Wildflower Photography: Flash Fill vs. Diffuser

What is the best way to photograph wildflowers; in the sun or in the shade? There are of course a variety of answers and i think it depends on how you frame the flowers in your viewfinder. The sun does not always create flattering light for wildflowers often adding to much contrast.

A large landscape showing a field of wildflowers benefits from the sun as it skim across the scene. But if you shoot macro, your flowers are up close and all the nuances of the light are obvious. If there is to much contrast its right there, in your face.

We all have our preferences and mine is soft light, even overcast conditions for photographing flowers up close. But recently while in Arizona searching for blooming cactus, I had what makes Arizona wonderful in other ways: great weather and warm days. But the light on the blooming Hedgehog Cactus was harsh.

Normally i use flash fill in these conditions and when shooting nature subjects that can benefit from lightening of the shadows, but I also wanted to try a diffuser . Problem is I did not have one. Checking in at B&H I found the Creative Light 38″ disc diffuser ON SALE FOR $15.60 so not wanting to miss out on that price, I order one shipped and had it in a few days, just in time for the cactus blooms.

So I thought it would be good to see how these two approaches compare and determine if I made a good decision.

The first challenge is to find the best blooming cactus and then choose a strategy to for that scene. If you have a grand scene showing more than the cactus like this image, you cant use the diffuser because it will only cover part of the scene like the cactus in the foreground here and that’s not much use.

No flash

Here the flowers and cactus have to much contrast to show off the flowers. (You can process the file with contrast reducing techniques, but this posts is about lighting.) Flash was the only option so I pulled out the flash and my favorite tool for the flash: the Rogue Flashbender. This does a great job of softening the light and it is flexible so you can bend into shape and it rolls up nicely.

The picture left shows the Flashbender, how to position it for flash fill in the middle, and the diffuser is right. Below shows flash fill.
Here the use of flash works better in lightening the shadows throughout the cactus and the flowers show better than in the no-flash version. (By the way I did clone out the Ocotillo branch on the right corner using Content Aware Fill.)
For the flower closeups you have more options. The sun, the flash, or the diffuser because you have a smaller field of view.

Full sun

This is the full sun with no additional light added. Flowers are pretty but there is a bit of contrast which can be viewed as distracting.

Flash Fill

The above shows the addition of flash as a fill light and it lightened the shadows nicely. In this case as well, the flash is next to the camera so it does not create additional shadows as it would if it was off to the side.


The addition of the diffuser created almost shadowless light and a much lower contrast. The density of the background is the same in all three pictures, but here the lower contrast light makes the flowers brighter but also at the expense of the contrast in the flower petals because there is no shadows separating each petal.
The question to ask yourself is what is your preference? Lower contrast or higher contrast? I personally like the shadowless light of the diffuser for the overall scene but I like the contrast that the sun had within the flowers. So I composited the two to see how that would work.

Sun and diffuser composite

This shows the two after overlaying and blending the best of the exposures.
So which is better: natural sun, flash fill, or diffused sunlight?
If you have anything to add please leave a comment.
Books on flash photography: