Learn how and when to use flash modifiers to create dramatic and beautiful scenes!
You’ve decided to incorporate flash into your workflow. You may have even invested in some equipment and taken a few shots. But when it comes to flash modifiers, you’re still pretty much in the dark. What’s the difference between an octabox and a softbox? How big is a 84″ PLM? And what in the wide wide world of photography is a snoot? Read along as I explain the different types of flash modifiers, describe how they work and explain when each might help you in your work flow!
What is a flash modifier?
A flash modifier is a tool used with a flash to change or modify the light being produced. Modifiers can be used with both speedlights and strobes, but not all modifiers are interchangeable (be sure a modifier will work with your equipment before purchasing it!). Modifiers are used to somehow change the light coming out of the flash to fit what you, the photographer, need.
What are the benefits of using a flash modifier?
Flash modifiers provide some amazing benefits over using bare flash. Modifiers allow you to change the light to match your artistic vision in many different ways.
- Soften your Light. Light from a bare flash is very harsh. Using a modifier diffuse the light, making it softer and more flattering. With the right technique, you can use flash to replicate the gorgeous window light every photographer raves about.
- Control Your Light. Direct or contain your light so only those portions of the scene you want to be lit are actually receiving light.
- Spread Your Light. Distribute light across a great area.
- Color Your Light. Gels on your speelight or strobe can color your light.
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What is the best flash modifier?
Beginning photographers always want to know “What’s the best modifier to get?” Unfortunately, there is no singular “best” modifier to get for your flash. It really depends on what you are trying to accomplish in the scene and what type of flash you have. Below I’ll cover the basic modifiers and tell you when you might find them helpful to light a scene so you can begin to decide what modifiers you need in your kit.
Common Flash Modifiers
Umbrellas are a very straightforward, easy-to-understand flash modifier. They diffuse and spread light. The make a great first modifier because they are inexpensive, versatile and easy to set up. Umbrellas come in two styles: white shoot-through umbrellas and reflective umbrellas. With shoot-through umbrellas, your light passes through the fabric of the umbrella. I’ve heard it described as “hugging your whole scene with lots of soft light.” When using reflective umbrellas (which are usually black on the back and silver or gold on the reflected side), the light is directed into the bowl of the umbrella and then bounced back toward your subject. Umbrellas also come in different sizes, from 22″ and up. The bigger the umbrella, the bigger the spread of your light.
The different types of umbrellas have a different effect on your subject. Which you use is personal preference. A shoot-through umbrella produces soft, seamless light. You can also get a shoot-through umbrella close to your subject, which can be advantageous in portrait work.
Bounce umbrellas are more efficient than shoot-through umbrellas. The color of the lining will affect the color in your scene. A gold-lined umbrella, for example, warms skin tones but can put a slight color cast on a white dress. A silver-lined umbrella gives a slightly more intense, contrasty look. A white bounce umbrella gives the least color cast. Both types of umbrellas produce a round catch light, but you can often see the “ribs” of the umbrella in the catchlight.
Use an umbrella for: your first modifier or for softening and spreading your light on your subject(s). Small umbrellas start at around $10, making them an expensive and versatile flash modifier. They are not good for using outdoors, however.
A softbox is a square flash modifier. They soften light but offer more control and direction of your light than an umbrella. Some photographers prefer the square shape of a softbox for duplicating window light. As with umbrellas, the larger the softbox the larger and more diffused your light coming out of it will be. The drawback is you often need more light to fill a larger softbox, so bigger isn’t always better. As a general rule of thumb, the size of your softbox should match the size of your subject. A 24″ softbox is great for head-and-shoulders portraits, where full-body shots or couples portraits might require a 48″ softbox.
One other difference between umbrellas and softboxes and other modifiers is the amount of diffusion. Softboxes offer two layers of diffusion, either through two translucent panels or by bouncing the light into the back of the box then through a translucent panel. With an umbrella, the light is only diffused once. If you are ever looking at another photographer’s description of their lighting setup and they reference a modifier that’s “dobule-diffused” that’s what it means.
Softboxes produce a square catch-light in your subjects eye.
Use a softbox for: softening your light and illuminating your subjects with less spill.
Which is better – softbox or umbrella?
Honestly, it depends. Both are tools used for specific purposes, and which performs better depends on the job you want it to do. If I want to light a big group, for example a large wedding party or group of coworkers, an umbrella is better. It will spread and diffuse the light across a wider swath. But if I want to create a simple headshot of the groom or CEO but don’t want to light up the entire room, I’ll choose a softbox. Each has it’s pros and cons.
Other Light Modifiers
If an umbrella and a softbox had a baby, their flash modifier offspring would be an octobox. Octoboxes are octagonal shaped softboxes. Octas, or octobank, as many photographers abbreviate them, spread light a little more than a square softbox but not as much as an umbrella. They have all the other properties of a softbox, except that octoboxes produce a round catch light.
Use an octobox for: illuminating your subject with a little more spread than a similarly sized softbox or if you prefer round catchlights.
Deep Parabolic modifiers
Parabolic modifiers are increasing in popularity. These flash modifiers, sometimes called paras or even deep paras, are parabolic in shape. If you read any flash photography forums, you’ll see some discussions on what makes a modifier a true parabolic. There are a lot of complex definitions and determinations out there, but basically, it’s a U-shape. The thought is the light is reflected from a single point into parallel beams of light. What does that mean in application? A modifier that is different than a softbox, umbrella or octobox. Parabolic modifiers have less spill than a standard modfier and are very efficient, so you can use them to cast light over greater distances than with other similarly sized modifiers. I can’t really describe the quality of the light itself, just to say that I really, really like it. Helpful, I know.
Higher-end parabolic modifiers come with a focusing rod, allowing you to adjust how far into the modifier your light is placed. The placement affects the light contrast and quality, providing endless options for tweaking your light. They are expensive, though, with some costing several thousand dollars. Less expensive parabolic modifiers don’t offer the focusing rod but will give you similar results for a smaller price tag.
The downside of parabolic modifiers is that they can be quite large and cumbersome. They aren’t always ideal for tight spaces, and even the “pop-up” variety a still take quite a bit of room to store. Even the less-expensive parabolic modifiers are generally more expensive than traditional flash modifiers.
Use deep parabolic modifiers for: smooth, even light on portrait subjects.
PLMs and ULMs
PLMs are the brand name of a product by Paul C. Buff. PLM stands for parabolic light modifier. It is like the parabolic flash modifiers discussed above, but not as deep. PLM is a specific product from a specific manufacturer, but some photographers use the term to describe all modifiers of this type, regardless of brand (think Kleenex vs. tissue or Xerox vs. copy). From here on out, I’ll call them ULMs, umbrella light modifiers.
PLMs and ULMs are large, parabolic shaped umbrellas that can function as a shoot-through modifier or as a bounced modifier. Like regular umbrellas, they also come in white, silver and gold. Many also come with translucent fronts to add another layer of diffusion. These are big modifiers. Like 75 inches across the front kind of big. They produce a big spread of soft light that hits your scene in a 150 degree pattern. They are a favorite of newborn photographers and photographers who shoot lots of big groups indoors because they can really spread light.
Use ULMs for: creating big, even lighting for a large group or a large scene.
A beauty dish differs from all the other modifiers we’ve talked about here. The beauty dish doesn’t diffuse light at all. Rather, it’s a metal reflector that uses its shape to distribute light toward the subject. This creates a dramatic light. My daughter calls my beauty dish “the salad bow.” And it does look a little like a salad bowl. The light fits in the back and is shot toward a deflector plate. The plate bounces the light back toward the “bowl” and out to your subject. The beauty dish creates a round catch light.
Beauty dish lighting is very unique. It is often favored in fashion and portrait work because of the amazing detail the light adds to a face. The dish is white or silver, with silver providing a little more contrast. Most beauty dishes are either 16 inches or 22 inches wide. Some brands provide a cloth front cover, called a sock, which adds a layer of diffusion.
One of my favorite uses of the beauty dish is as an outside modifier for on-location group portraits. The beauty dish is heavy but small, relatively speaking, so it holds up better in the wind. I use a 22″ beauty dish with a sock to light group portraits of sports teams or other large groups of people.
Use a beauty dish for: to fully light a face as in fashion photography or distinct portraits.
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A ring light is literally a ring of light that surrounds the camera lens. Some are stand-alone units designed for a lens to shoot through an opening in the center. Others attach to a speedlight and your camera to make one big (if slightly unwieldy) unit. Ring lights provide light from every direction, eliminating shadows. The shadows it does create are uniform and generally thrown behind the subject where you can’t see it. Ring lights do a great job at eliminating shadows but they don’t push the light out very far, so you need to be fairly close to your subject. They aren’t very versatile, either.
Ring lights produce a very distinct “donut” catch-light. If you post a photo for critique in an online forum, be prepared for some very polarized discussions regarding the use of ring lights.
Use a ring light for: high fashion photography, close up portraits with a distinct look or macro photography work.
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Flash Modifiers to Control Light
A stripbox is just a narrow, rectangular softbox. They have all the other properties of a softbox just in a narrower form. Stripboxes are named because of their shape lets you use just a strip, or hint, of light in a scene. They are incredibly helpful when you need just a small strip of light, such as for a hair or rim light, or for product photography where your subject is relatively small. Stripboxes come in widths as narros as 10 or 12 inches.
Use a stripbox for: controlling your light to a smaller “strip.”
A snoot is a cylindrical accessory you add to a flash to really condense your light into a small, tight pattern. Snoots provide a very narrow pattern of hard light with lots of contrast and very sharp fall-off. Snoots are a really easy light modifier to create yourself. Try using an empty Pringles chip can with the bottom cut out, or create a cone-shaped pattern out of black foam that wraps around your speedlight head.
Use a snoot for: a small, tight pattern of light exactly where you need it and not where you don’t.
Grids are another accessory that controls the spill of light. Some grids snap to or cover the front of your strobe or speedlight. Others attach to the front of a softbox (and octobox, deep para, etc.) through the use of velcro or even snaps. Both types of grids do the same thing– contain light. The pattern of a grid looks something like a honeycomb from a beehive. Essentially the grid blocks some of the light coming from your flash or softbox, preventing spill. They can also help extra light from coming back into your lens creating flare. In a lighting setup, you might see a photographer describe using a grid as a “softbox, gridded.”
Use a grid for: illuminating your subject but not the background or as a rim light or hair light. Compare the image below using a softbox with a grid to the image above with only the softbox.
Flags also block light, like a grid. They can also cast shadows (yes, sometimes we want to do that!), provide negative fill and protect your lens from light flare. Flags are anything you can use to block light from where it isn’t wanted. Think of flipping down the visor in your car…that’s using a flag to block light. If you’ve ever had an assistant hold a blanket above your subjects head to block the sun, that’s flagging too! Barn doors that come on a strobe are also a type of flag.
You can purchase flags from some photography supply stores. Most 5-in-1 reflector sets have a black side you can use as a flag. It’s also really easy to make flags yourself using black construction paper, black foam or black foam core board. I’ve even seen black garbage bags used as flag attached to the center or the side of a softbox. Anything that makes a portable shadow!
Use a flag for: controlling your light or creating shadows where you want them.
Flash modifiers that change the color or shape of light
Gels are small, translucent colored sheets that go in front of your flash to change the color of the light. These modifiers can correct the light temperature, such as making a flash match the color temperature of incandescent lights. Or they can change the color of the light to something unusual. You are limited just by your imagination. Gels can change the color on your subject or background. You can use them in conjunction with other modifiers as well, like a snoot, stripbox or grid.
Use a gel for: correcting your the color temperature of your flash to match your scene or to add creative color to your scene.
Our last modifier is a go before optics, also known as a gobo. Gobos are “shapes” placed between the light source and the subject to create a distinct lighting pattern. Gobos can really be anything…fabric, molded aluminum foil, leaves…anything that creates a pattern of light and shadow that pleases you. Think of gobos as lighting stencils. You can buy pre-cut gobos that fit close to your flash or get creative and use materials found around your home or studio!
Use a gobo for: creating interesting lighting (or shadows) on your subject or background.
Using off camera flash allows you to create dramatic portraits any time, any place. Mastering flash can make you a more versatile and well-rounded photographer. It can be intimidating to start because of the variety of options available. Use this as a basic introduction to get you started with flash modifiers, then research the light modifier that best fits the type of shooting you’ll be doing. But as with anything, research only takes you so far. The best thing you can do is to simply set up your modifiers and start practicing!