Cheap, Soft, 360-Degree Light

I was up in New York recently, and saw a video production unit filming in the lobby of my hotel. They were using cheap paper lanterns as light modifiers for their point-source continuous lights. Very cool thinking, IMO.

They are so cheap as to be nearly disposable, and take a point light and turn it into a 360-degree soft box. Adapting this idea to speedlights would be a piece of cake, too...

Prep Your Flash First

You'll need to get your speedlight into bare bulb mode first, because you want that light radiating in all directions to get the benefit.

But the beauty of this is that because everything is so light you can do it without a stand or boom. You can easily use this as a soft, wide, overhead light by using a small piece of cord to suspend a slaved (or PW'd, etc.) speedlight from an overhead fixture.

By using a tiny A-clamp (or piece of tape) you could suspend the flash right down into the lantern, and have everything in turn suspended by the cord that is holding up the flash.

My friend Drew Gardner uses a much more expensive commercial version of this kind of light, and tells me that to make them really useful, you'll want to have a "skirt" at your disposal. This can gobo the light in any direction right at the source. Two dollars worth of black, rip-stop nylon cut to shape ought to fit the bill nicely.

Where to Get Them

I know the lanterns are available very cheaply at Ikea. But you can also get them for next to nothing online, here. Bear in mind that the "natural" colored lanterns (as opposed to white) are going to warm the daylight balance of your flash some -- at least a 1/4 CTO equivalent.

But that could be a good thing for shooting people. My guess is that even the white ones will warm it up a tad, too.

Is anyone already using these things? If so, how's it working out for ya? What about Euro sources? Hit us in the comments.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yet another "why didn't I think of that" moment - a DIYer's dream!

December 08, 2008 12:26 AM  
Anonymous TiMpWeB said...

wow.... cool idea... i once taped a large white paper bag over an sb-600 with a sto-fen diffuser on it.... but this seems like a more elegant albeit 70's solution. lol. excellent find.

December 08, 2008 12:47 AM  
Blogger Ramstech said...

I've seen plenty of these paper lanterns in London.

Just try the usual shopping centres or high streets in central London.

Quite a few Asian shops will stock them but you may have to hunt around a bit to find plain ones with no writing/designs.

I'm sure I've seen these on my recent trip to IKEA as well but checking their UK website produced no results.


December 08, 2008 12:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In Europe you can buy them at IKEA too. Works great.

December 08, 2008 12:56 AM  
Anonymous Michael Stuart said...

I've been using these for awhile now, and they work pretty well. I often modify them slightly - I spray paint the back half of the globe (the portion where the strobe fits in) black or silver, so I create a half-round type softbox and minimize the light I lose out the back.

December 08, 2008 1:03 AM  
Blogger Shanti said...

Hahaha, didn't think of using paper lanterns and I'm Japanese.

December 08, 2008 1:18 AM  
Blogger David Griffin said...

Ok. DH I've seen em in use. Hot item. Update your post. The 6 inchers are great for simple on camera fill replacement diffusers. The 12 inchers are a lot better. the sweet spot for studio replacement tricks are in the 22 inchers and up. just wrap the sides in foil or mylar and you can make the worlds best beauty dish! How does studiolighting.nets Prince of Cheap know this?... I've done it!

December 08, 2008 1:19 AM  
Anonymous Zack Zoll said...

I've used a red paper lantern for an effect before. Odd that I wouldn't think to use a white one. I guess I'm just so ingrained with 'softbox or umbrella' as the only diffusers to stick in front of the flash.

This would be especially useful for even lighting for interiors or settings (such as a dinner table), as the spherical shape will cover more area than a couple flat softboxes while still looking more realistic in many cases.

For the price, I'd almost be an idiot not to buy a handful. Thanks for the idea! Great as always!

December 08, 2008 1:29 AM  
Blogger Chad S said...

Yeah, I've used the lanterns.. They work great. I use off camera flash with colored filters to illuminate in colors. Here's a link to one in use:

and using one out of frame:

Make sure to cover the lanterns in rain as they will rip pretty easily.

IKEA is where I bought mine, they have several sizes and sometimes colors.


December 08, 2008 1:54 AM  
Anonymous JCamilo said...

I bought 3 of this things 9 months ago in Ikea...! They where about 2,50euros each, so no one can complain about it's price! I´ve thought in using them as light modifiers since i bought them! The energy saving lamps are a little smaller than a SB-800, but still I think the size difference doesn't change the light in a significant way!

They're very light, and you can say they are portable (the size of an 107cm foldable reflector once it's in the smaller size it can get!).

I haven't tried it out in small strobes because I haven't needed it so far...!
But they're always hanging on the ceiling if I want to use them!

December 08, 2008 1:57 AM  
Blogger scott_kryptfilms said...

I don't know why I never thought of this before- I use them all the time for video shoots - especially when (in this case) you blow the whole budget on renting the RED camera and you still need good looking light:

(all the studio scenes are lit with a china ball)

how would you suggest mounting them more toward the center? I know I hang bulbs in there - but those are a few dollars, not a few hundred dollars - haha!

December 08, 2008 2:03 AM  
Anonymous marco Iraola said...

this is so awesome, new things are always popping, can you post more pics up in flickr on how to set them up with a speedlight. Keep up the awesomeness.

December 08, 2008 2:41 AM  
Blogger Mattias said...

Nice! Good work spotting it. The first word that comes into my head is: Doh! Could make som pretty cool light at a very low cost. By the way,in sweden they are avalible at IKEA and almost any store that sells lamps and are called rice-lamps.


December 08, 2008 2:49 AM  
Blogger Joe Dolen said...

That's a pretty cool idea! Has anyone used these yet, and do they have any examples to show?

December 08, 2008 3:01 AM  
Anonymous dreadboy said...

these two shots were lit that way with an old canon 177a

December 08, 2008 3:03 AM  
Anonymous Sybren said...

This looks like a great idea, thanks David. I'll have to get me one (or two) of those!

About Euro sources: IKEA is European, so that's one big source for you right there. I've also seen these at DIY stores like Gamma or Karwei some times, and I'm sure they are sold in other places in The Netherlands (which is where I live).


December 08, 2008 3:21 AM  
Blogger Christopher Arata said...

I use these all the time, although mostly for cinematography. Here are some tips. Put a piece of diffusion at the bottom of the lantern to completely seal it, just cut out a little square of 251 or opal should work nicely. Skirting these at first sound's simple but can become a pain. I suggest that you get a solid black flag, and use some wire to attach the china ball to the flag. That way you have a topper & four sides that you can attach duvetyne to to additionally control the light. These are also great holders,

December 08, 2008 3:24 AM  
Blogger i.n.galbraith said...

that's definitely something i've thought about, but never put into practice. it surely looks too cool not to try.

December 08, 2008 3:24 AM  
Anonymous burn said...

You can get these things in every IKEA store!

December 08, 2008 3:31 AM  
Anonymous Daniel S said...

Good idea!

As for a Euro source, what about IKEA? could it be more Euro?

/A Swede name Dan

December 08, 2008 3:43 AM  
Anonymous tony said...

Brilliant. I don't know about Europe, but here in Japan you could probably pick-up one of those lightshades at a 100 yen shop. They look kind of oriental too.

December 08, 2008 4:03 AM  
Blogger Ruwan Randeniya said...

Thats a brilliant idea. Well done in spotting this and sharing it with the rest of us. On a side note I have been looking for these lanterns for about 3 months now and the link to the store that carries it is an added bonus for me so thanks for that too.

December 08, 2008 4:05 AM  
Anonymous Catalin Olteanu said...

I've used the Ikea paper lanterns too.
They work pretty nicely and they fold flat, which is always a plus.

December 08, 2008 4:07 AM  
Anonymous Tommy said...

Link to IKEA

December 08, 2008 4:25 AM  
Anonymous Norbert Bosman said...

I already use them and they work fine. The Euro-source I get them from is Ikea (I guess that would also be a US-source). They sell those things for € 4,=.
It works great for group shots because people start smiling automatically when they see the setup.

December 08, 2008 4:30 AM  
Anonymous hfng said...

And to light up an entire park I am going to stick my flash inside a hot air balloon.

December 08, 2008 4:50 AM  
Anonymous Charles Verghese said...

Hey David,

Thanks for sharing...great idea as usual. I was gonna say IKEA...but later read the entire post!

Seeing this makes me wonder if I am alive or sleeping my life away as a photographer. I need to open my eyes to DIY ops....

Hey this is my 2nd post in less than 12 hours!

December 08, 2008 4:53 AM  
Anonymous Quoc Huy said...

It's crazy!
I've exactly the same paper lantern to soften the light bulb on the ceiling above my bed and have never thought of using it for my flash!

If you need colored ones, try the China Town especially around September/October, period for the Mid-Autumn chinese/vietnamese festival.

December 08, 2008 5:40 AM  
Anonymous Bif said...

I plan to experiment with this idea, but especially with printed lanterns to make interesting patterns in the light- built-in cookies! Use a skirted, printed lantern as fill, and pop a key light on the other side, et voila! Thanks for the great idea!

December 08, 2008 6:07 AM  
Blogger tjeerd said...

For the dutch strobists out there interested in this:

December 08, 2008 6:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ikea does have those at the moment.
They call it "regolit" in the lamp section.

December 08, 2008 6:32 AM  
Anonymous Steve said...

Not 360 degree light...4 pi steradian light.

Solid angle baby!

December 08, 2008 6:42 AM  
Anonymous Norbert said...

Oh, yeah! I once was visiting some friends and they had a big one like that. I thought "Hey, I wanna have a material like it to diffuse my light in some DIY stuff!" And then I asked one friend to hold my SB-600 inside aimed forward and another friend to pose in front of it. It worked great. I'm gonna post it later this evening on flickr: norbid76.

And they are indeed available in Ikea stores around here, in Europe.

I just failed to share the thought with everybody -I thought that everyone can think of that...!

Greetings for all Strobistoholics! :-)

December 08, 2008 6:49 AM  
Blogger Tuffer said...

I did something similar with one of those exercise balls (semi-opaque white). You can put the strobe right up against it to get more light to emit, but it even works if you have the strobe a foot away and just pointed at the ball (though you lose light emitting from the ball and get some spill which is good or bad). Of course it eats much more light then the latern.

Here are some pics where I used it as light for the photo and as an element in the photo:

I had the strobe set down at 1/16 for the effect I wanted, but you could easily pump up the strobe if you wanted brighter lighting to use it out of frame.

December 08, 2008 7:55 AM  
Blogger Matthew G. Monroe said...

People have been using "China Balls" in the film and video production world for at least the past twenty years. In fact, they went through a real trendy period in during the mid-90's, and it all kinda' reached the point of obnoxiousness when clients wanted everything (and I do mean EVERYTHING) lit with paper lanterns.

Nowadays, there's a very cool alternative that can be used to light up a huge area with a big diffused source, though it is a bit of an expensive alternative: giant floating helium balloon lights. I have yet to see a DIY version of the balloon lights, though I'm sure that one could be cobbled together fairly easily.


December 08, 2008 8:09 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

Even cheaper and more portable is to use white plastic garbage bags. I keep them in my bag and back pocket to protect my gear if it suddenly rains (I'm in Florida). You can hold them open with twigs, coat hangers or ballons - lots of things. You can also cut them open and clamp them across the face of an umbrella, doorway, window or hang them on a shelf with the flash behind for an instant softbox.

I highly recommend you grab a box from the supermarket before your fellow strobists get there. Can't wait to see if Glad becomes a new sponsor for David.

December 08, 2008 8:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great tip again, but I thought this blog was gonna move towards a more professional approach to photography?

December 08, 2008 8:57 AM  
Blogger Rsplatpc said...

am I the only one seeing one of these going up in flames? :-O


December 08, 2008 9:19 AM  
Blogger misty mac said...

adding to what bif said, i wonder how well these things will work to make interesting background patterns.... you could draw your own patterns on them with black markers. oooooh, the possibilites are endless!! as always, thanks so much for the tip. this site ROCKS.

December 08, 2008 10:15 AM  
Blogger Rich Gensheimer said...

We've used these forever in film/video production. They are a feature film staple. You cand find them, along with various mounting accessories at

December 08, 2008 10:59 AM  
Blogger Mister Christian said...

I've used paper lanterns before for various lighting needs, and they are rather fragile... They make outdoor nylon versions, would they work as well I wonder?

December 08, 2008 11:01 AM  
Blogger Ernie Rice said...

I've put a strobe in a red one for an oriental themed shoot before but never thought of using white ones as a softbox.

December 08, 2008 11:34 AM  
Anonymous Michael Asgian said...

I wonder if these will fold flat. That's a very important aspect of using them. I'm gonna pay a visit to Ikea today.

December 08, 2008 11:58 AM  
Blogger Ian McDonnell said...

Yep, this is an old videographer's trick, and I've used it for that several times in the past - great for lighting locations like small bars of coffee shops. Although with photography, I've always just used a shoot through umbrella to get light bouncing around.

December 08, 2008 11:59 AM  
Anonymous Scott C said...

I remember watching the DVD commentary track of Sidewalks of New York and Edward Burns explaining how he used these to light all of his interior shots.

December 08, 2008 12:10 PM  
Blogger dustin said...

in film school we had a bunch of these at our disposal and we did use them quite a bit. I think we used them a ton on a dimmer switch for low light scenes in room/interiors.

December 08, 2008 12:39 PM  
Anonymous Dano said...

Regarding the balloon idea... you can buy cheap 5' white balloons at party supply stores, they want to call them weather balloons. Put your strobe inside (with attached PW remote) use 3 reels of spiderwire (black strong fishing wire -- WalMart 5 bucks each)tie the spider wire off in differing directions. The three wires hold the balloon in space and time, assuming the wind isn't blowing.
voila' an impossible top light!

December 08, 2008 1:12 PM  
Blogger Fraclife said...

A word of warning to those using hot lights with these paper lanterns. I hear they can catch on fire very easily, so be careful!!!!

December 08, 2008 1:29 PM  
Blogger mtreinik said...

I have used rice paper lanterns with flashes, both the spherical kind and the tall cylinders (cheap strip light, anyone?).

An important feature that probably concerns many strobists is that these lanterns indeed fold flat and weight next to nothing.

December 08, 2008 1:52 PM  
Blogger Crayola Boy said...

I discovered this trick a while ago and posted it in the Strobist pool, but not many people took notice. I should have taken a better photo I guess.

December 08, 2008 2:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've thought of this before, but didn't think it would work. Check this out:
Imagine what one could do with one of these.

December 08, 2008 3:07 PM  
Anonymous jussi said...

At least this once i have to say! Ive thought of this before the post and have most of the stuff ready.


December 08, 2008 4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

£1.99 from B&Q in UK :-

December 08, 2008 7:31 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Zizzo said...

I recently was on set of a reality tv show shooting photos and used these as my light source because the video guys were too using these as lights!

- Jonathan Zizzo

December 08, 2008 8:17 PM  
Blogger Alex DiFiori said...

gotta love cheap and awesome.

I haven't had much use for a 360 flash head, but this for sure is getting the creative wheels spinning.

Imagine this with an SB800 in RPT mode in a crowded room!

December 08, 2008 9:01 PM  
Blogger Darren Whitley said...

I shot an outdoor dance once with an inflated white trashbag. It worked fairly well, but I must have looked really silly.

December 08, 2008 9:15 PM  
Blogger hughesphoto said...

I have been thinking about hot lights a lot lately. I used them in college and they get nuclear etc... I was thinking about adjusting the white balance on my camera and starting to use florescence, even the camper roadside hand held variety.

Lanterns, flashlights, Q beam anything that glows or emits continuous light, the trick to make sure they are all the same color temperature. This means you could use LED, halogens, fluorescents etc... And just color correct via white balance in camera and Photoshop.

Depending on the subject matter, some of these effects may be really cool. Distance to subject would control luminosity or if the light has some incremental settings etc... I am sure the DIY guys could have some fun, plus think of all the attachments and stuff you could shoot with or through.

Most of all they won’t melt, your fingers, subject or your studio.

Here is my general contact in case anyone wants to try some of these aforementioned ideas and keep in touch!

December 09, 2008 10:46 AM  
Anonymous glenn kaupert said...

another thought: 283 & peanut slave w/Home Depot plastic globe

December 09, 2008 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chimera has done a poor job of telling the world.

December 09, 2008 11:42 AM  
Blogger Noah Hayes said...

As said above, be careful using the paper ones with hot continuous lights (or be prepared to get the 'talk' from the local firemarshall). Most video productions would use non-paper alternatives like Chimera makes. Paper works great for flashes though!

December 09, 2008 2:52 PM  
Anonymous Nasir Hamid said...

The funny thing is I already have these lamp shades hanging around my house and have thought about using them with strobes for the longest time but mounting a strobe up in there securely is what's always stopped me.

Please can someone post some pics of how they've done it? I can't see how it can be done securely. The wire inside is really thin.


December 09, 2008 5:05 PM  
Blogger Luna Dulce (Sweet Moon) said...

Fantastic Idea...

December 09, 2008 5:18 PM  
Anonymous Michael Warf said...

Any readers out there with more samples lit this way? I'd like to know more!

December 10, 2008 8:49 AM  
Anonymous Graham said...

Grabbed one of these on my last visit to Ikea - they really should have a dedicated Strobist department in there!

December 10, 2008 12:25 PM  
Anonymous Trent said...

I got mine at "Man Lee Foods" in Terminal Park shopping centre, Nanaimo, BC, Canada

Here is my first test of event lighting with them. They suck up way too much light for this use, IMHO. I was pushing F2.8 @ 640iso. For portraits, or with pack&heads they'd likely be good though.

December 10, 2008 2:43 PM  
Blogger jimmyd said...

Not to rain on this Chinese lantern parade but to everyone who is smacking their heads, saying, "I could'a had a V-8!" Strike that. I meant to say, "Why didn't I think of that?" using Chinese lanterns as soft, wrap-around, light sources--whether the overpriced pro versions (like those from Chimera) or the simple, paper, old-school, retail versions--has been around for a very long time.

December 10, 2008 3:05 PM  
Anonymous Madelien said...

I just saw these in a documentary about Britney Spears (don't ask) during one of her high-end video shoots. So this is not quite so DIY as one might think. They seemed to hang the lanterns in front of the lights though, rather than over them. I wonder if continuous light isn't in general too hit to use these kind of diffusors.

December 10, 2008 5:10 PM  
Blogger allanandr3w said...

very nice DIY

December 10, 2008 10:12 PM  
Blogger Sean McCormick said...

On the DIY front, one thing I'm doing that I haven't seen mentioned here is "DIY variable intensity neutral density filters".

I'm a cheap bastard and I'm using a tonne of old flashes off of eBay, many of which only have a single power setting. I've been altering the power by cutting my daughter's old black nylons that she has ripped holes in into chunks.

If you put a piece of black nylon over the end of a flash and secure it with a rubber band, you've got an impromptu ND filter. How much light it blocks depends on how much you stretch it.

Worth noting -- don't do this on a really powerful flash unless you like the smell of burning nylon. This is a nice trick for someone who wants to ratchet a Vivitar 285HV from 1/16 power to 1/128 power, though.


Sean M.

December 11, 2008 10:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the idea a lot, I would just be wary of how "white" the white lanterns are, and if different types are closer to the right colour temp than others. I guess you can fix that with white balance, but that's a pain if it can be avoided.

December 12, 2008 4:19 PM  
Blogger MengZ said...

they actually use this technique in film too.

i saw it in the making of Shoo Em Up.
the scene where clive owen walk with monica belluci on the street.

i plan to use this technique for my college video assignment.

December 16, 2008 2:34 AM  
Anonymous Chad S said...

Use em all the time in TV production. If you get them from ikea there is a piece of paper inside the package with some print on it. Use that to cover the hole in the bottom of the globe to soften out the hot spot.
We usually put 500w tungsten bulbs in them. I was on set for a feature shot on a friends RED recently where most of the scene was lit this way.

December 18, 2008 4:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These paper laterns are also available in a wide range of sizes at "World Market" stores and I've seen them at Pier I as well.

December 18, 2008 9:53 PM  
Anonymous Shannon Field said...

This made me smile, I have those paper lanterns in my apartment and have thought of using them, and another paper lamp fixture for strobist purposes. Great to see I'm not the only one.

December 24, 2008 7:07 PM  

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