Markus Rothkranz, a German-American self-help vegan Guro and photographer recently posted an interesting video demonstrating a couple of ways to soften a bright outdoor background without filters, extra lighting, and relatively low cost.
When shooting against strong light (typically daylight) you can use ND filters which is quite a common way to reduce the amount of light while still be able to shoot wide open and blur the background or if you want to bring your subject to the same level as the background you can use lights (but to get to the same level of light you might need a LOT of output which can be difficult for your talent to work with).
If you don’t want any of these methods Rothkranz decided to try a few other methods. For indoor shots where you have a large window in the background, one common technique is to place an ND film not on your lens but on the window. This seems to work well but it isn’t cheap (see some examples of ND films on B&H) and isn’t really a good idea for outdoor use as it can reflect light and can make noise in the wind.
Next Rothkranz tests mesh screen net door and while it sort of works it can create moiré patterns (especially if you use more than one layer when you want to increase the effect), Using a long telephoto lens (say 200mm or more) can help but it is not an ideal solution.
The last option tested by Rothkranz seems to be the most effective (at least outdoors) and that is using stretched black Chiffon fabric on the same screen net door (after removing the net). This seems to work without and ugly moiré but one thing to keep in mind is how thick you want the Chiffon to be – the thicker the fabric the more light-blocking power it has (size is also a consideration and this will probably only work for a stationary or semi-stationary type of shoot). You can check out Amazon and try and find a black Chiffon fabric that works for you – if you did – let us know in the comments.
If you are already buying Chiffon also consider the fact that you can use it on your lens as well if you want that softer look (it has been used in Hollywood and even more so by Indie filmmakers for decades for this purpose).
You can check out more of the videos from our photography gear guides section here on LensVid.