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Light Modifiers: Which Should I Buy? The Big, The Bad, And The Unnecessary.

By Max Bridge on November 5th 2015

There are so many different light modifiers that it can be difficult to figure out which to buy. That’s why you’ll often hear the question, “If I can only afford one modifier, which should it be?” The response that regularly follows being, “the bigger, the better.” While I understand the response, I feel like it’s a bit of a lazy answer which does nobody any favors.

Frustratingly, as we usually find with questions like these, there is no right answer. Except what I’ll be telling you here, of course! A better question might be, “What would be the first modifier you should you buy for studio portraits? Or for weddings? Etc.” and that’s being asked directly to a photographer whose style you would like to emulate. Even that is not satisfactory, but at least it gives a little more context to what you need.


Light Modifiers | What Is The Right Question?

I have wasted much time and money over the years by purchasing items I see others using. I imagine we all do this; even more so if you’re just starting out. You see a BTS video online and think, “Wow, I need X modifier, and then I can create that shot!” We buy whatever it may be, use it once, maybe twice, and then decide it doesn’t fit our style or is too cumbersome.


In my opinion, the question, “If I can only afford one modifier, which should it be?” displays a lack of understanding. The correct question should be, “Where can I find a great resource to teach me about lighting?” To which my answer would always be SLR Lounge; no surprise there!


Light Modifiers | The Value Of Education

It is a bit of a harsh answer but, in the long run, it will have so much more value to you than someone simply saying, “Just get the biggest thing you can afford.” By the way, I do see the logic in that answer but generally I think it’s bad advice. A photographer who understands light and the effects various modifiers have will be able to answer this question themselves. A photographer that does not will potentially buy something they don’t need, and almost certainly not know how to use it. Essentially, we are attempting to run before we can walk. I always encourage the prioritization of education over gear.

An educated photographer can do more with a single speed light, than an uneducated one with a smorgasbord of light modifiers. There’s also the bonus of learning some cool techniques along the way. The photo above for instance is using a technique that we call the whip pan. It’s something that is talked about extensively in Lighting 201, and more often than not just uses bare bulb speed lights.


Light Modifiers | The Right Tool For The Right Job

The photographs featured throughout this article have vastly different lighting. Each one is good in its own right (especially my lovely profile picture above), and each one uses different modifiers. The slide below for instance is taken from Lighting 201 and shows a group shot being lit with some speed lights and an umbrella. An inexperienced photographer may have thought that a) you would need to cross light this scene or b) that you would need a giant modifier rather than the simple umbrella actually used.


The real answer to this question is that there is no “best” modifier. There is only the right tool for the right job. Wow! What a boring answer. But it’s true. If I advised you to get the biggest thing you could afford, let’s say that’s a 5 foot Octabox, what could you then use that for? It might be great for studio portraits (if you have space), but a pain on location. It may even be totally useless outside as you’ve may not have lights powerful enough to overpower the sun while using it.


My Advice When Looking For Light Modifiers

Education. Learn to answer this question for yourself. Find some useful resources that will teach you all about lighting. Start there. In the process, you’ll learn different lighting techniques, as well as coming away with a better knowledge of light in general. You will be a better photographer for it. Sure, experimentation and making your own mistakes is also a vital step, but blindly jumping in the deep end will waste your time and money.


Having educated yourself, think about your photography. Think about what style of lighting you are drawn to. What style of lighting are your clients are drawn to? Where will you be using your lights? Having done that, and answered all of those questions, you will be far less likely to waste your money and far more likely to have become a better photographer.

If you’d like to take a look at the education SLR Lounge offers, make sure you look through the SLR Lounge Store. Lighting 101 and lighting 201 are two of the photography courses we offer. They are thorough, easy to digest and very well structured. You can find them by clicking the links below:

I’d love to hear your opinion here. Tell me what modifier you use the most but make sure you include why. Mine often changes but currently it would be strip boxes in combination with scrims. By using the two of them, I am able to create gradients on glossy products. A very cool technique.

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Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Stephen Glass

    Well there are certain modifiers that do more then others. For instance the umbrellas where the back comes off and on so it’s shoot through or not. Then if you have a front for that you can turn it into a brolley which is basically a softbox. So I agree, there are no absolutes but there are some that are more flexible then others.

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  2. Paul Nguyen

    I’m going to play a bit of devil’s advocate here and say that I sort of agree with what’s said in this article, but not wholeheartedly. As experienced photographers, we tend to say certain cliche things, e.g. if someone asks what lens to get, we say “it depends on what you shoot”, if someone asks what camera to get, we say “it’s the vision, not the camera”…etc. The truth is, those cliches sound nice and elegant and are good soundbites but are rarely helpful to the beginning photographers who ask the questions in the first place.

    Asking what modifier to buy is similar to asking what lens to get. The fact that someone is asking that questions shows, generally, where they are in terms of their knowledge and skills, so the best suggestions are usually the ones that are most versatile, offer great value for money and allow room for growth. It’s like if someone asked me what first lens they should get, I’d suggest something versatile, useful and good value, such as a 50/1.8, I’m not going to sit there asking them a bunch of questions and end up recommending a 400/2.8 or 14-24/2.8, for example.

    The same goes for modifiers. If someone’s asking what modifier to get, chances are, they’ve never owned a modifier before, so suggesting something like studio strobes with octaboxes or beauty dishes aren’t really a good suggestion, but neither is telling them they should go and research and determine what’s best on their own. I like to stick with the principles of versatility, usefulness and value – meaning that something like a speedlight, lightstand and shoot through umbrella would be a good option. This is a good place to start and eventually, as they shoot with it and learn more about how it works and its limitations, they’ll naturally start looking to get more advanced modifiers to fill those gaps.

    Like I always say, it’s easy to say “your camera doesn’t matter”, “what lens you should get depends on what you shoot” and “what modifier you get depends on the look you’re after”, but those are soundbites and generic statements that don’t help anyone – the person who asked you what modifier to get already knows that (so you’re not really telling them much), which is why they’re asking, if they didn’t they’d just get any old modifier – isn’t that some food for thought?

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    • Max Bridge

      Hey Paul,

      What a great comment. I always love it when people contribute in this sort of way. It’s very constructive and adds to the conversation.

      Firstly, I think gear matters. I am not a photographer who would use that cliche of “it’s the photographer not the gear”. That statement is true but gear plays a huge role which is far too often underplayed. The difference between a pro and an amateur is they know what gear to use and when. In addition, in worst case scenarios their knowledge will allow them to handle the situation with whatever gear they have to hand.

      The common questions you have given in your comment are the standards for most amateurs. I would argue, however, that we are doing them a disservice by simply referring them to versatile items that may very quickly become unsuitable.

      If someone poses these questions I believe the best thing to do is delve deeper and find out exactly what they want to shoot. Even better, encourage them to delve deeper. Answer the question themselves. I’ve always found the best way to learn is to find the answers to my own questions. Not to be handed them.

      Of course, if someone came to me and was very specific, I’d give a specific response. These questions, however, are far too vague and display a fundamental lack of knowledge. That lack of knowledge can either be plugged before you waste money on equipment or after. I suppose that’s what it really comes down to. Eventually you will need to advance your knowledge, so why not do that first and not waste the cash.

      In the process of advancing your knowledge you’ll probably come across a genre or style of photography you’d like to emulate. Boom, you’ve now decided on a direction you’d like to go in, are able to answer the question yourself, have advanced your photographic knowledge and saved some cash.

      Only my opinion of course and I’m loving that you played devil’s advocate.

      Thanks again Paul

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    • Paul Nguyen

      Thanks for your reply, Max.

      I agree with you – the best thing is to delve deeper and found out what they want to shoot. I get that and personally I think it’d be wonderful if everyone did that. There’s a wealth of information out there, tutorials, books, websites…etc. and plenty of resources.

      However, my concern is that sometimes you have to start somewhere and not to mention that often people who ask have no greater desire than to simply take nicer photos of their family and vacations. But that said, I do agree with you that if you are looking to become more advanced and take better shots, the way to do it is to research and learn rather than have someone else hand it to you on a plate.

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  3. Lenzy Ruffin

    On the education front, there was a great article on Fstoppers a few weeks ago about how little difference there really is between the different types of modifiers. Just google Fstoppers and “Chris Pine” for the article comparing the different modifier types.

    What I’m endeavoring to master right now is the Glow Parapop 38-inch softbox for shooting headshots. I really want this to be The One Modifier I use for headshots specifically, and portraits, in general. I love Peter Hurley’s style, but I need to execute it with a speedlight/reflector clamshell and, in my limited testing, this Parapop seems like it will fit the bill. What Frank is doing is the way to go, in my opinion: pick one or two modifiers and master them to the point where you can “modify” them to achieve the same effect that a different modifier would produce.

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  4. Frank Nazario

    I am known as “the umbrella man” … 2 7′ Photoflex with 2Paul C Buff diffusers , 1 60″ convertible Photoflex, 2 33″ shoot through generic umbrellas. All of them using speedlights and in the case of the 7 footers, 2 Wescott Triple Threat mounts. When needing to control spill i used the “poor man beauty dish” technique and it has worked for me quite nice… I’ve learned to overcome the limitations of my modifiers and look for alternate ways of using them. Example, using a 7 footer with her diffuser as a high key background… it works wonders!

    The article above is perfect. :-) there is a right tool for the job… you have to learn first what they do and experiment… there is simply no way around that.

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    • Max Bridge

      Love your comment Frank. Thanks for sharing!

      I often use a Westcott Mega JS Apollo as a high key background. Works pretty well and is nice and portable.

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  5. David Hill

    Great article. I will simply add that an obvious option is to buy second hand too. I did that with the speedlites that I use and the modifiers etc. All the gear I have purchased is worth more or less what I paid for it so if I dont use it or just simply didn’t like it, it can go back on ebay for minimal loss. I bought ‘cheap’ ones too (knowing they may not last/produce the best light etc) just to get a feel for what I liked, how it worked on location, how bulky they were to transport etc etc. At least then you get an idea of what you need/like without spending huge amounts. But, lets face it, we all get caught up in the ‘I must have that, this, and everything else’ to take a great shot which once you have been around for a while, you know isn’t often the case! Thanks for another great article Max. Best wishes. Dave.

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    • Max Bridge

      Thanks Dave, excellent point. Almost everything I buy is second hand and it does save lots of money.

      Slightly off topic but useful to mention. Unfortunately, those sales don’t always go to plan. Royal Mail just damaged an £1100 pound lens I sold! Thankfully I sent it fully insured.

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  6. Martin poole

    What a great article and so true.. I agree with Pye, any photographer worth his salt will know what to use and when to use it and if he hasn’t got it he will modify something and use that. Lighting is an art in itself and I still sometimes struggle. My time in a theatre shooting film in the 90’s taught me so much..I miss those old lighting technicians who could cast a shadow on stage and create a mood.. Brilliant

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    • Max Bridge

      Thanks Martin.

      Your time in theatre sounds great! I miss the sparks on film sets. Half the time it seemed as though they knew more than the DOP, and they were always a good laugh.

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  7. Pye

    Cool write up Max, I wasn’t expecting your conclusion and advice. I agree fully though, understanding light and light modification will help from making all the dumb purchasing decisions that I and every other photographer makes when kinda just buying gear to buy gear. I have so much stuff that I no longer use, or have used only once. So I share that sentiment, kinda laughed when I read it =)

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    • Max Bridge

      Glad I made you laugh Pye. I was hoping the conclusion would catch people off guard. It’s probably not what they want to hear but hopefully good advice.

      I used to always “buy gear to buy gear” as you put it. Wasted so much money and quickly filled up every available storage space in my house! These days I find I’m always looking for grip stuff. How boring!

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