HOW IT ALL STARTED
The diffusion cloth idea has probably been around for years, but it started for us in the early 1980’s. During March of 1984, Al Charnley and I were sitting in his living room making plans to spend a lot of time that spring photographing hepaticas, bloodroot, spring beauty, squirrel corn, violets, and other early spring wildflowers. We were trying to solve several problems that we always encountered when photographing these flowers. Early wildflowers are a fickle bunch. Most of these plants won’t open up their flowers unless the sun is out. Since they grow in the dead leaves of beach-maple forests in our area, the glare of direct sunshine on the dead leaves surrounding the flowers produces very poor results on film. Furthermore, since there are no leaves on the forest trees when these flowers bloom, there isn’t much surrounding vegetation to block the wind which always seems to be blowing during March and April.
So there we were, sitting in his living room and sipping on a coke, trying to figure out a way to improve the natural light on the flowers and to block the wind. It occurred to us if we had a portable greenhouse to put over the wildflowers, this would eliminate subject motion problems caused by the wind. And if we used the right kind of material, we could diffuse the harsh sunlight which would reduce the glare on the dead leaves and soften the shadows so the film could record detail better.
We fiddled around with a bunch of ideas and finally the thought came to us of using a white nylon parachute to diffuse the light and to block the wind. We soon drove down to Joe’s Army Surplus in Pontiac, Michigan to find a parachute. Well, they had lots of big ones that you could easily get lost in. Others were red, blue, orange, and some were even had multicolored panels. Naturally, we didn’t want any color material since that would produce an unnatural color cast in our wildflowers photos. We wanted a creamy white color and a smaller parachute. As luck would have it, we found exactly what we were looking for in a box marked motorcycles covers. Actually, these so called motorcycle covers were small white parachutes that are used by the military for suspending flares high up in the air so troops can fight at night. They were only about 8 foot in diameter and cost $10 at the time. We were soon using them for our spring wildflower photography and they worked extremely well. Unfortunately, I mentioned this fact in one of my early nature photography newsletters and the entire supply in the nation was apparently bought up by photographers since they became impossible to find soon after publishing my annual newsletter.
The diffusion cloth is our answer to the “no more parachutes” situation. It is very simple and works very effectively to improve the light on any small subject whether it be wildflowers, fungi, lichens, frogs, salamanders, etc. The cloth diffuses harsh sunlight, blocks gentle breezes, keeps mosquitoes off, sets up in 5 to 10 seconds, doesn’t weight much, and you can wad it up in a ball and stick it in your pocket so it is easy to carry. There are a couple things you should know right away. First, the diffusion cloth will block gentle breezes, but it won’t stop wind. Windy days are good for scouting but not for taking pictures. Second, the cloth diffuses the light on the subject and does not shade it. This is important to realize because the color makeup of the light is entirely different depending on whether you diffuse the subject or shade the subject. For example, suppose you have a sunny day with a cobalt blue sky. If you shade a wildflower with your body, the direct sunlight cannot strike the subject. Instead, the flower is now illuminated by light being reflected from the blue sky above. Since the sky is blue because it reflects blue light, this means the light illuminating on the subject is now primarily blue in content and this will lead to photos with a very blue cast which may or may not be good. On the other hand, sunlight that goes through a thin diffusion cloth does not become more blue. Just the opposite happens. Blue light is on the short wavelength end of the visible electromagnetic spectrum. It is high in energy but doesn’t penetrate obstacles very well like diffusion cloths. Therefore, some of the blue component of direct sunlight is absorbed by the diffusion material. The net result is that once direct sunlight goes through a white diffusion cloth, it becomes more yellow (warmer) because some of the blue wavelengths have been absorbed by the cloth. In effect, using the diffusion cloth is like adding a weak warming filter (perhaps an 81A) to your camera lens. Normally, this is beneficial, but not always as I will explain shortly. (Don’t be worried if you don’t understand all this, you can use the diffusion cloth very effectively without knowing any of this.)
HOW TO MAKE BLUE FLOWERS BLUE ON FILM
We have encountered problems with photographing blue wildflowers for some years now. In the past, many of the blue flowers we photographed came out pink, lavender, or some other shade that was not blue on film. It was rather annoying to photograph a blue hepatica and have it come out pink. Blue flowers are tough to record properly on film, but we have found a solution that works most of the time. The best way we have found to get a blue subject like a wild blue iris to record blue on film is to photograph it in open shade. In other words, we look for cobalt blue sky days and then find blue wildflowers that are in shaded places that do not have a canopy of overhanging tree branches above them. The subject must be in a area that is open to the blue sky above it. In summary, we are using the natural blue light that is present in open shade situations to provide a natural blue filter to help us get good blues on film.
Remember that using the diffusion cloth absorbs blue light and acts like a weak warming filter. This will cause a real problem if you try to photograph blue subjects with the diffusion cloth. Therefore, don’t use the diffusion cloth to photograph blue subjects, but it works well for all other colors.
HOW TO USE THE DIFFUSION CLOTH IN THE FIELD
You may have already heard about the KISS method of working. KISS stands for KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID! That is how Barb and I both work. Life is complicated enough without having us do things that are unnecessarily complicated. I always carry my diffusion cloth with me in one of the compartments of my camera bag. (By the way, Barb carries her equipment in a Lowe pro photo trekker and I use a Tamrac 614 pro model.) Let’s suppose I find a beautiful downy yellow violet growing on the forest floor. Since I want to use the diffusion cloth to diffuse the harsh light and to block a gentle breeze, here is how I proceed. First, I select the focal length that I want to use. In this case, I will use my favorite wildflower lens which is a Nikon 200/4 macro. I handhold the camera/lens combination, look through the viewfinder, and find the composition I like best. Then, I attach the camera to my Gitzo 320 tripod and move everything into position so I have the composition I liked earlier when I was hand holding the camera. Now it is time for the diffusion cloth. I usually scrounge a couple sticks from the area that are about a foot long and stick them in the soil about a foot behind the wildflower, but in a way so the sticks don’t get in the photo. Now I just spread out my diffusion cloth and spread it over top everything. I am now under the diffusion cloth along with my subject and camera equipment. Spread the diffusion cloth all around so it is touching the ground as much as possible which prevents tiny currents of air from sifting under the cloth and wiggling my yellow violet. My head is holding the diffusion cloth and the two sticks I had already stuck into the ground on the other side of the flower are also holding up the cloth which keeps the cloth off the violet. In essence, I am using my head and a couple of sticks to make the frame. I take my meter reading under the diffusion cloth because some light is absorbed by the cloth. When I am done taking my photos, I just stand up, grabbing the cloth as I go, whirl it in a circle around my arm, and then stuff it back into my camera bag. With practice, you should be able to set up the diffusion cloth in 15 seconds or less. It is quick and effective. Although not everyone prefers to do this, I do make one modification to my diffusion cloth. I like to put small weights on the edge of my material to help keep it on the ground if a small breeze is blowing. I use fairly large split shot that you can purchase at any fishing tackle dealer for about 75 cents. Just ask for split shot sinkers. I put them on the edge of my cloth at 1 foot intervals and I use a pair of pliers to attach them very well so they won’t fall off easily. Finally, a few snap clothespins will help you attach the cloth to branches or around small trees so these are worth having with you. Finally, there are times when we want to diffuse relatively large areas so we may use 2 or 3 diffusion cloths together.
Some of you more enterprising folks out there will probably think about making a solid frame for your diffusion cloth. Before you invest the time and money into making one, consider this. We have already thought of it too, and rejected it. There are a lot of problems with a rigid frame. Here is a list.
1. You have to buy or make the thing.
2. Rigid frames are going to have a certain weight that you now have to carry around with you.
3. Rigid frames normally aren’t going to pack very well so carrying them might be a problem.
4. A frame is just one more thing you have to remember to take with you and it is yet another thing you might accidentally leave in the woods.
5. Most frame designs that I have seen require setting it up, something like a tent. Some even have ropes and stakes. Frankly, I would rather spend my time taking pictures. Setting up tent-like structures and taking them down over and over and over and over and over throughout the day will not send my fun-o-meter to new highs! That’s a job!!! It is certainly not fun.
6. Yep, I have one more reason why I discourage frames for your diffusion cloth. A frame with a diffusion cloth attached may look great in your living room. But, just try to use it in the real natural world. The woods is full of stumps, branches, sticks, big and small trees, uneven ground, rocks, and many other obstacles that will make it difficult to set up anything with a fixed frame. In addition, my method of using my head, a couple of sticks, a couple of snap clothespins, to mold the diffusion cloth into the situation work far better. Trust me! I have done this thousands upon thousands of times. Our working method works best.!
Throwing the diffusion cloth over upright wildflowers like wood lilies or yellow lady’s slippers does not work. Since you normally photograph these flowers with an angle that is parallel to the ground, the diffusion cloth would be in the background if you threw it over the subject in many cases. But, you can still diffuse the light. Just hang the cloth up in some bushes or attach it to a couple of nearby trees with your snap clothes pins or just have someone hold it so it diffuses the light on the subject and background.
CAN YOU MAKE THESE YOURSELF?
Sure, anyone can make a diffusion cloth. You just have to find the right material, cut it to the proper size and sew it together. However, this material is fairly expensive and it is probably going to cost you $15 to $20 just for the material. You have to find a place that sells the right material (no easy task), then you have to go get it, and finally you have to do all the labor. We can make money selling the diffusion cloths because Barb buys $1000 worth of the material at a time at a huge discount. Then she goes into her sewing mode (she gets this gaunt determined look), scissors fly, the sewing machine purrs, and brand new diffusion cloths fill the bedroom and flow out into the living room. I will tell you, it is a sight to behold and I have learned to stay out of the way when all this is going on!!!
To be honest, it is a lot harder to describe how to use the diffusion cloth that it is to show someone in person how to use it. I would strongly recommend trying to attend one of our intensive nature photography seminars when we make it to your area. If you are interested in our week long nature photography workshops that we conduct in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it is important to enroll early. If you have friends who are interested in nature photography and would like to be on our mailing list, please have them send their complete address (including zip code) to John Gerlach/PO Box 259/CHATHAM, MI 49816. I will happily add them to our computerized mailing list so they will automatically receive our free nature photography newsletter each January.
by John Gerlach