Diffusion panels are one of my favorite control devices for many reasons (perhaps it stems from my early training in cinema style lighting). The names for this tool vary from industry to industry within the film and photo worlds: You may know them as scrims, silks or light panels, but they are all basically the same.
Simply put, a diffusion panel is a diffusion sheet attached to some sort of frame, then placed between the subject and the light source. It can be constructed from most anything, from canvas stretchers to PVC piping. In the film industry these come in many sizes and are generally made of aluminum or metal frame with a nylon or silk panel attached, in the old days silk was used, or, I should say, reused from old parachutes, which is why they’ve been called silks. These days synthetic products are generally in (it’s often the same material used in the construction of the front face of soft boxes).
Diffusion panels are certainly available commercially from most of the big-name manufacturers. They are also available in kits with all the accessories you may need to get started.
For those on a budget, creating your own light panel is an option. You can get the supplies for the frame from any art or hardware store. The diffusion material is trickier, although less so with digital photography. The issue is color balance, and what the material does to it. With the ability to customize the white balance of a digital camera, this is less an issue than if you shoot film. An economic choice could be a translucent shower curtain, available at most any home store. These tend toward a warm shift in color balance but can be adjusted in the custom mode on your digital camera. Roscoe makes several color balance products in many widths that you can apply to your homemade frame. This would be a bit more costly but will deliver balance light. Or you can make a frame to match a standard-size replacement screen from a manufacturer. This way you save some money but still get the quality of light you want.
Diffusion panels offer a lot of options that a soft box or umbrella does not because the light source is not fixed into a single position and can be adjusted individually from the panel. This allows you to create a gradation of light across the panel that will translate to the subject. This is especially useful when your subject is highly reflective, such as metal or glass. I use these in portraiture quite often to control fall off and to sculpt the light to the individual with very pleasing results. When you shoot outdoors these panels are very useful in controlling sun light, softening and controlling lighting ratios, allowing you to get both detail in the highlights and shadows.
If you have not worked with a light panel in the past, I highly recommend that you take a look at adding this tool to you lighting kit. As mentioned, you won’t need spend a ton and can create one or several on you own.
As always I welcome your questions and comments.
All the best,