of material, and I used 24 brass grommets (metal rings/eyelets) to reinforce the 12 holes on each end (the holes for shower curtain rings). I also picked up some thin climbing rope from a sporting goods store so I could securely tie the material to the fence without the rope loosening while I was shooting.



Bingo! In no time I had a lightweight, very portable and huge scrim (diffuser) that would cover my entire set and provide beautifully diffused light throughout the day.


This overcast sky is deceiving. Those grey morning clouds always burned off, resulting in a cloudless blue sky and bright sunlight day. (A quick tip too: I handheld the camera, and my knees and elbows were so thankful that I brought along that blue yoga mat!)

Diffusing strong sunlight is crucial to even out the light and prevent harsh shadows from falling on your subject. For you pet photographers, especially those who shoot for animal shelters, you may come across a similar situation, and this easy-to-make scrim really will make your photo shoot much more enjoyable.


Laverne and Shirley © Mandy Schoch

But any photographer who shoots outdoors — portraits, weddings, furniture, you name it — will find a big scrim like this very handy. You can tie it tightly to a tree, a flagpole, an overhang on a building, and you can always bring along heavy-duty C-stands if your location is barren. In that case, sandbags are a must to hold down the stands; otherwise, a good gust of wind will turn the scrim into a massive sail and carry your set straight into the next county.

That reminds me … always have a lot of Ziplock plastic bags with you. If the wind picks up, you can quickly fill them up with rocks, sand, etc., and you’ll have instant sandbags for your backdrop or your stands.

As an aside, there is one more excellent way to use this scrim. You can also spread it out on the ground if you're photographing people in grass. Wedding photographers, for instance, would find this extremely helpful because it would reflect white, not green, onto skin and white wedding dresses. No more having to adjust the white balance in camera or correct it later in post-processing. Bonus!


Hope © Mandy Schoch

The images I have included were shot at different shelters and with different backgrounds, but they all were shot outdoors using the scrim. All are to show you how soft and even the light is, no matter the size of the subject, and how the catchlight produced by the scrim puts a sparkle in their eyes  that's especially helpful for the dark brown eyes that I often end up photographing.


Marco and Martin © Mandy Schoch

By the way, all of these dogs were adopted as soon as these photos hit their shelters’ Facebook pages — that is such a great feeling. If you have some spare time on your hands and love animals, I encourage you to give it a try and support your local animal shelter. They really could use your help, and you will make some orphaned animals super happy too.


Uno © Mandy Schoch

If you have any questions about making this scrim, or anything else for that matter, fire away! I’m happy to help any way I can.


Beautiful photos, very clever tips and a huge thanks going your way for helping the furry guys! This is such a lovely thing to do!
Great tips and suggestions for a pet photographer and others! Love you photos of the pets, Mandy!
Invention is the mother of necessity…I love to see this sort of thing as it just goes to show that when we put our creative caps on there is often a solution lurking in the recesses of out minds. Bravo to you for creating this and bravo again for sharing.
Mandy, These shots are one more beautiful than the next...and your portable diffuser has worked for sure. The one titled Hope is my personal favorite. The DIY setup was a great idea. Thanks for sharing. :)
Very helpful tips and technique on how to make an inexpensive and makeshift environment. I might give this a try in the harsh African sunlight. This might actually open up more possibilities for me. Those pet photos of yours are superb!
Thanks Andre! You'd be amazed how easy it is to tote around. When the ropes are wound up, you can just ball it up and toss everything into a plastic grocery bag. And, of course, it's waterproof :) which comes in handy if rain suddenly appears. I hope you're able to try it out. I'm pretty sure you'd find many uses for it.