Custom 5-in-1 Photo Disc

For a few years now I've been using a custom 5-in-1 collapsible photo disc to aid with my macro photography.  This blog includes photos and a description of what that disc is, why I created it, and how I use it to eliminate busy backgrounds, soften harsh sunlight, and get more even light on my macro subjects. I'm sharing this for other macro photographers since, with some material and sewing, anyone could make one of these.

The disc I bought is an Impact 5-in-1 collapsible 32" photo disc, although I believe other companies sell these and I imagine any one is as good as the other.  You can find them at B&H at https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/358607-REG/Impact_R1132_5_in_1_Reflector_Disc.html?utm_source=www.impactstudiolighting.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=R1132 and, as I am writing this in March 2021, B&H lists them for just under $40.

Impact 5-1 32" photo disc in storage bag with my foot for size comparison.

Impact 5-1 32" photo disc in storage bag with my foot for size comparison.

Back in the early 2000s when I had only been photographing nature for a few years, I purchased one of these inexpensive multi-purpose devices after seeing a friend use his.  The way they arrive and are stored is folded up into about a third of the expanded size, and a springy metal ring will quickly pop the disc potion out into full size once removed from the storage bag.  An equally fast twist of the wrist and the thing is easily folded back to the small storage size.  That disc by itself is great if you have harsh direct sunlight on a small subject, since you can place it over the top of the subject and the disc material diffuses that harsh sunlight into a nice even light.  It is like your own personal bright white cloud cover turning harsh point sun light into large area diffused light, and often will give you much more pleasing macro photos just by itself.

Impact 5-1 32" photo disc multi-sided covering folded on top of the actual disc, itself on top of the storage bag.

Impact 5-1 32" photo disc multi-sided covering folded on top of the actual disc, itself on top of the storage bag.

I actually used my disc for a good 15 years in its original configuration.  That included the opaque disc to diffuse light, a silver side on the covering to reflect light, a silver-and-gold side on the covering to get a nice warming effect on reflected sunlight, a black side on the covering which I would only use as a background, and a reflective white side on the covering which isn't as reflective as the silver side and provides more diffused reflective light than the silver side.  I tend to try both the white and the metallic sides below my subjects reflecting light into their shadow areas, and keep whichever photo I prefer.

In case you aren't aware, the covering has a zipper on the edge allowing you to zip it around the actual disc.  You simply flip it inside-out to get the other two sides on the outside (thus 4 sides plus the disc itself for diffused light equals 5-in-1).  When I use the white or metallic sides to reflect light onto a subject, sometimes I have them attached to the disc and other times I will simply lay them on the ground while still folded up immediately below a macro subject.  Either way I position them so they are reflecting the sunlight up into the shadow areas of my subjects.

As I photographed macro subjects through the years, I often found busy backgrounds too near the actual subject to let me use a shallow depth-of-field to pleasingly blur them out into nothingness.  In other words, I kept needing to stop down enough to get my main subject sufficiently sharp, but the negative result of doing that was that I was ending up with busy, unappealing backgrounds.  (The more you stop down, the larger the depth of field and the more detail you can see in the background.)  I would place the black side of my photo disc behind my subjects to help with that , but a constant black background got boring and repetitive.  (If the situation allowed I would also sometimes just set my camera bag behind the subject using the uniform color of it as a background.)  It occurred to me that I didn't need the pure silver or pure black sides of the 5-in-1 disc (mine wasn't identical to the one one they now offer) because the silver-and-gold side was sufficiently similar to the silver side just providing some nice warmer overall reflected light, and the black side was a background I rarely used.

Impact 5-1 32" photo disc expanded showing translucent disc material, with storage bag on top at bottom right and folded up covering underneath at bottom left.

Impact 5-1 32" photo disc expanded showing translucent disc material, with storage bag on top at bottom right and folded up covering underneath at bottom left.

I decided to buy two cans of flat paint in different natural green colors and simply spray paint over the silver and the black side, leaving me with the original reflective white side, the original reflective silver-and-gold side, a darker green side, and a lighter green side.  I would use the white and metallic sides to reflect light onto subjects from below while holding one of the green sides in the background behind my subjects taking the place of the actual busy, unappealing backgrounds.

Unfortunately, even with flat paint, the surfaces still reflected light giving me unattractive uneven hues in my backgrounds when I held the painted sides behind subjects.  Angling the surface to a side or down didn't help.  The only option left was to buy two square yards of uniform green fabric, get those cut to the size of the disc and sewn over the sides I had spray painted.  That's exactly what I did and have been very happy with the result ever since.

Custom Impact 5-1 32" photo disc covering showing the original gold-and-silver side, original reflective white side, my custom dark green fabric side, and my custom light green fabric side, with storage bag on top.

Custom Impact 5-1 32" photo disc covering showing the original gold-and-silver side, original reflective white side, my custom dark green fabric side, and my custom light green fabric side, with storage bag on top.

So how does it work?  Below are a few photographs which show the difference obtained with the disc alone to diffuse light, and the difference among different backgrounds.  I didn't include any photos showing the difference between a naturally lit subject and one with light reflected into the shadows from the white or silver-and-gold sides simply because I don't have those currently, but may shoot some in the future and add those photographs to this blog to show how that reflective light produces more pleasing subjects.

Orchid with 5-in-1 customized photo disc dark green fabric side as background.

Orchid with 5-in-1 customized photo disc dark green fabric side as background.

Orchid with 5-in-1 customized photo disc light green fabric side as background.

Orchid with 5-in-1 customized photo disc light green fabric side as background.

Orchid lit by flash with natural background.

Orchid lit by flash with natural background.

Orchid lit by flash with 5-in-1 customized photo disc dark green fabric side as background.

Orchid lit by flash with 5-in-1 customized photo disc dark green fabric side as background.

Orchid lit by flash with 5-in-1 customized photo disc light green fabric side as background.

Orchid lit by flash with 5-in-1 customized photo disc light green fabric side as background.

Flower lit by direct sunlight.

Flower lit by direct sunlight.

Flower lit by diffused sunlight through 5-in-1 photo disc.

Flower lit by diffused sunlight through 5-in-1 photo disc.

Something worth mentioning is that I will often angle the green backgrounds.  If I angle them up they catch ambient light making them appear lighter in color.  Conversely, if I angle them down they go into shadow and appear darker.  Thus, I am actually able to get a range of greens in my background from only two actual colors.

Since the material is only sewn to the covering around the edges, it sits loose in the middle.  Additionally, since it sits folded up stored for the majority of the time, some lines do form in the fabric.  I try to use my thumb to stretch the fabric out when possible to even out the background and achieve a detail-less smooth background.  Some times the depth of field makes this unnecessary but, other times, it is necessary.  You can see some of the folds in the fabric in the white and yellow lady's slipper orchid photos above.  A raindrop fell on the dark green fabric as well which gave me a dark spot above and to the right of the orchid, although if I didn't tell people what that was, they would probably just assume it was some darker object in the background.

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