A Beginners Guide to Light Modifiers
Regardless of the light source you use (daylight, continuous or flash) it’s really easy to use light modifiers or shapers to train the light in any direction you want.
***A quick note about costs
Every kind of light modifier will have a top of the line version and a really cheap version. The main difference between the options is that the cheaper ones won’t be as durable. This becomes important when you’re using them every single day.
When you’re learning how to use them however, I recommend choosing cheap versions. You’ll figure out how they work and save yourself a lot of money.
I rarely work without some sort of diffusion because using naked flash spreads the light around too much. The result is hard shadows that I personally think look really unflattering.
Nobody is ever going to tell you, “Wow I love the way your hard lighting has captured and enhanced every single pore, line and blemish on my skin. I actually look ten years older. Thanks!”
There are, of course, many really cool uses for hard lighting and some photographers can make it look brilliant. I’m just not one of them. I like to control the light and only illuminate certain areas of my shot.
There are a couple of factors I consider before deciding what kind of light modifier to use:
1. What kind of lighting am I trying to replicate?
As a general rule of thumb if you are in hard light conditions like full sun, then opt for a light modifier that creates hard light like a gridspot, beauty dish, fresnel lens or naked flash.
If the light is soft like early morning, twilight, open shade, or overcast then chose a light modifier that produces soft light such as: a scrim, umbrella or softbox.
2. What kind of mood I’m in
What are the best light modifiers to recreate soft light?
An umbrella creates a quality of light that is soft and abundant, and very forgiving. They are great to use if you want to light a large area with flat even lighting. Because umbrellas are quite easy to use, and relatively cheap, they are great as your first light modifier.
On the downside, umbrellas will over-light your shot spreading lots of light around. Lots of light. Everywhere. Like a hose with its spray nozzle set to “everywhere”.
Bounce umbrella throws light everywhere
Just like I consider eating Nutella straight out of the jar a sometimes food, you should consider using umbrellas as an only use in case of emergency style of lighting. If I overuse either, things tend to get a bit ugly.
Types of umbrella light shapers
- Silver/gold reflective umbrella: These babies throw light everywhere. They are great for lighting large groups of people. The silver umbrella will give you a slightly cooler light, while the gold umbrella creates warmer light. Both produce a slightly harder light than the white reflective umbrella.
- White reflective umbrella: This umbrella creates a soft light with slightly less spread and contrast than the silver or gold reflective umbrellas. Because the style of light created allows people to move around a lot and in a constantly even source of lighting, they are great to use when you are shooting groups and couples under pressure, like for an event.
- White Shoot through umbrella: These are perfect as your first light modifier as they diffuse and spread light quite evenly.
White shoot through umbrella
When my children were young, I taught them how to ride bikes using training wheels. The wheels boosted their confidence more than anything else. After a while, I took the wheels off and they rode on two wheels as if they’d been doing it all their lives.
I think using flash with umbrellas is the same. Use them as a learning tool until you get your balance, then move on to a better bike.
A final note on umbrellas
They are perfect for indoor lighting but become tricky, actually downright dangerous, to use outside. I’ve had countless (expensive) lights blown over using umbrellas! If you must use them then please make sure you have somebody holding them, or sand bags to keep them in place.
After you’ve ditched your umbrella training wheels, the next step is to work with a scrim panel which is a square or rectangular frame with a fabric diffusion material covering it. Of all the light modifiers, a scrim is probably the most versatile and a must have in your kit.
This is a really cool way to create large areas of soft diffused light, as if you were shooting next to a large window, or have light clouds over the sun.
Remember: The larger the light source, the softer the light.
This is a piece of equipment that you can easily make yourself. I used a DYI one for my first 10 years as a photographer and they are great for diffusing flash, continuous light, and sunshine.
Using a softbox
This image of race-car driver, Glauco Junior Solleri, was taken using a speedlight and small Lumiquest Pro softbox. This is a low-cost and versatile modifier that creates a beautiful soft light source that you can easily control. In this instance I only wanted to light Glauco’s face and let the background go to black, If I had used an umbrella (and spray light everywhere) the entire background would also be lit, killing my moody vibe.
If I could only pick one light modifier to take to a deserted island, it would have to be the softbox. Small, medium, or large – this little puppy is my go to light source for 80% of my shoots.
Why? The quality of light is soft, flattering and malleable. Changing the angle and proximity of the softbox to the sitter easily changes the hardness of light, and direction of shadow.
It’s one of the light modifiers that, I feel, recreates the effect of soft daylight through a window. I think what I like most about this light modifier is that it’s subtle. Highlights gently merge to shadows. I think I love this light modifier more than Nutella – there I said it.
I use a few different kinds of softboxes depending on where and what I’m shooting.
If it’s a studio shoot I love using my Chimira Medium softbox with white reflective interior. The white interior creates a softer light and this particular softbox has an extra layer of diffusion on the inside, adding even more softness to the light.
Some photographers remove this interior panel because they like having more contrast of the harder light (because it’s not as diffused as much), but I prefer less contrast. You can also increase the spread and contrast of your light by using silver or gold interior panels.
Shooting using beauty lights
The beauty dish I have is quite a cheap brand, which goes to show you don’t need to shell out a lot of money for every piece of equipment. I like mine because it works with my speedlight, my Elinchrom monolight, and battery flashes.
I like that kind of versatility in equipment because it means I have more options on the day of the shoot, and less to carry around!
The beauty dish differs from other light modifiers because it gives you a distinct circular, soft-contrast light, which is perfect for lighting faces and defining bone structure such as cheek bones and chin lines. They also create a circular catch light in your model’s eyes, which makes the reflection seem quite natural.
You can see why these modifiers are popular with fashion/beauty and celebrity photographers.
The downside of using beauty dishes is that the fall-off, from light to dark, is very rapid so you’ll often get shadows under your model’s chin and nose. You can compensate for the shadows by adding a fill board, like a white reflector, to reflect light up, onto your subject’s face.
Why would you use this over other modifiers?
A beauty dish gives you a certain look. It will just light a small area and flatten out your model’s features. It makes people look great but you need to light your model in quite a specific way, lighting them from above, to really pull it off.
Using a grid spot
A portrait shoot I did with Australian actor Scott McGregor shows lighting without gridspot (left) and with gridspot (right).
The gridspot is a bit of kit you can use in conjunction with a speedlight, monolight, or battery operated flash. The width of the grid and the size of the holes will affect the width of the light beam hitting your subject. This is a hard focused light. I love to use grid spots in the same way I use beauty lights.
Why would you use this over other modifiers?
I like using grid spots because they create a similar light to beauty dishes. The light is a bit harder but they’re perfect for single portraits because you can pop a bit of light onto someone’s face and shoulders without impacting the background mood.
They are also perfect to use outside as they won’t get blown about.
Beauty dish with a gridspot
Fresnel light (lens)
The Fresnel light modifier gives a soft, crisp and very distinct look to my portraits. In this portrait of Australian actor Robbie Magasiva, I’ve placed the Fresnel light slightly to camera right to create a shadow, which I’ve softened by using an umbrella (Sprays soft light everywhere) to increase the amount of daylight fill.
A Fresnel is a light modifier that can be focused. They were first used in lighthouses, then the technology was developed to include continuous lighting for movies and television.
The style of lighting is soft and crisp, reminiscent of 1940s portrait lighting. This style of lighting has become really popular lately, particularly with fashion and editorial photographers. The downside of this type of lighting is you need to hock a kidney to afford one.
Here are two different ways to use the Rotalux deep octabox. The image on the left of actor Firass Dirani is shot using a deep octabox as a beauty dish. The light source is hard and drops off rapidly under his chin to give a hard and contrasty light source, which not only defines and sculpts his features it also gives the image an edgy look.
The image on the right of actor Harley Bonner is shot using the same Rotalux deep octabox as I used with Firass but this time I’ve added the interior and exterior bevel giving a much softer light which blends in with the muted light and low key feel I was going for.
An octabox is what you’d get if a softbox and umbrella got married and had babies. An octabox has soft light, just like its mama the softbox, but spreads its light around more just like his daddy the umbrella.
They are fantastic for lighting large groups evenly. The other advantage some people like is they give round catch lights.
I don’t own an Octabox because I’m not a huge fan but do have a Rotalux deep octabox, which is what you get if a softbox married a beauty dish and made babies. This, as far as I’m concerned is a match made in heaven for lighting single portraits.
Octobox with the front panel in.
Octobox with interior baffle exposed.
Octobox as a beauty dish.
Model credit: Fat Tony and Co., image courtesy Nine Network Australia.
I often mix my lighting modifiers to make my images more interesting. In this television promotional shot I did for Fat Tony and Co., I used a medium deep octabox as my main light and a gridspot as a hair light. I also added an umbrella for fill light to camera left because the deep octabox alone was too moody and I wanted more detail in the shadows.
Do you have a favorite light modifier or do you like working with naked flash? Do you have examples of your favorite images? Please share them in the comments below. I’d love to see them and hear your thoughts.