11 genius DIY lighting hacks

Seth Miranda will present a session on creative lighting at Imaging USA 2020.
© Seth Miranda
Seth Miranda will present a session on creative lighting at Imaging USA 2020.

From the early days of his career as a teenager shooting for BMX magazines to his current work photographing beauty, makeup, and special effects imagery, Seth Miranda has sought to sculpt light with whatever materials he had at his disposal. That could mean using a full studio setup worth thousands of dollars or pulling items out of the trash on the streets of New York. To Miranda, there’s no real distinction, so long as he’s able to create the intended effect. 

“No matter how much gear you have, in the end it’s up to you to make things happen,” he says. “All light is predictable, and as long as you understand it, you can make it work. Really, it’s just a matter of looking around you for things that reflect light, things that absorb light, and things that change the size or shape of light. If you understand that and you stick to your core principles for using light, then you can do great things no matter where you are.”

Don’t be hemmed in by “accepted” practices, urges Miranda. It’s not the properties of the modifier that matter; it’s the properties of your use of the modifier.

You can’t carry everything you’ll ever need in your gear bag. So when your creative vision extends beyond what’s in your bag, look around for everyday items that can be turned into creative light modifiers. And if you have gear that’s seen better days or not giving you what you want, modify the modifier. Once an old modifier is done, it’s done, so you might as well have fun with it.

© Natalee Martinez

Equipment limitations don’t have to limit your creativity, says Miranda. “If you don’t have it, invent it with what you have and adapt it to your methodology. Everything in photography was an invention at some point. So use your imagination and create what you need. As a photographer you have all the control in your hands. Don’t worry about the way other people are doing things. Just worry about creating something that speaks to you. Your next image could be something that lasts forever, something that defines you, and it could all begin with something you pull out of the garbage.”  


When you can’t find what you need around you, look on you. The inside of a black hoody absorbs light like a velvet backdrop. If you’re wearing a white T-shirt, you can point a flash at yourself and reflect light off your shirt back onto the subject.


If you’re shooting with an umbrella and light is spilling everywhere, close it for a much smaller, focused source, or move the rod closer to the light source. If the umbrella light is too harsh, hang a white sheet between the model and the light source so that light comes out of the umbrella, covers as much of the sheet as possible, then shines through sheet as a large, diffused light source. Do you have a silver umbrella that’s in disrepair? Grab some matte silver material to put it in the umbrella rather than the standard chrome material. This creates a completely different quality of light. Or spray paint it for something totally different. If your umbrella is really falling apart, poke it full of holes. Every time you move the rod back and forth, the light pattern will change. If you put colored tissue paper in those holes, colored light will come through in patterns. Finally, flick some food coloring or dye on an old shoot-through umbrella. The speckled umbrella gives a colored effect to the light.

© Natalee Martinez


Open it up, put a flash inside, and leave the lid cracked open. Wrap tissue paper around the edge for a makeshift diffuser. Or use the pizza box as a reflector. Fold it backward and use the large, white surface to reflect light back on the subject. You can add aluminum foil for another type of reflector, using the pizza box to provide some structure to the foil.


Sheets of aluminum foil make easy silver reflectors, and you can play with the asmooth or crinkling them up.


Blow up the balloon, put it in a white plastic shopping bag, and tie the handles around the head of the flash so you can fire the light through it. Your little 2-inch speedlight becomes a big, spherical light source with a softer quality.

© Natalee Martinez


These lightweight blankets used by first responders cost about $1 and fold down super small. Place one on the floor and have your subject sit on it. Then fire your flash through the balloon technique mentioned above, and the light will reflect up for a pleasing portrait light.


Grab some fluorescent poster board and use it as a reflector. The reflected light will fill in shadows with the color of the paper, adding another colorful dimension.


Take some white tissue paper—from a gift bag, for example. Unwrap it, and make it as flat as possible, then fire your flash through it. The flash becomes a 2-foot-square modified light source. If you use colored tissue paper, the light will take on the color of the paper. You can use this for a background light to add color to your composition or shine it directly on your subject to wash them with color. You can also hang tissue paper inside a window to diffuse and soften natural light.

© Natalee Martinez


Take the front diffusion off an old soft box and staple it to a window to diffuse the natural light and create a really soft light source. It’s the same idea as using tissue paper, just more consistent. You could also glue a light-absorbing material (black vinyl, duvetyn, Cinefoil, or black foam core) to the middle of the soft box so only the edges expel light. This creates a halo effect around the subject. Or attach Cinefoil to the front of the soft box to totally block the light and then shred it. Light leaks out of the cracks for a patterned look. Try it with a larger box and point it at the background for interesting shards of light.


You don’t always have to shoot light through or off something. Think about alternative forms of light that can add a different quality

to photographs. For example, you can turn on an old TV behind your subject and mix the light with a strobe for some weird color combinations. Or tune the TV to a particular  color and use that as your background light.


Let’s say you have one light and a big octabox. Make it smaller with construction paper and experiment with a smaller light source. Or bounce it off a wall for an even bigger light source.  

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.