by Sean Setters
While a bare flash can work well in certain situations, more often than not, obtaining the best results will require shaping, restricting or coloring the light coming from your flash (whether it be the shoe-mount or studio variety).
Let's look at our Top 10 Light Modifiers to explore all the great possibilities available for crafting the perfect light.
Collapsible reflectors come in a variety of shapes, sizes and surfaces, and are used to reflect a light source (sun, Speedlite or studio flash) onto your subject. Simple, convenient, inexpensive and easy to pack are hallmarks that have made collapsible reflectors ubiquitous in the photography industry. Popular reflective surface options include white, silver and gold (including combinations of those surfaces).
Don't have a collapsible reflector but need something in a pinch? Use a piece of white foam core board or a suspended bed sheet for near-similar results.
Like collapsible reflectors, umbrellas also come in a variety of shapes (really), sizes and reflective surfaces. The most common umbrellas are white (which can be used in reflected or shoot-through orientation) ranging in size from 43 - 60", though larger and smaller versions can easily be found. Umbrella surfaces mirror those found in collapsible reflectors, mainly the aforementioned white, silver & gold, and oftentimes umbrellas come with a fixed or removable black backing to prevent light spillage (of course, limiting the umbrella's use to reflective orientation only with the black backing in place). Some black backed umbrellas are compatible with removable front diffusion panels for even, softbox-like light quality (more on that later). Mimicking the shape of the sun, a traditional umbrella produces a natural looking round catchlight in the subject's eye(s) unless the umbrella spokes are are clearly discernable (especially a possibility when shooting closer headshots). An umbrella makes a great outdoor flash modifier, with one caveat. Be sure to heavily sandbag your light stands when using umbrellas outside. The umbrella's round, concave shape means that a slight breeze can easily cause your rig to topple over if not properly secured.
Surprising to some is that photographic umbrellas can vary significantly in shape. For instance, parabolic umbrellas are deeper than traditional ones and tend to be more efficient at bouncing light with the tradeoff of a more focused projection. Some umbrellas can be made square by adjusting segments of their support frame while other umbrellas feature a rectangular design that makes them better suited for shooting in locations with low ceilings.
Considering how inexpensive most umbrellas are, and how easily they can dramatically improve the light falling on your subject, there's little reason not to have one (or several) in your lighting toolkit.
Generally speaking, a softbox is a rectangular, box shaped light modifier with one (or more) diffusion panels covering the face of it. A softbox is typically affixed to a light via a proprietary speed ring, so be sure to select a compatible model when purchasing your softbox. Because of the diffusion panel(s), softboxes generally produce a very even lighting over the entire surface of the front diffusion panel. Softboxes work especially well in studio conditions because they produce a very soft yet directional light (especially when fitted with an optional grid). A rectangular or square softbox creates a catchlight in the subject's eyes that is reminiscent of a window pane, though the catchlight of a softbox + grid combination may appear conspicuously artificial.
Not all softboxes are rectangular. A subset of softboxes, called octaboxes (or octagonal softboxes), are more rounded with 8 sides instead of 4. These particular softboxes provide the benefits of traditional softboxes (less light spill) with the round(ish) shape benefits of an umbrella.
A standard reflector is a relatively small, metal, silver-lined, narrow bowl-shaped device that is generally included in a studio light kit. Standard reflectors feature a port for simultaneous use with umbrellas (somewhat limiting spill). When used without an umbrella, the standard reflector produces a hard (clearly defined), somewhat harsh quality of light (similar to sunlight on a clear day). While this type of light may not be optimal for most main light portrait needs, the standard reflector can provide a great on-location rim light or background light.
On the other end of the studio light reflector spectrum, a beauty dish is a special type of reflector designed specifically for portraiture which produces a circular shaped, semi-hard quality of light with soft edges. Typical beauty dishes are wide bowl shaped reflectors ranging in size from 16-28" (the most common sizes being 20-22"), are silver or white lined and are optimally used relatively close to the subject (a distance between 1x and 1.5x the diameter of the dish). Prices for beauty dishes vary widely, and my particular favorite – the Mola Demi – is not inexpensive, but having owned and used one for several years (with Opal Diffusion Glass), I can say without hesitation that it is a great investment.
A ring light is, as the name suggests, a circular shaped light that is more often than not used with the camera lens shooting through the middle of it. Ring lights can either be specifically designed studio lights, macro lights or ring light modifiers.
Because the light is positioned around the lens, a ring light produces a very flat, non-directional type of lighting. If used as a main light, it's generally more flattering than an accessory hot shoe flash pointed straight at your subject, but it really shines (pun intended) as an "invisible" fill light when used with other light sources. By "invisible," that is to say that the fill light doesn't leave tell-tale shadows that indicate its use aside from a subject-shaped shadow (halo) around your subject with an unlit background close behind your subject. Note that a ring light does produce a rather conspicous circular catchlight in the subject's eye(s).
Color gels can be used to change the color of your flash to a) match the ambient light or b) add a creative color to your image. The former, referred to as "color correction" gels, allow you to calibrate your flash's light output with the color of the ambient light, thereby making simple global color corrections seamless in post processing. Otherwise, if the color of your flash's output does not match the ambient, obtaining correct color balance in post processing can be a tricky and time consuming task (and sometimes, nearly impossible).
The latter group, "creative" gels, allows you to change background colors or add interesting color to your subject lighting. Using color through the use of gels is a great way to differentiate your work from other photographers, and considering the low cost of color gels (both color correction and creative), every flash wielding photographer should have a myriad of gels in their lighting kit.
A grid is simply a set of tube-like structures affixed to the front of a flash (as demonstrated above) or otherwise attached to the front of another light modifier (such as a softbox). The purpose of a grid is to restrict the light output to a smaller area, allowing for more finite control over the light's spread. Grids with circular tubes like the one shown above will produce a round spotlight with moderately soft edges and work great as subject-to-background separation tools when directed at the background (especially when combined with colored gels). Grids are also great for hair/special emphasis lights when reducing light spillage is a priority.
Like a grid, a snoot is designed to restrict a light's output to a smaller area. However, unlike a grid, the edges of the light pattern projected by a snoot will have a hard edge. Uses for snoots mirror uses for grids, with the the hard edge being the main differentiator.
A flag (or gobo) is simply a device (typically black) that blocks light from hitting a certain area of your composition. Flags come in variety of shapes and sizes and commonly feature an arm that is designed to be held by a grip head and/or grip arm making positioning with a light stand an easy task.
Don't have a professional gobo handy? Try using a creatively mounted piece of black foam core board.
A cuculoris/cookie is a special type of flag which has a pattern cut out of it. When placed in front of a light source, a cookie will create a decorative shadow pattern on surfaces and/or subjects in the path of the light. Cookies are often used to simulate light filtering through window panes or foliage, but abstract patterns are very common as well.
With a lens attached to the front, the Spiffy Gear Light Blaster is able project a scene printed on transparent film onto a surface. The creative possibilities for devices such as these are endless, yet using them effectively takes a bit of know-how. For instance, if using the Light Blaster to project a scene onto the background, optimal results can only be obtained if the light hitting your subject is restricted from hitting the background (using some of the other tools listed above and careful positioning). See our full review for more details on the Light Blaster.
So there you have it, our list of the Top 10 Light Modifiers for Off-Camera Flashes & Studio Lights. Did we miss something important? Sound off in the comments.