A Beginners Guide to Light Modifiers

A Beginners Guide to Light Modifiers

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Light Shapers SQ copyRegardless 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.

light-modifers

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?

Fill Flash Light Styles HARD

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.

Fill Flash Light Styles Soft

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/vibe I’m going for

What are the best light modifiers to recreate soft light?

The Umbrella

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”.

UMBRELLA_bounce

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.
Shoot Through_UMBRELLA

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.

Training wheels

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.

Scrim, baby

Scrim

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.

Shapers scrimThis 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

softbox

Small softbox 580EX+Lumiquest+stand 1

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.

Different softboxes

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.

Beauty-2

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

Gridspot Gridspot 2

A portrait shoot I did with Australian actor Scott McGregor shows lighting without gridspot (left) and with gridspot (right).grid

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.

Gridspot typesjpg

BeautyDish+Grid 1

Beauty dish with a gridspot

Fresnel light (lens)

Fresnel

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.

Fresnel 2

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.

Octabox

Beauty dish Octa

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.

Octabox

Octobox with the front panel in.

octabox-interior-baffle

Octobox with interior baffle exposed.

octa_as_beauty_dish

Octobox as a beauty dish.

Mixing modifiers

Combolights

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.

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Gina Milicia has been a professional photographer for more than 25 years. She has photographed some of the world’s most high-profile people including royalty, billionaires and A-list celebrities. Often travelling the world, Gina also runs photography workshops and private mentoring sessions. You can sign up for her free ebook on "Portrait and Post Production Essentials" and see more of her work here. Check out her podcast “So you want to be a photographer” on iTunes.

  • Very useful

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    The scrim is very hard to use in small room, either makes the key light underpower at f8, ISO 100 with 2~3 flashguns, it also helps splitting the lights making the light ratio hard to achieve.. unless, with black clothes cover the small room.. and you need the scrim to be very near to subject..

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  • NotAustralian

    Great article but Robbie Magasiva is New Zealand Samoan. Not Australian!

  • Minker

    DPS should promote this article under the caption – Anything and everything you wanted to know about light modifiers. Splendid. Although I am a newbie in photography,instinctively, I was always attracted to photographs created using softbox. But today I also got to know about a few more. Btw, I watch quite a few Sports Illustrated swimsuit backstage videos. I observed, mostly they use a big white rectangle like thing on either model’s top or side that doesn’t really look like a reflector. Today I got to know that is a scrim and I screamed ( 😛 ) Now, I am quite stoked to purchase some modifiers and start experimenting. Thanks once again, Gina and DPS.

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  • Gina Milicia

    Thanks so much Minker, glad you enjoyed the article. Enjoy shaping your lights!

  • Gina Milicia

    He is indeed! He’s also an amazing actor and fantastic bloke. My mistake. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Gina Milicia

    A scrim is not ideal for speedlites but small soft boxes and grids work perfectly both indoors and out. I use them all the time when I’m traveling light or in compact areas.Thanks for your comments.

  • Gina Milicia

    Thanks very much

  • Mohammed Neymathulla Shariff

    These small grids are my favorites….I get to focus light only on my subject….and everything else remains dark….what’s ur say on this

  • Gina Milicia

    This looks really striking Mohammed. I really like it. Great work! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Mohammed Neymathulla Shariff

    Thanks…

  • Izwan

    Hi Gina, just want to ask how about food or product photography? Are these light modifiers applicable to product shoot as well because the subject is quite small normally.

    I also read about snood light modifier. Is that function same as grid? 🙂

  • Gina Milicia

    Hi Izwan,

    Product photography is a lot more complicated as you are often trying to avoid reflections and shadows to give a more realistic effect but all these principles also apply to product photography.
    You can shape your light and use modifiers to target specific areas.
    Do you mean snoot? Yes, it has a similar function to a grid. A snoot modifier is a narrow tube that creates a hard light. You can add a grid to control the light more. I’ve used them when I just want to create a small highlight on a particular area. 🙂

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  • hi gina , went through ur post on the dps page.Just wanna ask u that from where i can get a proper book of yours name “a beginners guide to light modifiers” and some other books of yours.please let me know asap.the lightning article and some other seems to be very intresting but i want about it so plz do let me know. thanks a lot.

  • Patrick Georgevitch

    Fantastic article! Thank you!

  • hi gina , went through ur post on the dps page.Just wanna ask u that from where i can get a proper book of yours name “a beginners guide to light modifiers” and some other books of yours.please let me know asap.the lightning article and some other seems to be very intresting but i want about it so plz do let me know. thanks a lot.-plz reply.

  • Maurice

    Great article, I just set up a studio in my garage with some lights and vinyl backdrops, this is my first image. Thoughts or criticisms?

  • Alessandro Parisio Ramon

    Interessante articolo anche se le informazioni che ho letto erano già di mia conoscenza. Complimenti per la semplicità e l’ordine delle spiegazioni, realistico per chi non ha ancora grande esperienza. Invio una mia foto realizzata con un solo punto luce usando un octabox.

  • Alessandro Parisio Ramon

    Ne invio un’altra.

  • DisqusSucks

    Very nice article! Thanks for taking the time to write this.Could yo provide some more information about scrims? I’d like to see some example photos that use this modifier.

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  • Thanks so much for the extensive and detailed article!! I’ve decided to purchase some umbrellas so can’t wait to use them!! I had never heard of the scrim before reading this article so really appreciate your efforts into creating a great article!!

    Thanks
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  • Allison W

    This was great article! This reinforces the lighting class I went to yesterday.

  • Rick Halbert

    This was the best descriptions I have ever heard of read on light modifiers! The “training wheel” example was awesome. I have struggled with off camera lighting albeit strob or flash and you have put this into perspective.

  • Shawn Tait

    Hi,

    Thank for your article. I wish to be a fitness photographer & want to shoot fitness male models. please advise what sort of diffuser i need to user for my 2 flash lights with Guide number = 50.

    I am planning to go with one reflective silver umbrella & one shoot thorough white umbrella & use them for sandwich lighting.

    Please provide your inputs.

    Look forward to your inputs & thoughts.

    Thanks

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  • Lorene Yee

    I like the soft lighting. I just set up in my basement as well.

  • Enzo Cesti Arata

    Here I used a single speedlight behind a scrim. I really liked the result.

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