If you have begun to experiment with artificial lighting in your photographs, you may have stumbled across the odd umbrella, or perhaps even added a softbox to the end of your flash head. You will quickly learn that there is a lot more to artificial lighting than simply pointing a speedlight at the ceiling.
Photo by Rachel Leah Carrigan
In order to direct, shape, and modify the light exactly as they want, photographers draw on an array of modifiers to help them control how their images look. A modifier is simply something that is attached to the light, in order to change its appearance. The versatility and variety of modifiers available can be overwhelming at first, especially if you have no idea what each one does, or where to begin investing. Below is a list of the more common ones, which will have you understanding the difference between a grid and a gel in no time!
Umbrella One of the first modifiers that a new photographer may encounter is an umbrella. There are two main types of umbrella- the reflective umbrella, and the shoot-through umbrella.
Photo by Robert Wiegmann
A reflective umbrella is positioned so that the flash fires into the umbrella, then bounces back out onto the subject. This kind of umbrella is lined- usually with a shiny silver, gold, or white. A white lining will offer a neutral, softer type of light, whereas silver is a bit stronger and more punchy. Gold will lay a warm colour cast over your subject, but this type of lining is used less frequently, as the golden light isn’t as versatile as a neutral colour.
A shoot-through umbrella is placed between the light and the subject, so that as the light fires, it passes through the umbrella. Shoot-throughs are translucent, and act as a diffusing modifier, softening the light. Because of their shape and size, they also scatter the light quite a lot, spreading it around the environment. For this reason, they are great for lighting a subject as well as the background.
Softbox A softbox is a square or rectangular (or sometimes octagonal!) modifier that, as the name suggests, creates a soft light.
This is because it has a large surface area, so when attached to the front of a flash head the ‘light’ is larger. Remember that the larger the light source, the softer the light. Softboxes come in an endless amount of sizes, and are a very common modifier. Some softboxes also have an extra layer of diffusion cloth inside, called a baffle. This softens the light even further, so may require a higher power output from your flash.
Photo by ElisaDc
There are also long, skinny softboxes called ‘strip lights.’ This type of softbox allows the light to be focused to just one narrow area of a subject.
Beauty dish A beauty dish is a large round dish, most commonly used for portraits, beauty, and fashion. The light is deflected by a small plate, which then disperses it out and around the dish, before it hits the subject.
This results in a very flattering light, with defined but flattering shadows. The beauty dish is quite a directional light source, so needs to be placed with careful consideration.
Beauty dishes often come with a sock or grid, which can be used to soften or further direct the light, respectively.
Ring Light Another aptly named modifier, a ring light forms a complete circle, and is most commonly positioned around the lens of the camera. Because of its unique placement, the light from a ring flash is very uniform, and fills in all the places you would expect to see shadows. Most often used for beauty, as well as medical and forensic photography. It gives a very specific ‘look,’ which is also often viewed as a bit of a novelty. For this reason, ring lights aren’t as diverse in their usage as some of the other modifiers.
A snoot is a funnel or cone-shaped modifier that concentrates the light into a very small spot. The effect can look like that of a small spotlight. They are often used as an accent light, to highlight the edge of a subject from behind, or add an extra pop of luminance to one particular part of a subject.
Grids A grid is a relatively flat, metal ring with a honeycomb shape inside. Grids are used to direct the light, making it more focused in one specific direction, and preventing it from spilling. The size and depth of the honeycomb can vary, and this determines how strongly directed the light is.
For example, placing a grid on a light aimed at the background could create a ‘spot’ behind the subject. The finer the grid, the more defined that circle will be. Other modifiers sometimes have their own ‘grids,’ which can be added. Beauty dishes, for example, often have a large grid attachment, and soft boxes sometimes come with soft, fabric ‘honeycombs’, which work in the same way.
Gels are coloured, translucent sheets that come in various hues. They are placed over a lightsource to alter the colour of the light it is emitting. There are two main uses for gels; to balance colour temperature, and to add intentional pops of colour.
Photo by Victoria Mullins
Balancing colour temperature is important when working in mixed lighting situations. Say, for example, you were shooting indoors under tungsten lighting (which has a yellow cast), but wanted to use flash to add a pop of light (a ‘whiter’ light.) Rather than struggling with conflicting white balance settings, a gel on the flash can be used to match the colour of the tungsten lights, so that the entire scene is consistent. The other use for gels is to add a strong colour to give a mood or feel to an image, or add interest through colour. Rather than evening out the colour temperature of a scene, this way of using a gel adds drama to an image.