As we all know, correct lighting crucial to a professional looking photograph. It’s also in the literal meaning of the term photography – “drawing with light”. So, to transform light into art, it’s important to learn about the tools. At a basic level, we can use the sun, a continuous source, or a flash. If we’re outside, then natural lighting might not be enough for a specific look. If we’re inside, we probably won’t opt to use a bare bulb because people don’t often appreciate a harsh construction zone type mood. This is where light modifiers come in.
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Understanding light modifiers can be overwhelming, because there are many options available. Most modifiers will fall into one of two main categories: either diffusers or reflectors. A diffuser will spread beams out over your subject and a reflector can be used to redirect them. In order to figure out what light modifiers to choose, we need to work backwards from what type of lighting we’re trying to achieve. For example, are we trying to replicate a vibrant, bright sunny day with dramatic shadows? For this we’ll want to choose a modifier that helps direct a more focused and intense beam. Or, are we trying to achieve a softer look of an overcast sky with a dreamy glow? In this case we’ll want to pick a light modifier that diffuses. Figure out what emotions you hope to illustrate, and then select which modifiers will help finish the picture.
Types of light modifiers
Umbrellas: usually your first light modifier
These won’t empty your wallet, they tend to be forgiving, and create lots of lighting by broadening the source. But like playing splish splash at the beach, the lighting you get is often less than accurate with tons of spill. Depending on what type of photography you’re planning, you can choose a shoot-through umbrella, a reflective umbrella, a parabolic umbrella, or an umbrella softbox.
Beauty dish: the “make me look good” modifier
Like the name suggests, a beauty dish is most used for fashion and portraits. This type of modifier creates a vibrant look but also softens extreme, hard shadows.
Bowl reflector: like putting your subject in the sun
It’s a basic option that comes in different sizes and depths. A bowl reflector usually creates a harder, more direct type of beam. Expect to see high contrast shadows.
Ring flash: let’s get flat
This doughnut-shaped light modifier creates a flatter look by eliminating shadows. It’s also known for creating a distinctive ring in your subject’s eyes.
Softboxes: these light modifiers are classic diffusers
A softbox is a key tool for any professional photographer. They come in many different shapes and sizes. You’ll see round softboxes, square softboxes, rectangles, and strips.
The round softbox, also called an octobox, kind of looks like the umbrella modifier but diffuses with material. The round shape tends to wrap beams around your subject and can be used to create a more natural look.
As a master light sculptor, you can use softboxes as either a main source or to fill in shadows. They can create a look that’s subtle or concentrated, and can even be used to cast dramatic shadows depending on the size, shape and distance from your subject. Really great perk – lots of models are highly transportable and these light modifiers collapse easily. Which is perfect in case you want to squeeze it in your car while playing trunk Tetris with the rest of your gear.
Scrims: DIY, versatile and your go-to for still life
Also known as flags, a scrim is a diffuser similar to a softbox but it’s movable. It can be stretched fabric on a frame, or even sheets of plastic. Use these light modifiers to have precision control over how soft or hard your lighting will be.
Barn doors: it has four adjustable flaps
Reminiscent of an old movie set, add these “doors” to your lighting and you can open or close them for control.
Grids: a light modifier to focus on something specific
This type of modifier is a metal honeycomb insert that fits over a diffuser. They are used to help direct lighting to the subject and block areas that you want to remain dark.
Snoots: get serious focus
A snoot gives you a direct, hard and intense beam with sharp edges. It’s a fitted tube that directs lighting inward for a dramatic look.
Whatever modifier combination you choose, remember that there are many options for different budgets or purposes. While some are inexpensive and portable, others are costly and take considerable time to set up. The type of subject and style of photography can help determine which light modifiers to invest in.
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