Modifying the sources of light around us is the primary job of all photographers. It doesn’t matter if you’re a daylight-only shooter or prefer a complicated, multi-light setup, it’s all about lighting your subjects and scene exactly as you want them. In this regard, there are loads of kits and light modifiers on the market which can shape and modify sources of light to produce different effects.
Each light modifier has its pros and cons. Some work better in certain situations above others. In this article, we will go through the broad categories of light modifiers, some examples, and their pros and cons. Experimentation is always an idea when playing with light modifiers, but there are also some basic guidelines for the type of light they produce. Soft light, hard light, directional light, the list goes on.
Which Light Modifier to Use
Before going down the road of explaining each type of light modifier, it’s good to think about the type of lighting situation you wish to create. There are some general guidelines for which modifiers work best for any given situation.
For very sunny conditions a beauty dish, grid spot, or even bare speedlight can work. For overcast skies or soft light, a softbox, scrim or shoot-through umbrella can do the trick. I usually have a few example images in my head of how I want the images to turn out before I set up. Those ‘wow’ images which have fantastic lighting, I often already know the setup.
It’s out of the scope of this article, but finding images online which have their lighting setup reverse engineered is a good starting point. Try and replicate the setups yourself with the same camera and flash settings.
Reflectors and Bounce Light
This is probably the simplest and cheapest way to control light. Commercial reflectors are usually big, round things with a few different surfaces like white, black, silver, and gold. They can reflect available light onto a subject or be used to bounce the light from a strobe or flash.
Bounced light is usually pointing a flashgun at a ceiling or wall to bounce the light onto a subject, creating soft light. Both methods are quick and simple to use, but not always ideal, especially if you have no white ceilings, they are too high up, or a reflector isn’t producing the goods.
Umbrellas are usually the first light modifiers photographers buy into. Cheap and easy to use, you can use them as a shoot-through umbrella or a silver-lining umbrella to bounce light from. Generally, umbrellas will give you a lot of soft, diffused light which works well for portraits. They, however, can throw a lot of light around, so depending on which version you use – silver, gold, reflective, white reflective, white shoot-through umbrellas, they are a good start point and recommended as your first light modifiers.
A weird word, but a scrim is usually a panel or large screen covered with almost see-through fabric. Light passing through the scrim from a flash, strobe, or the sun will be heavily defused, giving the same type of effect as standing next to a large window. They’re easy to set up, and you can even make your own. Scrims work great for waist up portraits, otherwise, they can spill over a lot of light. As a tip, some commercial reflectors have a see-through screen which can be used as a scrim.
Softboxes range in size from very small to very large. The smallest can be used to diffuse the light from an on-camera flash, but the majority of the time they are used for off-camera flashes. Softboxes are usually collapsible, square-faced constructions with some sort of diffusion material. This type of light modifier is most commonly used by photographers to get directional, diffused, and flattering light which works well for portraits or group shots.
One large softbox which is commonly used is the Octabox. It’s a bit like an umbrella and softbox in one, offering soft lighting that is also spread around to give good coverage. It has the benefit of being able to fit in an interior baffle for extra diffusion or a small beauty dish. Plenty of ways to easily sculpt the light.
The bigger the softbox the pricier they become, but the bigger versions give the best diffusion of light. Some softboxes have a white interior while others have silver or gold. Each type gives a different quality to the contrast and spread of light. A highly recommended light modifier in almost any size.
While the above modifiers give a more general diffused light, a beauty dish and the ones below are more directional and specific. Lots of high-end fashion images use a beauty dish for soft contrast which accentuates features and adds nice circular highlights to the eyes.
The downside is that a beauty dish pulls no punches as it can define features that may not be as flattering on some subjects. They are also quite expensive and use a lot of flash power. However, with the right subject, the light is controllable, directional, and images are flattened out, offering a high-quality look.
Snoots, Barn Doors and Flags
If you really want to control the direction of light and have it fall in a specific location, then snoots, barn doors, and flags can be an option. A snoot is like a hollow tube of material wrapped around a flash or strobe. This will concentrate light on a specific point and is usually used with a bare flash. A snoot can accent small areas of a subject or be a spotlight on wide-angle shots.
The same goes for barn doors and flags which I always think of as used in old film studios for on set lighting. As a bare flash is usually used, the light can be harsh, so you have to have a specific application for these.
Combinations of Light Modifiers
It’s the usual course that you will start with one light and one modifier, then build up a scene with extra lights. Combinations of softboxes, umbrellas, and grids can all work together to create some very dramatic effects. Start with one light and one modifier, get used to the effects in different positions – in front of your subject, at 45°, overhead – then move onto another light and beyond.
Using light modifiers is great fun. Starting down this path will give you more control over your lighting, your final look, and give you confidence that you can recreate any light setup.