Make your own DIY diffusion filter with this simple trick
I’ve used diffusion filters on my lenses for many years, but recently LEE Filters, the brand that makes the one I use, stopped making them. Here’s a cheap and easy DIY alternative…
If you were curious about the LEE Softs filter, you can see the results of my use here Using Diffusion Filters – LEE “Soft” Filters
For years I have made videos and given demonstrations using the LEE ‘Soft’ filters and now that people can no longer buy them I get a lot of messages and questions regarding alternatives.
This article explains what a diffusion filter does and why it’s not like other lens filters you may already have.
Additionally, I’ll also review a few alternative options, as well as a very quick and cheap DIY version that you can also try.
What is a diffusing filter?
There is some confusion around what a ‘diffusing filter‘ is actually like, many people confuse them with ‘low contrast’ filters and other lens filters with the same name. A Diffusion Filter, or as LEE called them “Softs”, creates a flared point of light around the light source. Imagine taking a photo of a car headlight on a foggy day, the bright part of the photo shines outward, creating radiant light. The distinction to be made here is that diffusion filters create lens flare at the light source, versus low contrast filters which create a much more gradual and general glow or haze of light.
I wrote a detailed article on low contrast filters here if you are interested Using Low Contrast Lens Filters in Portraitsbut essentially the sample image below shows you quite clearly the difference between diffusion and low contrast filters.
What are the alternatives to LEE Softs?
The good news is that you have a few options and you can either spend a lot or not a lot to get results quite similar to the old softwares, but what does a good alternative look like?
Of course, take a look online for yourself to see what might be what you want, but here are some of the popular alternative lens filter options I’ve used in the past: Check the ‘Tiffen – Black Pro Mist‘ or the ‘Moment – Cinebloom‘ or even the ‘Prism Lens – FX Dream FX‘
All of the aforementioned filters are good on their own, but they may even be “too” good for what we want. What I mean by that is that filters like the Pro Mist and even Cinebloom do a great job of dispersing the light and giving us that cool “cinematic” look, but we want more of a flare to the point of light on an overall haze effect. To do that, we often need something a little shittier and that’s where a nice DIY alternative can save the day.
DIY diffusion filter
If you’re looking for a cheap DIY alternative to the LEE Softs filter, you’re in luck, because mine only costs me £5.48!!!
All you need is a cheap UV lens filter that is the correct diameter for the lens you will be using, and some hairspray…. that’s it!
UV lens filter
I just searched ‘62mm UV lens filter‘ on eBay and got some results. The cheapest option is completely fine because we don’t worry about the quality for that. REMEMBER: Be sure to look for a UV filter that matches your specific lens diameter.
Note: Be sure to search for your specific lens diameter to narrow down the search. If you are unsure of your lens diameter in mm, you can usually find it inside your lens cap.
You may already have it somewhere in your house, but if you don’t, you can buy mini hairspray cans very cheaply.
Again, nothing fancy here. I just searched ‘hairspray’ on Amazon and chose the cheapest one and it’s only cheap because it comes in a 75ml mini tester size. You won’t need much hairspray, so the smaller the spray, the better.
Make your DIY diffusion filter
This will take you about 10 seconds and reading this will take you longer than it takes to do your filter.
I simply stepped out, held my UV filter at arm’s length, held the hairspray close to my chest, then sprayed a few quick passes over the filter.
The goal here is to keep the spray far enough away from the filter so that the spray droplets have time to separate. You don’t want to saturate the filter and you want to spray in quick bursts. Try spraying over the filter and dropping the hairspray on it. Remember: it is much easier to build the effect in several passes than to overdo it in one spray.
Before and after UV filter
Below you can see what the UV filter looked like before and after the hairspray. As I mentioned above the trick is to have a fine mist of dots that aren’t all clumped together and remember, you can always build from here if you want a more pronounced effect.
Test the effect
You can immediately test the filter to see if it works at the desired amount. Just find a single light source and snap a photo of it. Below you can see the results and how pronounced the effect is with just a squirt of hairspray.
Using Your DIY Diffusion Filter in a Photo Shoot
It’s up to you how you use your new DIY diffusion filter, but for me personally I tend to only use one when the lights are either in shot or just out of frame, as if you were using a hair light or an edge light lit a portrait. Without a light bouncing back to the lens, you probably won’t notice this lens filter doing anything.
Without DIY diffusion filter
With DIY diffusion filter
It should be quite obvious from the images above how powerful a diffusion filter can be when it comes to adding a little extra interest to your shots. The diffusion filter allows a glimmer of light to enter the frame and I always find it a very useful trick for studio portraits, especially if the background is very plain. You can also use this glow technique to seemingly blend colors in shots because you can layer one colored glow on top of another and it’s similar to what I’m doing here layering the pink on top of the darker blue.
Play around with a few ideas, but just remember that the diffusion trick only really works when the light comes back into the lens. Any points of light will trigger the effect and you can even see the glow of the light reflecting off the collar in the 3/4 length body pictured above.
Increase the effect
The only next steps here are for you to consider ways to practically increase the effect without having to spray more hairspray on the same filter. One method I often use is to simply stack the UV filters. For example, I now have two lens filters with hairspray on them and if I want more “glow” I just screw the two filters onto my lens in a stack. It’s a simple solution and it’s very quick to add another filter to the point of view.
One last tip, and this concerns storage. The reason we use hairspray is that the droplets will stay put without just drying out and disappearing which would have happened if we had just sprayed water on the filter. This is not to say that the hair spray droplets are long lasting and you have to remember that if the surface of this filter comes in contact with anything the droplets will stain and the effect will be ruined. From there, you’ll need to properly clean the filter and reapply the hairspray one more time. With that in mind, be sure to keep your DIY diffusion filter in its box when not in use.
Good luck and have fun playing with these simple camera flares.
- Model: ryo love
- Necklace: LOVE ROX
- Lighting: Rotolight AEOS 2 & Titans
JHP Live Streams…
If you try this DIY diffusion filter, I’d love to see how the photos turn out and feel free to share them my way. One way to do this is through my livestream. I live stream every other Tuesday night via my FB page and there I answer your questions, critique your photos, take community images into Photoshop to work on, and discuss all sorts of tips and lighting techniques . I look forward to seeing you and your work there very soon. JHP Facebook page
As always, thank you for viewing this article and spending some of your day with me here. I hope you found it useful and if you left with a little more knowledge than when you arrived, it was well worth it.
If you have any questions or comments, or if something doesn’t make sense, feel free to comment below and I’ll do my best to answer what I can. Thanks again and I’ll see you in the next one.
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About the Author
Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in maintaining proficiency in the camera, not just on screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to love his Facebook page and follow him on instagram, also. You can also register at Jake Hicks Photography Newsletter to receive Jake’s Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques free PDF and be sure to download his 50 page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.