DIY Photography Light Diffuser on the Cheap

When I attended the Food Photography Overhaul last month, I learned good lighting is the KEY to good photos.  I consider myself a pretty darn good student:  I listen carefully, I take notes diligently, and I try to implement my new knowledge as soon as nerdily possible.  Yet, as mentioned in my last post, I experienced some extreme frustration while trying to photograph those delicious balsamic pork tenderloin medallions in low lighting.  The need for light was obvious, but where the heck was it?!  I tried switching locations–the stove top, the living room floor, the bathroom counter, the laundry room–photo after horrible photo.  It was absolutely infuriating!

A couple of days later (once I had a chance to mellow out over a nice cheap bottle of red wine), the BF and I headed to Lowe’s to resolve this lighting issue once and for freaking all.

Here’s what we picked up:

DIY Photography Light Diffuser via Fervent Foodie

First and foremost is the portable work light.  This guy cost $9 at Lowes.  It was very easy to assemble, it’s super bright, and seeing it sitting on my living room floor makes me feel like a BAMF.  ‘Nuff said.

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Bright light is great and all, but bright light alone doesn’t make things look pretty.  Just think for a moment of photos of yourself standing squinty eyed in direct sunlight, ghastly shadows under your eyes and nose.  If you’re like me, you’ve deleted and/or tossed all of them, just like I did with those crap pork photos.  Not enough light causes blurry lackluster photos, and too harsh of light makes everything whitewashed, both of which can be pretty unappetizing to the eye.  Don’t even get me started on unwanted shadows.

Enter vellum paper, which is thin, slightly translucent, and perfect for diffusing light.  I  bought my roll at Hobby Lobby for about $8 before coupons (they’ve always got 40% off coupons on their website–boo ya!).

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Once I had the light and the diffusing paper, the next step was constructing a PVC frame to hold up the paper in front of the light.  For this, I purchased two 5 foot long, 3/4 inch thick PVC pipes at Lowes for $1.78 a piece.  You can use a hacksaw or PVC pipe cutter to cut the PVC pipes to size or you can ask a store associate real nice for some assistance and hopefully get him or her to do it for you.

If you are using 2-foot wide vellum paper as I did, each five foot PVC pipe will need cut down into the following three lengths:

  • one 20 inch piece
  • one 25 inch piece
  • one 15 inch piece

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The PVC pipe connectors are sold in the same aisle as the pipes.  I know, right?  You’ll need two elbows and two elbows with the thingamabobs sticking out of the top. These connectors are “slip” connectors, meaning they just slip on and there is no threading inside of the connector piece.  They cost about a buck a piece.

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One you have all the pieces, the frame comes together in seconds!

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Then you just roll out some vellum and cut to size:

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Then secure to the frame with tape.

That’s it!  The photography light diffuser is complete!

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The assembly took less than 20 minutes.  Then we repeated the whole process over again so that I can have lovely diffused light at my place and at the boyfriend’s.  I’m slowly working on turning his guest bedroom into my craft room, one photography prop at a time.

When you’re ready to take your photo, first get your subject staged in front of the vellum screen.  The work light gets hot pretty fast, so wait until you have your picture staged before you turn it on.  Safety first!  You can use two pieces of white foam board to help bounce light back onto the object you are photographing.

Like so:

DIY Photography Light Diffuser via Fervent Foodie

This was taken at 10 in the evening and just look at that lovely light!  Mmmmmm can’t wait to eat this oatmeal for breakfast tomorrow.  Blueberries, almonds, brown sugar, and cinnamon.  DELICIOUS!

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Light & DIY Diffuser Shopping List

  • 1-work light (500 watts is good)
  • 2-five foot long 3/4 inch thick PVC pipes
  • 2-elbows
  • 2-elbows with thingamabobs
  • 1-roll vellum paper
  • 2-white foam boards
  • Tape
  • Scissors
  • Pencil

Thanks to Taylor for this great idea!

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  1. You went through ALL this to get better shots of your food which I thought were fine? Maybe you can photograph other objects like babies (not that they are objects mind you).

    1. Good question! I think it would work in very bright direct sunlight. If you have a very bright window, you could also try hanging a thin white sheet or curtain over it to diffuse the light.

  2. For stationary objects, you can use a much weaker, and hence MUCH COOLER light source. I would recommend CFL bulbs – you can get 150 W equivalents at Home Depot that use only 35-40 watts. You can leave these on for as long as you want, without worrying about burning up your diffuser screen. With a single bulb like this, you’ll have about 1 and a half stops less light. Check/set your white balance, though!

  3. Great post!!! Do you think you might have an idea of how I could apply this for a DIY photobooth for my birthday party?? I have a vinyl banner backdrop and a Sony Cyber Shot digital camera. Basically I’m thinking of making a diffuser just like the one you made and putting it in front of the double headed worklight that is on a tripod that I have. Will I need to incorporate foam boards? What are your thoughts?

  4. Thanks for this helpful post! I found it searching for a simple way to diffuse light for making this stop motion video –

    I’m using the diffusers with some clamp-on work lights from Lowes and they work beautifully. I had a roll of tracing paper here already, so I put two sheets on each diffuser to make it more similar to the opacity of vellum.

    So you know, the “elbows with thingamabobs” are simply called “side outlet elbows”, which might be a bit more clear to readers!