There’s one thing I hate about photography… it’s ridiculously expensive.  No matter what the item or how cheap it should be, one thing is for sure, it won’t be.  That’s why I get so excited by simple everyday items that can be used to create drastic results.  My favorite among them is the “black foamie thing”.  While it may not look like much, it has made a BIG impact on my photographs.  I first learned of its usefullness on a wonderful blog by Neil van Niekerk.

The “black foamie thing” works off the photography fundamental of diffused light.  Direct light is inherently harsh especially from a small source like a flash.  To increase the size of the light source most photographers bounce their flash off a nearby wall, ceiling, etc. to give the light a more diffused look.  However, a signicant amount of light is still able to travel directly from the flash head to the subject.  This causes harsh shadows and can wash out the subject.  The idea behind the black foam is to prevent this light from spilling.  It works wonderfully.  To see it’s effect, lets first look at a few examples using the usual bounce flash technique.

As you can see the shadows are abundant.  The pictures don’t look awful but the use of the on camera flash is obvious.  While it looks much better than direct flash would have, it’s still far from ideal.  To be fair, not all the photographs using this method created such harsh lighting but a fair amount did while none did using the foam.  Now, lets compare these result with the pictures using the black foam.

I believe these photographs present much more natural and flattering lighting.  The shadows are muted if not non-existent.  The hightlights wrap around the subject without washing them out and the use of flash is less noticeable.  Unfortunately, there is one downside of using the black foam.  Less light gets to your subject.  This means that to maintain the same shutter speed you’ll have to raise your ISO.  With any recent DSLR the high ISO performance has become so good, it shouldn’t be an issue.  However, even this downside has an upside.  Without this additional light the camera will be forced to drag the shutter (keep the shutter open longer) to obtain the proper exposure.  This allows more ambient light to be captured by the sensor and creates a smoother blend between the ambient light and light added using the flash.

If you’re convinced it makes $1 worth of difference, you’ll only need two items.  You can pick up a sheet of black foam from any craft store.  Cut a piece of foam to fit over the flash head and wrap around three of the four sides.  The foam should extend a few inches beyond the end of the flash.  Use a rubber hair band to wrap around the flash and hold the foam in place.  Rotate the foam as needed to block any direct flash light from reaching the subject.  While it may look a little silly hanging off the end of your flash, the results don’t lie.  I hope this technique can help to take your flash photography to the next level.