Kick boxing expert

Kickboxer Simon Marcus for GLORY World Series By James Law

An Introduction to

Photography Lighting Modifiers

As photographers, we collect light with our cameras. Sometimes, the universe cooperates and gives us the perfect window on an overcast day, producing light in which its impossible to take a bad photo. For every other scenario, however, we're on our own. Luckily, there are many tools out there that can help us create the exact light we want in just about any situation.

Consider this an introduction to some of the most well-known and versatile lighting modifiers available. With these in your arsenal, you can bend light to your will and make your photos look just how you want with a little creativity and probably a little gaffer's tape along the way as well.

What does it do to the light?

When you fire the flash into the umbrella, almost all of the light is reflected directly back at the subject. Because of the shape of the umbrella, it forms a beam, the concentration of which is dependent upon the curve of the umbrella itself. A deeper umbrella will produce a tighter, more focused beam that's very intense at the center and falls off more quickly. A more shallow umbrella will throw a wider beam of light that has a more feathered appearance at the edges.

The color and finish of the reflective lining can also make a big difference in the look of the reflected light. A shiny, gold interior, for instance, will produce light that's relatively hard in appearance and warm in color. A matte, white reflective umbrella, however, will produce a softer, more neutral light.

Crossfit Games athlete

By Stan Horaczek

This Crossfit Games athlete was lit by a single flash fired into a Profoto XL Deep Silver Reflective Umbrella. The intense nature of the silver reflective surface allowed a single light source to match relatively intense ambient light.

How do you use it?

While translucent umbrellas like to throw light all over a room, reflective umbrellas are much better at keeping it focused and contained. So, if you're shooting in a small space or you're trying to avoid an ugly color cast from surrounding walls, a reflective umbrella is a better option.

The working distance of an umbrella, much like a soft box, is around twice its diameter and closer. The depth of the umbrella can significantly affect its placement, however. If you're using a very deep parabolic umbrella, the beam may be tight enough that you need to back the reflector up significantly to get sufficient coverage.

Because of the directional nature of the light, placement is extremely important. This is especially true if you're using a shiny interior because the shadows will be sharp and pronounced.

Illustration of reflective umbrella setup

Which one should you get?

Picking a size depends on how many subjects you intend to light with the umbrella. If you're going to be doing group shots, the bigger, the better, but for singles and even couples, a 43-inch umbrella should be just fine.

When picking a depth, you have to decide how focused you want your beam of light. Are you trying to send light a long distance or mimic a spot light to single out a subject? Pick a deep umbrella. Are you trying to light a group or throw a wide beam across a scene? Pick something shallower.

The reflective material you choose for the lining is also crucial. A highly reflective surface will be bright and lively, but will also accentuate textures, which may not flatter every face. A gold interior will look good when mixed with warm light, but may look odd mixed with daylight. Silver, on the other hand, mixes well with daylight, but looks blue in warm light. White is nice and neutral, but doesn't give the same intensity as the reflective surfaces.

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What does it do to the light?

Rather than reflecting light back at the subject, the shoot-through umbrella acts as a diffuser. The translucent white material scatters the light rather than focusing it, which typically results in a much softer light that provides softer shadows.

Because of their scattering nature, shoot-through umbrellas tend to send light all over a room. So, if you're not careful (or if it's your intention), you may also get light bouncing off of the floor, the ceiling, and the walls back onto your subject. In fact, if you want even lighting across a small room, one carefully placed translucent umbrella may be able to provide it.

Essentially, a shoot-through umbrella's main job is to increase the size of the light source as it relates to the subject, which makes it a softer and more flattering light.

editorial portrait

By Stan Horaczek

This editorial portrait was shot with a Profoto Large Translucent White Umbrella and a single strobe light from camera right. Because it was a tight space, the light illuminates much of the room, but still remains directional.

How do you use it?

Because of their ability to throw light in many directions, the shoot-through umbrella is one of the most forgiving lighting modifiers, which is something that makes it appealing to beginners or shooters that need to work in a hurry. The light does, however, maintain some distinct directionality, so you can't just throw it anywhere and expect it to look perfect.

Because of their shape and their translucence, you can sometimes get a "hot spot" near where the center of the umbrella is pointed. You don't want that to land directly on your subject's forehead or it may cause an unpleasantly bright highlight.

The closer you get the umbrella, the softer your light will be. The same can be said for getting a larger umbrella. It's worth noting, however, that if you're using small flashes, you may need to use more than one to fill a larger umbrella.

The larger-sized models are also more likely to throw light about the room, so don't be surprised if your shadows are even more filled in than you expected.

Illustration of translucent umbrella setup

Which one should you buy?

You can buy a 32-inch shoot-through umbrella for less than the cost of a large pizza, so having one as part of your kit is pretty much essential. Shoot-through umbrellas are a bit more versatile than many other modifiers. Often, going bigger gives you more options, but if you're using small flashes, don't go overboard because you might have trouble filling the whole thing with light.

What does it do to the light?

Soft boxes serve to make your light source both bigger and more diffuse than it would be without a modifier. You're essentially taking the the small bulb of your flash and growing it to the size and shape of the front of the soft box.

Some soft boxes, like the Westcott Apollo series, have a closed back into which the light fires, reflecting light forward and adding another level of softening. Other boxes have an opening at the back through which the flash fires forward, letting the front panel and inner baffles handle all of the diffusion. The former offers more even light across the front of the box, but requires more flash power, while the latter needs less oomph, but can sometimes suffer hot spots in the light pattern.

anti-glare computer glasses

By John Schulz

For this catalog shot of anti-glare computer glasses, the photographer used three light modifiers. "I clipped two layers of Lee Full White diffusion material in front of the soft box for a super, super soft source," says photographer John Schulz. He also modified his Broncolor Hazylight Soft box to accept an internal Profoto Pro Globe over the flash tube to produce a perfectly even light source without a central hot spot.

How do you use it?

Soft boxes are, by nature, directional, but they follow the universal rule in that bigger boxes throw softer light than smaller ones under the same conditions.

The working distance of a soft box starts at roughly two-times the diagonal measure of its front panel, In real life, however, you'll likely often find yourself moving it in closer than that. Any further, however, and you start to lose some of the softening effect.

One thing some users neglect is the fact that changing the positioning of the front panel can actually affect the light you get out of a soft box. The deeper the front panel is set into the box, the more directional the light becomes. So, if the front diffuser attaches with Velcro, moving it further back into the box will actually make your light more concentrated, giving you deeper, sharper shadows.

If you want more diffuse light out of your soft box, many give you the option of adding another diffuser inside called a baffle. This will also, however, cause you to lose more light from your flash and require more power.

Illustration of softbox setup

Which one should you get?

A crucial part of choosing a soft box is picking the right shape. The word box makes most of us immediately picture a square or a rectangle, but the reality is that there are all sorts of different shapes out there, from skinny strip boxes to massive octagonal boxes. Which one you choose depends on everything from what you'll be lighting to what kind of catch light you want in your subjects' eyes.

A small soft box will offer an improvement over a bare flash in almost every case, but many people choose to go a bit bigger, opting for a 2' x 3' or 3' x 4'. There's also a very popular 50" x 50" square. Why is bigger more popular? Because it mimics that coveted window light we photographers love so much.

You should also consider the method by which the box goes together. High-end models like the RFi soft boxes from Profoto are great and durable, but require a relatively tedious process involving multiple rods to assemble. Others, like the Westcott Apollo setup quicker, but may not be as durable.

What does it do to the light?

The light faces forward through a hole in the back of the dish where it hits a deflector plate. The light is then guided back into the edges of the dish and outward onto the subject. By interrupting the light's path and effectively growing the overall light source, it produces a very lively and vibrant light without harsh shadows you might get from a bare bulb.

UFC veteran, Michael Bisping

By James Law

A cage fighter may not be the most obvious choice for a modifier called a beauty dish, but this portrait of UFC veteran, Michael Bisping does a great job showing off the lively, directional nature of the light. Deep shadows with softer edges make it great for showing character.

How do you use it?

As the name suggests, this type of lighting modifier is typically used for portraits, so getting it up-close and personal with your subject is usually a safe place to start. Because the shadows are more pronounced, you have to be very careful with the angle at which the light hits your subject because it's entirely possible to get it too high and let the eyebrows block the light from hitting the eyes. In some cases, that's actually desirable, but in others, it makes the subject look dull, or even dead.

Because the light is so directional, you can use it from above as well. In fact, many athlete portraits use a beauty dish from high above shooting downward to help accentuate the muscles in their bodies. Fashion shooters tend to keep it close, especially when there's an interesting makeup arrangement because it does an excellent job of bringing out details that might not pop as much with a more diffuse light.

Illustration of a beauty dish setup

Which one should you get?

The typical beauty dish is made from metal and can have a variety of finishes on the inside of the bowl, each of which has its own characteristics. Typical beauty dishes fall between 16-inches on the small side and roughly 28-inches on the larger side, and often have a white finish on the inside of the dish. The dispersion plate can often be swapped out or even removed if you're looking for a harder light. Many also come with a sock that you can put over the front of the dish, which makes operate more like a small, round soft box.

A medium-sized dish with a removable plate is probably your best bet if you're just getting started with it. It will give you the widest range of options in terms of lighting arrangements. Many photographers also like to use a grid over the entirety of the beauty dish in order to keep the light as direction as possible.

How do you use it?

Because of the nature of the light, this is a very popular modifier with high-fashion photography. Because light comes from all around the lens, it fills in almost every place you'd expect to see a shadow. It also creates a uniform shadow that typically sits directly behind the subject, so it's sometimes invisible.

The light from a ring flash is often said to make subjects look as if they're "glowing." For the glow effect to really stand out, you need to be relatively close to the subject, which also often results in a unique (and often polarizing) catch light in the eyes.

Illustration of a ring light setup

You can also certainly use the ring light as a secondary light or even a rim light coming from behind the subject.

If you're using this modifier to light an object, it's similarly important to get it close enough for the effect to be noticeable. If you get too far from your subject, it can sometimes look as if you just used an on-camera, or even a pop-up flash.

A close-up ring light portrait

By Stan Horaczek

A close-up ring light portrait shot with the Orbis Ring Flash attachment for speedlites. Ring light is a great tool for kid photos because the catch light brings life to the eyes and the wide-angle lens adds character.

Which one should you get?

Many shooters (as well as editors and clients) often see this type of light as a bit of a novelty, so investing too heavily in one can have you going a bit overboard. That's one of the reasons that the speed light adapters are so popular. If you are a fan of the effect, though, buying a dedicated ring light can be helpful because they're often much more powerful than the speed light variety, so they can be used for things like photo booths and other more power-intensive situations.

There are also quite a few tutorials on making your own ring light online. Some of them are actually very effective, and because this can be seen as a novelty, it's not a bad place to start if you're looking to try DIY light modding.

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How do you use it?

When using a snoot, you really need to know what you want in terms of your lighting. Wherever you point that snoot, the light will go, so you better be sure whatever is on the other end wants to be lit.

Sometimes, a snoot can be used as a key light. Typically, this serves to make the face very bright and then let the light drop off quickly around it. It's a very dramatic effect that, if used effectively, can work.

A more common use, however, is as an accent or detail light. If there's something in a scene that you want to draw someone's attention to, throwing a small pool of light at it can be just the thing. It can also help to break up an otherwise flat area in a photo by giving it a bit of lighting texture.

Las Vegas setting

By Larry Hanna

For this Las Vegas setting, pro Larry Hanna used more than a dozen modifiers: barn doors, shoots, and diffusion material. Each pool of light in the photo occupies a very specific area, which is why the tight beam of a snoot is desirable for this type of situation.

Which one should you get?

You can buy dedicated conical snoots that vary in light production depending on the size of the opening and the length and taper of the modifier itself. Because it's usually a plus to be able to adjust something so specific, some crafty photographers often make their own snoots out of a moldable black material called Cinefoil. Or, you can just use paper.

Illustration of a snoot setup

If you're planning on using speed lights, there are several customizable modifiers like the Rogue Flashbender that can be rolled up into a tube and made into a de facto snoot. They don't have the taper of a dedicated snoot, but they're much more versatile in other shooting situations.

Barn doors, like the ones you typically seen on movie hot lights, can also help to funnel light in a specific direction while giving you more control over your direction and beam.

How do you use it?

Like a snoot, a grid is used to keep light focused in a more specific direction. So, if you want to hit your subject with the full power of your light source, but you want to keep the background relatively dim, a grid will help you do that by keeping the light moving in a straight line.

Illustration of a grid setup

Many other modifiers are also compatible with grids of their own. Grids are a common addition to beauty dishes and soft boxes alike. They're also commonly used on backlights because they prevent the beams from hitting the edge of the lens and sending flare across the photo.

Using a grid often requires you to be a little more precise with the positioning of your light because you no longer have spilling light to work with. If you miss your subject by even a little bit, it could be very noticeable.

5-degree and 10 degree grid

By Betsy Hansen

The photographer gave extra focus to her strobes' output by placing a 5-degree and 10 degree grid attachment to the lights on the model's left and right, respectively. The lacey shadows across her face were cast by a "cookie" made of die-cut craft paper.

Which one should you get?

If you're buying a grid specifically made for one of your modifiers, you likely won't have much choice in the matter. But, if you're just buying some generic grid spots, you'll have to either buy a kit or choose how tight you really want to make your beam of light. Typical grid spots range from 10-40 degrees, which refers to their angle of coverage. A 10-degree grid spot produces an extremely tight beam, while a 40-degree grid spot is much looser. Typically, somewhere in the middle will be where you want to land, but having options on-hand is always a good thing.

What does it do to the light?

You're probably already familiar with the concept of color temperature, but in case you're not, here's a little refresher. Different temperatures of light appear as different colors to our eyes and, even more so, to our cameras. Things like incandescent lights look more orange or yellow, while sunlight and most camera flashes are hotter and look like true "white." Adding a gel to the light source can help correct it to be more white, or go in the other direction and introduce a dramatic splash of color.

How do you use it?

There are literally hundreds of different kinds and colors when it comes to gels.

One type of gel is meant to balance out a scene and prevent ugly mixed-light scenarios. The most common of these is called a CTO, which can warm up a flash and make it more closely resemble the output from everyday light bulbs. There are also specific gels that help counteract casts from fluorescent lights, which can render as ugly green or purple.

Illustration of a gel setup

The other type of gel is meant to add color to a scene. Rather than evening out the light, they make it more dramatic. In the example below, a dark blue gel is used in conjunction with a neutral-colored flash to add drama.

Using a grid in conjunction with a gel is often a good idea, especially if you're trying to use a very noticeable color on a specific location. That way, you get a pop of color in a defined area, rather than a blob that can throw unpleasant color cast across your whole image.

singer of a heavy metal

By Stan Horaczek

A small, silver reflective umbrella from camera right acts as the key light, but a bare flash behind a dark blue gel provides a pop of color. The subject is the singer of a heavy metal band and the blue gel mimics a color pulled from the cover of their latest record.

Which one should you get?

One of the most common ways to try out various gels is with a Rosco sample book. They cost just a few dollars and come with small, speed light sized pieces of a variety of gels. If you need bigger pieces or have a color you particularly use often, you can buy larger sheets and cut them down as needed.