Anyone who has taken pictures indoors is familiar with the problems of using a flash: harsh shadows, overlit subjects and underlit backgrounds. Professional photographers have a number of ways of dealing with this, but one of the simplest is bouncing the flash off the ceiling. Any external flash unit has a rotating head that lets you point it up at the ceiling. The ceiling (provided it is low enough and white enough) reflects and diffuses the light, making for much nicer pictures. Ken Rockwell talks about it using an inexpensive SB-400 in this article. This is different than just diffusing the flash; diffusing the flash makes the light less harsh, whereas bouncing the flash diffuses it, but also changes the apparent location of the source.
What if you don't have an external flash? What if, like me, you blew all your money buying the cheapest DSLR you could get and so, for the time being at least, you're stuck with your on-camera flash? Well, that's what the Lightscoop is for. Basically, it's a mirror that clips in front of your flash and redirects the light up to the ceiling. (The Lightscoop site has some great before and after shots, so it's worth a visit).
Well, what if you're really cheap, like me, and don't feel like paying $35 for a mirror? That's where this instructable comes in.
Step 1: Materials (and the Really Quick and Dirty Way)
This project assumes you have a hot-shoe mount on the top of your camera (that's the metal bracket where you attach an external flash) That rules out most point-and shoots, but you might be able to use some of the ideas.
The main thing you'll need is a mirror. I went to the local craft supply store and bought a 4 pack of 3" square mirrors for $2 (hence the 50 cents). Other things you'll need, but you can probably find around the house, are thick cardstock or thin corrugated cardboard (1.5mm-2mm thick is perfect, but thinner is workable; I used a large shoebox that was made out of thin corrugated cardboard), superglue, and a small right-angle bracket. Double-sided tape was handy, but not really necessary, and gaffer's tape might be nice to cover the whole thing in the end, but I haven't done that yet.
My first attempt worked very well, but was a little too flimsy for regular use: I simply used masing tape to secure the mirror at a 45 degree angle in front of the flash. This worked because my Nikon D40 has a little lip in front of the pop-up flash into which I could wedge the bottom of the mirror.
In terms of the end result, this works just as well as anything I did later on (and requires a lot less fine-tuning). It does have disadvantages, though: aside from the obvious flimsiness, the location means that the flash can't be close with the mirror in place, so if you're switching a lot between flash and no flash you'll have to be taking it off and on constantly. Also, I have no idea if it will work on cameras other than a Nikon D40, but I imagine you can make it work.
Step 2: Cutting the Cardboard
Here we're going to make a cardboard frame to hold the mirror in place. Before you do anything, though, we want to make sure your cardboard can fit into the hot shoe connector well. Cut an 11/16" wide strip from your cardboard source and try putting it in your hot shoe. If it slides in snugly, great! If it's loose, you might be able to fix it by taping or gluing several layers together. If it's too big, you probably need a different type of cardboard (although you might be able to use it for parts of it).
I intended originally to cut my cardboard into one piece that could be folded into the final shape, but I ended up doing it in two parts. I think this worked out to be easier, and I recommend it. All of the dimensions worked for my mirrors and my camera, but you may need to adjust it for your materials and equipment.
Here's a rough diagram of how my carboard pieces were cut out. Depending on your camera and the size of your mirrors, your measurements may be different. Experiment. I've shown dotted lines where I left extra space to cut things down later. Easier to remove cardboard than to have to start all over.
Step 3: Assembling the Housing
The first thing you should do is check that the tab fits in the hot shoe: fold it (you may want to score your cardboard with a knife before folding) and it should slide right in and fit snugly. If it doesn't, you can try cutting more cardboard and gluing it to the tab to make it thicker (but don't stick it in to the hot shoe until the glue is very dry!!).
If that works, then fold along the indicated lines, wrap the tabs around the back, and attach the two tabs from the side panels to the rear panel. If you're looking from the back to the front, the place where the mirror will go should ramp up and away from you. You want to wrap the back tabs around the rear panel so that the 18mm hot shoe tab is facing down. The rear panel should be inside the tabs, such that the panel itself helps keep the folded at 90 degrees. You can see a picture of the back of mine. Note that I almost didn't leave enough space, and so my tabs are pretty small. (The flash is harsh because I didn't have the bounce unit on!)
Attach the tabs using glue or double sided tape.
Step 4: Reenforcing the Hot Shoe Tab
This is the trickiest part, and the most important. If it doesn't work, your bounce unit will droop, and the pictures won't come out. The bounce just blocks the lower part of the flash, and the upper half of the images comes out bright. This is especially obvious in wider angle shots. (See below for examples of what happens if this goes wrong.)
To reenforce the tab and keep it pointing straight ahead, I used a right angle bracket. The problem was, all of the brackets I had lying around were too thick and interfered with the hot shoe tab (you've got about 3/8" to work with, and my brackets were 1/2"), so I used a little wooden cube I found to raise it up a bit. However you do it, make sure the tab is at 90 degrees to the back, or possibly even a little tiny bit more (the pictures make the angle look farther from 90 degrees than they really are).
Step 5: Attaching the Mirror and Using It
At this point it should be obvious where the mirror is going to go. Attach it using your adhesive of choice, and it's time to start shooting.
Slide it on to your hot shoe and check to make sure it's not drooping down. If it is, you should go back a step and see if you can fix it.
If your measurements were right and you're lucky, the flash will be able to pop up and down with the unit in place (my flash just barely clears the right-angle bracket).
The instructions on the Lightscoop site are helpful. In brief, they suggest setting your camera to ISO 800, 1/200 sec shutter speed, widest aperture, flash compensation up as far as it goes, and the metering to spot. In reality, I've found the only really important setting is having the metering set to spot; if it's on matrix, the pictures will not come out. I keep the ISO at 200 and it works fine. You may need to tweak the settings a little.
It may not be pretty, but it gets the job done, and for $2 of purchased materials you can make four and give them to your friends!