Give your cheap digital camera a cool upgrade usually reserved for high-end photography by creating a ring flash diffuser from stuff around the house!
If your like me, and can't even afford a DSLR, then you probably can't afford a $300 ring flash either. Not to worry, by diffusing the light from your point-and-shoot's flash, you too can produce the same effect achieved by professionals (sorta).
Step 1: Materials
There are a number of different things you could use to get the same result, but for this particular model I used the following:
Black film canister
1/8" plastic sheet
Step 2: The Concept
Basically, you want to diffuse the light from the flash that is built in to your camera around the lens so that you are shooting your image through an even ring of light. To do this we have to create a set of attached tubes; one for the lens to pass through, and one to support the diffuser and spread the light with a reflector. For my camera a film canister with the bottom cut out worked perfectly as the inner tube. I used a bit of thin photo tape around the inside of the canister to snug up the fit while still allowing the lens assembly to slide freely for auto focusing. You will also need to play around with the length of the canister so that you can zoom out of the tube and get a full frame without the forced vignette of the canister being in the shot. About 1 1/2" worked perfectly for me.
Step 3: Building the Diffuser
Again, there are a number of things that could work for this. I decided to use a plastic jar from some expensive spaghetti sauce because, besides being the size I wanted, it was already a nice frosted plastic that I hoped would diffuse the light nicely. Cut a hole in the bottom of the jar big enough to seat your film canister into. For my purpose, I wanted the outside tube to enclose a portion of the camera (in hopes of capturing more light) so I made sure that the jar was longer than the film canister.
After you have made your hole, sand any text or imperfections off of the bottom of the jar. This will be your diffuser, so try for an even frosty look.
Next, cut down the jar to a size that will accommodate the body of your camera. I notched out the side of the jar and then marked a cut-off line so that the back of my camera would line-up with the back of the diffuser, and would also still line-up with the inside tube. A Dremel with a cut-off wheel is perfect for most of the cutting.
Step 4: Put It Together
Because I cut a hole that was slightly too big for the film canister, I had to build-up the diameter with some mounting tape. However you do it, you want to make sure that the inside tube is straight inside the diffuser. Once you have this firmly in place, line everything but the front ring with aluminum foil, using clear tape to hold the foil in place. at this point you basically should have a working diffuser. I went a little bit further to increase the spread of light and make the unit more aesthetically pleasing.
Step 5: Fine Tuning
As you can see in the previous photos, I decided to build a little platform of sorts to support the camera while using the diffuser. To do this I simply cuts strips of plastic to the appropriate lengths and hot-glued them in place. I then stuffed weather-stripping in the voids to provide extra support and block light from leaking out of the back of the assembly. This has the added benefit of giving you another surface to apply a reflector to. Because the flash is popping from one spot, you will most likely have a hot-spot on your ring flash. I compensated for this by adding another reflector to the back of the support foam only behind the place on the diffuser that was not being equally lit; i.e. caddy-corner to the flash. This greatly helped to produce a nice even ring of light when the flash is popped.
I also found that by fitting a ring of white parchment paper or tissue inside the diffuser, you can get a more even spread of light than by sanding alone (just remember that each time you spread the light you are cutting down on the output).
Lastly, you will want to paint your new ring flash. I used a nice flat black to match my camera and to look more "professional". This is also your chance to clean up any uneven lines you have resulting from the foil inside the device. Just carefully tape-off the front ring with painters tape, then spray the whole thing with a few coats.
Step 6: Why?
This diffuser really does improve the pictures that I take with my cheapo camera. You can do an image search for ring flashes and see all kinds of examples of what the real-thing is capable of, but my favorite thing about it is the highlights it puts on your subjects eyes. You will have to play around with your settings and ambient light sources, but if you do it right you should be able to get a sweet ring reflection on the eyeballs.
Note: This project was inspired by Doug R's Coffee can diffuser for a DSLR that was posted over at the excellent lighting blog Strobist.
Thanks for reading. I have several other mods in the works for Point-and-shoot cameras so stay tuned!