Complete Guide to Lighting Modifiers, And When To Use Them
The world of light modifiers can seem monumental, intimidating, and confusing. In fact, considering how simple wireless flash itself has gotten lately, (with built-in radio triggers on many strobes) it is indeed the flash modifiers, not the flashes and strobes themselves, that are likely the most daunting obstacle that stops beginners from taking their portrait lighting skills to the next level!
Of course to learn even more about lighting modifiers and how to use them in all different kinds of portraiture situations, be sure to check out the Lighting 101 and Lighting 201 Workshops, available for digital download and also as part of an SLR Lounge Premium subscription!
Reflectors & Other Bounce Sources
DESCRIPTION: Uses sun, on-camera flash, or off-camera flash. Flash can be bounced off anything, not just a reflector.
PROS: One of the cheapest, fastest ways to create and control soft light sources. Bouncing flash off a wall or ceiling is also very effective and simple.
CONS: Reflectors can waste light power, (brightness) and your non-reflector bounce options are extremely limited if a ceiling is high, or any off-white color. Reflectors can be difficult to create consistent exposures with, especially if an assistant is hand-holding a reflector and you’re bouncing flash from on-camera.
USES: Active or fast-paced situations such as on-location sessions or lifestyle portrait shoots, where you want to create soft diffused light but need to be moving around a lot. Reflectors are more practical for sunlight, while on-camera flash-bouncing is more practical for indoor walls and ceilings.
Scrims & Other Diffusers
DESCRIPTION: Uses sun, other natural light, or off-camera flash. The modifier (and flash) can be held by assistant, or one or both can be on light stands. Instead of bouncing, light passes through a scrim and is diffused.
PROS: Big, soft light, not too wasteful, easy to set up, relatively cheap.
CONS: Light spills everywhere, and there is potential for weird spill effects if the scrim cannot fully cover the entire subject from the sun or light source.
USES: Best used when you want to do two things at once: create shade from the sun, and add your own light to the equation. Usually the most flexible uses are when framing waist-up or similarly close portraits. Otherwise, it’s slightly less practical and controllable compared to other light modifiers.
DESCRIPTION: Uses off-camera flash, is collapsible, all kinds of varieties, can be hand-held by assistant or on a light stand.
PROS: Cheap, fast, and great soft light source this is relatively efficient. (Brightness) A lot of the people at our studio use this option with 1, 2, or even 3 hotshoe flashes, or a single strobe pack like a Profoto.
CONS: metal ribs on cheap umbrellas break oh-so-easily, be sure to get ones with flexible fiberglass ribs. Very, very little control over light directionality and spill, so only useful in basic situations where you don’t mind lighting the whole area. Also, they can flare into the camera
USES: Quick and dirty setups for anything from clean headshots, couples, family formals, family lifestyle, but watch your foreground and directionality. (They can flare into the camera lens) Therefore, best used when equidistant from the subjects as the camera is, not when the camera is further back, or the light source is closer.
[Rewind: How to set up a shoot-through]
Umbrella (Bounced, Bare)
DESCRIPTION: Uses off-camera flash, is collapsible, different varieties, often silver or white inside, some cheap and some very expensive.
PROS: Same setup time as a Shoot-Through Umbrella, yet less spill and more brightness.
CONS: Less soft and gentle than a shoot-through, if using a bounce umbrella with silver insides. If you’re doing this then you might as well just move on to an umbrella-box or softbox !
USES: Simple lighting setups where you need to quickly set up 1-2 lights, get a light source that is bigger than a bare strobe, yet still bright. More versatile than a shoot-through because the black outside of the umbrella stops light from flaring back into the lens, if you shoot from a distance. However, if you’re learning enough about lighting to know the benefits of light direction and quality, you might as well skip the bare bounced umbrella, and at least get a diffused umbrellabox, or a softbox etc. (Because you probably will anyways in the long run!)
Softbox, Octo-Box, Umbrella-box
DESCRIPTION: Uses off-camera flash, is collapsible, all kinds of different varieties, some are super cheap and some are very expensive. Needs light stand, or “light on a stick” monopod. (See our Lighting 201 Workshop for more!)
PROS: Great balance of portability and light control, doesn’t spill everywhere, much easier to get huge directional light sources especially if you have a grid. Many options are very affordable and fast to set up. (umbrellaboxes)
CONS: Some options can be pricey, are not exactly effortless to set up. (They call it a speed ring, but it sure can be frustrating to get the hang of!)
USES: The better your lighting is, the less post-production you’ll have to do, and the more clean and polished your images will look. A softbox is great for shooting a single subject, a couple, or an entire family, either in-studio or on-location. Add a grid to the softbox, if you’re in a setting where you want to minimize spill on foreground / background. (Shooting a telephoto environmental portrait)
DESCRIPTION: Uses off-camera flash, solid construction, (does not collapse!) needs a light stand and counterweight.
PROS: Very soft yet highly controllable quality of light, thanks to specific grid accessories.
CONS: Many do not collapse, require a lot of flash power, often rather expensive when buying a complete system.
USES: Anything from general portraiture to high-end fashion work, as long as you have the help (assistant) to manage it, and the time for setup and break-down. Very good at keeping light focused on subject, off the foreground / background, allowing you to shoot a very complex scene with ease.
Snoots, Barn Doors, and Flags
DESCRIPTION: Used to stop, cut down, or “shape” light direction or spill. (Usually when already using one of the previously mentioned light sources.)
PROS: Pin-point light-shaping abilities, some pretty affordable options. (Try craft foam and gaff tape!)
CONS: Unless otherwise diffused, it leaves light harsh / bare. Some options are very large, cumbersome, and easily damaged. (Then again, foam-core flags are just $1-2.)
USES: Small accents (hair, rim lighting, etc.) Also good for wide angle shots that need a spotlight on a subject within in a scene, anything from an environmental portrait to a 1st dance ultra-wide angle shot.
Thank you for reading! Please comment below if you have any questions about specific lighting conditions, or lighting equipment.
To learn more about lighting modifiers and how to use them in all different kinds of portraiture situations, be sure to check out the Lighting 101 and Lighting 201 Workshops, available for digital download and also as part of an SLR Lounge Premium subscription!