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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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