Using Scrims and Flags for Portraits

Using Scrims and Flags for Portraits

There are countless ways to modify light sources to achieve the exact image you want to create. While softboxes, umbrellas, and beauty dishes (deservedly) get much love from portrait photographers, they are far from the only means of adjusting and shaping light. Scrims and flags are as uncomplicated as they are useful when you need to adjust or transform your light source when making portraits. Whether working in-studio or outdoors, these tools can elevate your images while often taking little time to set up.

What Are Scrims and Flags?

A scrim is a material placed between your light source and your subject that either reduces light or diffuses (and reduces) light. They come in many shapes, sizes, and constructions depending upon their intended usage, and it is not uncommon for photographers to create their own using their preferred diffusion materials. Scrims may have a solid frame or an open-end construction. Open-end scrims are designed to “feather” their effect to avoid harsh, noticeable falloff at the edge of the frame. Conversely, while scrims are used to transform light, flags are opaque and block light entirely.

A double black net scrim mounted to a grip arm on a C-stand.
A double black net scrim mounted to a grip arm on a C-stand.

Decrease Light

The material you choose for a scrim will depend on whether your goal is to simply reduce the intensity of a light source or diffuse it as well. Wire scrims (also known as nets) will reduce light by a predetermined number of stops depending upon the density of their meshing while leaving the overall character of the light unaffected. A hard light source will remain hard, but its impact will decrease when a scrim is applied. Wire scrims are most often used with sources that do not have variable output, such as large HMIs—or, in the examples that follow, the sun.

Translum diffusion secured to a scrim frame.
Translum diffusion secured to a scrim frame.

Diffuse Light

Scrims designed to diffuse light use translucent material to transform hard light into a soft source. When constructed of woven fabric, they are often referred to as silks. While there are many pre-designed options available, you can further open up creative possibilities by purchasing an open frame and securing your favorite diffusion material inside of it. For the example below, translum was used as the diffusion material.

Note: In the photos below, observe the difference between unobstructed sunlight (lefthand image), a double black net scrim (top right image), and translum diffusion (bottom right image). Exposure was kept the same in each image to compare the effect of each material. The scrim cut light while maintaining contrast in the image. The translum diffusion cut the light and produced a much more muted effect on the overall lighting of the image.

Unmodified sunlight (left), double black net scrim (top right), and translum diffusion (bottom right). Exposure settings were held constant for illustrative purposes.

Block Light

Flags are used to block light from reaching certain areas of an image. They can also serve as a means of adding negative fill, soaking up light instead of allowing it to bounce back onto a subject. Flags are usually made of thick, light-absorbing fabric like felt. Black foam core or any other opaque, black material can achieve a similar effect. In the images below, black foam core was used to block a key light from illuminating a black background. Since flags can be made in any size or shape, they can provide extremely precise effects that you would be unable to achieve with barndoors, grids, or other lighting accessories.

Black foam core used as a flag to keep the background dark. Setup (left) no flag (top right) flag (bottom right). Note the lighting of the background behind the model.

Securing Your Scrim

Most small scrim frames are designed with a pin that easily mounts onto a grip head so you can position it wherever you need. Models created for handheld use can be mounted to booms for even more precise placement. These are especially useful when working on location outdoors. Another option when working outdoors or in a large studio is a butterfly scrim. These are much larger and supported using two light stands. When working outside, make sure that you firmly secure your scrim and weigh down your stands, because even a little bit of wind can wreak havoc on sloppy rigs.

Smaller scrims can be mounted on grip arms.
Smaller scrims can be mounted on grip arms.

Where to Start

One of the best ways to appreciate the myriad ways that scrims and flags can be used is through a kit such as Impact’s PortaFrame Scrim Flag Kit. This will allow you to directly compare the effect of different materials. If you are more interested in creating your own custom effect, grab a frame and try out different materials. For even more creative applications, scrim frames can be used with gels to alter the color of your light source.

Impact’s PortaFrame Scrim Flag Kit contains a variety of materials to get you started.
Impact’s PortaFrame Scrim Flag Kit contains a variety of materials to get you started.

Don’t be afraid to look beyond photo-oriented materials. Anything can be used, so long as it produces the look you are going for. Get creative with your modifiers and have fun.

Do you use scrims and flags in your photography? Have a favorite material? Share your thoughts in the Comments section, below!


Photographer: Cory Rice
Assist/Grip: Robert Sansivero
Behind-the-Scenes: John Harris
Model: Luz Lopez


Thanks for these pointers Cory, I have just began using my new D750 and this has given me some ideas, Andy

Hi Andrew-- I'm glad you found the article helpful. Good luck!