Lighting 101: Bare-Bulb Lighting

(Photo by Strobist reader Janaka Rodrigue

As you have already seen, we can the hard light of your bare flash and soften it with an umbrella. We can further soften it by bouncing it off of a wall or ceiling. But we can also turn it into a 360-degree glowing light source.

The old-school term for this is "bare bulb" lighting. That's because older flashes (and most current large studio flashes) have the ability to totally expose the flash tube, allowing the light to radiate in all directions.

Your speedlight can't do that as is, because the grain-of-rice-sized flash tube is permanently housed in its internal reflector an covered with a plastic fresnel lens at front. But we can diffuse the light after it leaves your flash to create omnidirectional, bare-bulb style lighting.

That's just what Strobist reader Janaka Rodrigue did above, using an inexpensive lamp globe from a hardware store. By sticking the speedlight inside, the harsh light turned into a soft, glowing orb. Which made for a beautiful, ethereal portrait.

Many flashes come with a small, white dome (sometimes called a Sto-Fen) that will convert the flashlight-stlye light into a into a bare bulb-style light. It is omnidirectional, but is it still small and harsh. But it will absolutely make your flash act like a bare light bulb. In fact, I used that same technique here—that's a speedlight in the tiki hut, not a light bulb:

See how the light illuminates the inside of the tiki hut and spills in a natural gradient across the ground? I made that happen by using a small dome on the flash to imitate a bare light bulb. I made the photo of my parents to celebrate their 50th anniversary. You can read in more detail how it was made, here.

Also, bare-bulb modifiers can actually give you softer light—as long as you are near walls and/or a ceiling for that omnidirectional light to bounce off of. That's the secret behind commercially produced larger dome diffusers like the LightSphere.

They work well in small rooms with nearby walls, but they are not well-suited for open spaces. Just saying that so you know what they can and can't do. Plus, next time you see a wedding photographer using one outside (and they do that a lot) you can feel just a little bit superior.

Not to say they are not useful. But you don't have to spend $100 on one, either. You can get one for under $5 at your local Chinese takeout—and they come full of hot-and-sour soup as well:

Just wash it out (or not, whatever, I'm a guy after all) and cut a little "X" in the lid with an X-acto knife. Then it'll slide right onto your flash for a friction fit.

These are great to experiment with. Need light to fill a room in all directions? Bare bulb is your mod.

Gonna light the inside of a fridge to simulate that "late-night-snack" glow? Made sure you've already ordered the hot-and-sour soup first.

There are tons of different ways to modify lights, and many have DIY versions you can try for next to nothing. Heck, we're just getting warmed up here.

But for the moment, let's take everything away and play with that harsh bare flash that has previously been the reason all of your flash pictures looked like, well, flash pictures…

Next: Lighting 101: Hard Light


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Blogger Elephant said...

I came across a vendor of the Sto-fen recently who was telling us all to Beware of Cheap Imitations. The claim was that the translucence and colour of the cheap versions, and presumably by extension the DIY versions, isn't right. I wonder if anyone has had bad experiences, or whether this is just guff? Thx

November 30, 2006 1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I use the translucscent alcohol plastic bottles available at an drug store. Just cut the bottom to fit to your flash head & tape (or if you are really creative ) velcro it. I find them to work just as well as an Omni bounce.

December 11, 2006 12:41 PM  
Blogger msuttle said...

Elephant... one of the great thing about digital is the fact that color can be compensated for easily. I have made flash diffusers out of thin wall PVC pipe that actually a photograph a warmer tone while this translucent tupperware would not affect the color noticably. The reason why Sto-fen wants you to avoid diy and off name versions is so they can charge you 15 bux for essentially the same thing. sure it takes a small bit of time and some trash-can diving to make your own diffusers but the end result is quite fullfilling because you had your hand in making the accessories.

December 19, 2006 9:10 PM  
Anonymous tangcla said...

Does anyone know whether the Rosco frost diffuse filters are any good / worth getting, over a Stofen? I figured if I'm going to be getting the CTO and green gels, I may as well get the diffuse gels too...!

January 21, 2007 7:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used a paper cone made from a standard A4 machine paper : just cut out a circle, tape or glue it as a cone, attach to your light and voila!
I also had good results in hanging such lights to the ceiling at parties.

February 13, 2007 9:26 AM  
Blogger Quoc-Huy said...

In the UK the Sto-Fen omni-bounce costs around 15£. I don't know if DIY version is better or same or worst but for the cost it is worth the try.

I've post my own DIY tutorial on my site. Will try to use it soon...

July 12, 2007 10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think a white coffee filter (those paper bags) might work too, though I didn't try it yet. But I do carry them for measuring the white balance.

September 20, 2007 3:52 AM  
Anonymous Dennis D. said...

I tried the cheap tupperware containter trick the other day but honestly I could not tell a lot of difference between the photos I took with it on the flash and the ones where I just fired the flash straight up at the ceiling.

Maybe it has something to do with the size of the room.

March 01, 2008 8:52 PM  
Anonymous Terry Thomas Photos said...

For years I've used new white 20 ounce Styrofoam coffee cups friction-fit over my Nikon SB600s.

Because the Nikon SB600 has a square-ish sensor on the front I have to cut out an opening for it.

Otherwise I simply point the strobe straight up, slip on the cup and shoot away. If I need a bit more light in one direction or another I tilt or swivel the cup/strobe.

Autoexposure takes care of any light loss.

More techical detail: I use the Night Scene mode (the camera blends available light with the flash) and perch a spirit level in the camera's hot shoe to make sure my horizon line is level. Then I swap the level for the flash. This setup makes for easy "Run & Gun" real estate interiors.

Let me also mention that I put second and third strobes in far rooms and at the tops of staircases so there are no Black Holes of Calcutta in my photos.

Examples of my work are on my website.

Terry Thomas...
the photographer
Atlanta, Georgia USA

August 12, 2008 1:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a certain brand of cake frosting--name escapes me at the moment--that comes in a white translucent, plastic can; it may be wrapped in cardboard, but the frosting itself is in what amounts to a large, white plastic soup can. I have been using one of these with great success.

February 09, 2009 12:05 AM  
Blogger Big G said...

I went into a local Chinatown store and bought a white paper ball lantern... $2.50 ... it comes flat and has a little wire frame that you insert to make it a ball.... with a small hole at either end.

They are sold as lamp shades - to hang on a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling...

They convert to a MASSIVE ball of light when thrown over the SB800. I found that I did have to cover the end hole with some ricepaper to stop the light leaking out of the top ... but the effect was stunning..


April 02, 2009 6:12 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Replacement ink cartridges for my Canon Pixma IP1800 printer come in small frosted white plastic tubs with a small flange around the opening. They fit perfectly inside the flash head opening of a Vivitar 285. It's possible to use the Vivitar's wide angle panel, which slides across the opening from the side, to hold the tub in place, or you can use a thin sheet of cardboard or poster board cut to size. The tub actually has two irregularly-shaped protrusions, not a single smooth dome as on the StoFen, but the light quality is virtually identical. And they're free if you're buying Canon ink!

April 04, 2009 10:17 PM  
Anonymous Kris. said...

In the UK, Ecover washing up bottles seem to be the perfect material and fit my vivitars perfectly.


August 06, 2009 9:17 AM  
Blogger bbbrinson said...

Hi - A few weeks ago, I saw a mention in ONE of the 101 I saw a discussion of various on-flash diffusers - debating the benefits of Lumiquest, versus Fong, versus ????. It is this latter I cannot remember - I went to their site (seems like an individual) and liked what I saw. Now, I can't remember the name to actually buy.

Some clues :bounce surface is backed by black material; the thing attaches to the speedlight with velcro; the unit comes in a few sizes; finally, the vendor appeared to be a Stobist sponsor - he offered a strobist special.

can anybody assist my failing memory?

May 03, 2010 2:22 PM  
Blogger Philip Smith Photography said...

Hey, Kris, I found the Ecover bottles to work really well, too.

May 11, 2010 1:49 PM  
Blogger tim said...

Hey there!
I'd really love to try the "bare bulb" - style! In fact, there's already a picture in my head what to do with one or two "bare bulb" strobes. Alas I've got no experience with that and for some reason I don't like the Omni-Bounce. The thing David's using in his article ( looks really nice. Could you tell me, what exactly that is? The filename tells something about tupper ware. But what product exactly? (It should fit nicely... ;-) )
And how much light will I lose using it?

Please let me know :-)
And thanks a million for this wonderful and addictive blog!

August 25, 2010 7:12 AM  
Blogger Olive Green EPC said...

I bought a couple of packs of disposable clear plastic drinking tumblers for a party we had in case the real glasses run out. They came in pint and 330ml size which means the smaller ones fit snugly on a newer style flash and they pint sized ones can be rested on top of a Vivitar 285.

December 22, 2010 9:05 PM  
Blogger Tommie said...

Wow! I had to try this out, because, its free if you have a kitchen! So, I found a 5 inch tall 3 inch diameter storage thingy I've had for ten years. I cut the X and mounted my sb600 to the table stand that came with it. I sat it on the end of my kitchen table. In the middle of the table: I put a metallic potato chip bag (full of yummy chips), a paper towel holder with bright white paper towels and an apple.

Here it goes. I take one shot with the strobe straight up and naked. Then I CAREFULLY put my 10 year old generic tupperware thingy on.

I reviewed the photos. AND....

I'll be darned..its WORKS!

The naked strobe had the typical top light good, fading down to the middle and dropping off.

The strobe with the tupperware thingy - It had excellent top light, evenly distributed light through the middle (paper towels looked evenly lit, head to toe). Also, I noticed the slight shadows below the bulge in the chip bag and apple were lessened dramatically! This was a simple test, but I can SEE SO MANY WAYS TO USE THIS! SWEEEEEET!

What a worth while read-I'm on to HARD LIGHT!!!

February 08, 2011 3:54 PM  
Blogger Tommie said...

I'm so pumped about this, that even though I lost my complete post after trying to login with and submit my comment, I'm posting again!!!

Ok, so I had to try this, because I have ten year old tupperware thingys and I like to try doing stuff free

So, I found a 6in tall 3in wide tupperware thing that was more rounded rectangle than circular. Oh well, let's see what happens.

Ok, So I cut my X in the tupperware thingy. I put my sb-600 on my table stand (the small thing that comes with it) and placed it at the end of the table about6 inches towards me from middle of the end of one side. I put a metallicy, shiny bag of tater chips, a paper towel holder with bright white paper towels and an apple all in direct center of the table. I took the picture somewhere in the middle of the strobe and the things on the table.

I CAREFULLY put the cheap, ten year old thingy on my strobe and shot picture with strobe straight UP as normally bounced. Then I took it off even more CAREFULLY and shot on with out it.

Lets take a look...

The one without the ten year old tupperware thingy looked like a typical bounce. Lit well up top and dropping off with somewhat annoying shadows. Shadows under apple and bulge in middle of bag of chips. Light dropping off on white paper towels and dimming towards base.

Now, lets take a look at the DIY bulb effect thingy....

SWEEEEET, it works!

The paper towels were consistently lit and white, the chips bag had a shine all the way through the bag and the shadows under the bag and apple were noticeably better.

SWEEEEEET! What a cool tip. I'm such a hack, so this really inspired me today!

Thanks, on to HARD LIGHT!!!

February 08, 2011 4:04 PM  
Blogger Ron and Bobbie's Travels said...

In a pinch, I've rubber banded a Kleenex tissue over the flash as a diffuser.

January 19, 2012 2:41 PM  
Blogger Studio254 said...

I have been trying to read from this site for past 4 days picking bits and whole lot pieces. But my grandson has stopping me. After reading this I want to wake him up and try the refrigerator trick! Love it thanks a bunch!

January 11, 2014 7:32 PM  

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