Hard Light and Soft Glass: The Dirty Diana

First, a clarification. That's not Diana above. That's Robin Massie-Jean, a violist I photographed for the Howard County Arts Council.

The Diana in this photo is the lens. And really you can't even call it soft glass, because it's, well, plastic.

The lens itself is a $60 chop job from a Diana (toy) camera that has been modded to fit my Nikons. Using squishy-soft toy lenses in conjunction with hard light is one of my favorite techniques to add an ethereal look to environmental portraits. Using Saran Wrap on a sharp lens (which I also have done) is different, because the distortion is much more two-dimensional. This lens is absolute, wonderful crap all the way through, front to back. Which gives a different effect.

You need the hard light, because the plastic lens is gonna subtract contrast when it smears things around. And if you combine the two techniques, you can add a squishy vibe or painterly feel to a portrait.

Here's the lens:

It's $60 (refreshingly cheap for a lens, no?) at PhotoJojo. When it comes to optical fidelity Diana is, shall we say, rather impure.

She does not follow the straight and narrow. She does not express things truthfully. In fact, she is fairly ambiguous and completely devoid of consistency. And for this I love her.

I have two lenses like this in my bag, and they are the only two lenses I do not worry about scratching. One, they are each less than $60. Two, scratching them would probably just make the better.

The Diana above is a 38mm f/8(-ish) wideangle lens. That's my scener. If I want to go tight, I also have a similarly modded Holga 80mm f/8(-ish) lens.

Note that these are both f/8, and fixed there. There is no f/11, f/16, etc. You just have to shoot at f/8. Think of it as one less thing to decide. Like when the Ford Model T would come in color you wanted -- so long as that color was black.

Long-time readers might remember the Holga 80mm from an On Assignment a few years back. I especially like it as a portrait lens, as in here:

To my liking, both of these lenses need hard light to shine. With soft light, you are just doubling up soft with soft and you can get overly squishy pretty fast.

For Robin, I used a 1/4 CTO'd SB-800 overhead in a LumiQuest Soft Box III. Which at this angle and distance (~4 feet) is trending towards a hard light. A second zoomed SB-800 way off to back camera left rims her and edges some of the trees.

The headshot of author Manil Suri, above, was lit with similarly hard lights. If you like, you can get the full OA on that (and/or where to buy the Holga 80mm, etc.) here.

For those of you who can get past the idea of sticking a piece of crap plastic onto a modern DSLR, it is definitely something worth trying. For $50 or $60, you don't have a lot to lose.

And an understanding how to balance the hard light with the soft glass plastic will help you get the most out of your dirt-cheap new toy.


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Blogger Reatha - Beachcast said...

Awesome shots Clive I love them!

April 05, 2012 2:39 AM  
Blogger imnophotog said...

It's nice to see you using "crappy" lenses for once! I just wanted to add that the smaller the sensor of your camera is, the less vignetting and softness in the image edges you'll get. These lenses were made for medium format film cameras so, due to the crop factor, only the center of the lens is used, which believe it or not is far more "sharp" than its edges!

April 05, 2012 2:51 AM  
Blogger Boaz said...

Sorry for the off-topic post, but I've heard you consider the comments as a form of e-mail :)

Just wanted to let you know that your blog has been an inspiration to me over the past five years and your "Lighting 101/2" series is truly invaluable.
I've made small tribute to that inspiration here:
You've come a long way baby

Thanks David!

As usual - a great post. I'll be sure to add this trick to my arsenal.

April 05, 2012 3:59 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Great post as usual.

I've been experimenting for a while with a Lensbaby which is a bit pricier but does have the advantage of the optic swap system, aperture discs and selective focus sweet spot for pushing the look in this manner.

I've always gone soft light or available and reading this discussion of mixing hard light with soft optics might explain why up to now I have found the results a little frustrating. Easter weekend project sorted I reckon.



April 05, 2012 6:06 AM  
Blogger DaveBulow Photography said...

Very interesting. I've considered trying this myself but never really had time. Plus $60 may be cheap for a lens, but still seems a lot for 'a bit of plastic' or 'a toy' to me. For that reason I've also never gone for a cheap lensbaby. But saying that I can see the appeal.

One question I can't help but ask, is, what's the bubble in centre frame between violinist and tree? Is that another optical quirk of the lens? Not being an expert on lego optics I can't comment, but I can't imagine it's flare since your light source is off camera? I'm intrigued...

April 05, 2012 6:13 AM  
Blogger don said...

Holy Crap... ;) Ive seen so much negative reviews regarding this cheapo lens.. thanks to you.. i have change my opinion regarding the reputation of Diana... It is worth buying one or two or three...

April 05, 2012 6:43 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

Nice. I suppose you could do similar in post with an Orton effect by overlaying a blurred overexposed copy of the image.

April 05, 2012 7:53 AM  
Blogger Tonia Mc Caskill-Johnson said...


What an interesting post. A $60 lens sounds pretty cool. Thanks to reading your post I figured out why the old manual 24mm that's super soft works so well when I blast manual on camera bare flash. Aha! Thank you for helping to clear that up and for sharing something your knowledge.

April 05, 2012 9:09 AM  
Blogger Craig M. said...

Nothing much to say except this is a very cool way to approach hard light-soft light. Hard light-Soft lens. Neat. I could see with an underlying sharp image you could do some subtle selective sharpening too.

April 05, 2012 9:37 AM  
Blogger Rehan Bashir said...

I did not know that you can read minds too :). Recently someone gifted me a Daiana F+ camera with all the lenses and accessories. And I am planning to use the lenses on my Nikon, Now that I have see your blog It's a must to do for me. Thank you

April 05, 2012 10:14 AM  
Blogger John Fowler said...

What works equally well is a simple magnifying glass of ~100mm focal length on a bellows. Mine is about f1, and very soft and romantic for portraits of pretty ladies. I made a "watergouse stop" from a piece of black plastic that results in about f8. Woks a charm with hard (or somewhat soft) light.

April 05, 2012 10:17 AM  
Blogger Simon Fairclough said...

the perfect lens for the D800....

April 05, 2012 10:23 AM  
Blogger Zack Whittington said...

Incredible- the first looks like a painting.

April 05, 2012 11:17 AM  
Blogger Will B. said...

First post in a while I've actually disagreed with strongly.

I feel like the portrait just looks off, and I think ethereal effects are really lacking if the subject is still strongly saturated like this. It looks more like a mistake than an artful choice.

Also I'd like to note that buying this for $60 off Photojojo seems like a ripoff. Should probably just buy a cheapo lens off ebay or Amazon and get an adapter separately.

April 05, 2012 1:37 PM  
Blogger Rebecca G said...

There's a lot to be said for the fact that not every image has to be perfectly sharp and crisp, or needs perfectly buttery Bokeh.

Like an above post, I've no experience with the Diana, but I love my Lensbaby with plastic optic. The best word for it is 'magical'. I pull it out whenever I need something a little 'out of this world', as I did in a recent test shoot: http://studiodgphoto.com/blog/vancouver_wa_photography/201203/battle-ground-wa-alice-in-wonderland-photography/

I never intentionally thought about the fact that the mix of hard light and soft lens is what makes that magic happen, as I tend to use hard light on just about everything anyway. But it makes a lot of sense.

Thanks as always for all your wonderful sharing!


April 05, 2012 3:51 PM  
Blogger Paul Bohman said...

Or just shoot 35mm film with a f1.4 lens wide open. You'll get sharpness where you want it, beautiful bokeh everywhere else, relatively low resolution images (equivalent to 3 to about 12 megapixels depending on scanner and scanning technique), plus all of the benefits of film: beautiful color renditions (I'm partial to Portra 160, but others are great too), great tonality, and wonderful dynamic range. Film with a wide open lens is beautifully painterly, especially when you expose for the shadows (slightly overexposing the highlights).

April 05, 2012 4:03 PM  
Blogger Lazlo said...

This lens would appear to be an utter waste of money. If you want to shoot with a Diana, you can get a original one at eBay. I've owned two, used them and liked them then sold them. The Diana's allure was from the light leaks and the total cheapo package, not just the lens. These lenses are not off original Diana's. The effect is remarkable for being unremarkable. What a waste of money. Many good ideas on this site, this is not one of them.

April 05, 2012 5:45 PM  
Blogger glenn kaupert said...

Holga sells lenses for Nikon/Canon abit cheaper than cutting up a camera. @ about $23.00.


April 05, 2012 8:11 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


It's not an "utter waste of money". It's an inexpensive way to get a completely different look out of a digital body. And try as I might, I can't find out where to get a clean 12MP file out of a Diana camera.


April 05, 2012 11:28 PM  
Blogger MikeScottPhoto said...

I've been thinking about picking up the Holga lens for my D300.. but wondering if the crop sensor using the "sweet spot" of the lens leaves out some of the wonderfullness in the corners that one gets when shooting 6x6cm. I know, for $50 I should just experiment, but with both the Holga and Diana I'm wondering what you see as the benefits of shooting in FX format vs. DX.
Thanks, Mike

April 06, 2012 11:10 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


The second portrait (the one of the man, above) was taken on a crop sensor with a Holga 80, so that info may be of help.


April 06, 2012 11:23 AM  
Blogger BdgBill said...

Great post. I have a Holga but have found the processing of medium format film to be prohibitively expensive here in Canada. As much as I hate to admit it, I also feel somewhat ridiculous toting the Holga around.

I'm not surprised by some of the angry comments here. I have been seeing a lot of the same thing on dicussions about Instagram this week. There seems to be a subset of photographers that are really hung up on technical perfection. Technical perfection is great if your subject is something unbearably beautiful or interesting but if you are trying to make a picture of your Golden Retriever catch anyone's eye, the low-fi look (whether achieved in camera or in post) can be really effective.

April 10, 2012 5:37 PM  

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