Modifiers for Soft Light

Right, time to finally talk about modifiers, having muttered about them several times throughout the course. Modifiers are the blanket term used to cover tools that allow you to change the quality of light. They come in a bewildering array of different formats, types, and price points, and different manufacturers will call them different things.

They are also somewhere that manufacturers will try and gouge money out of you. I’ll be the first to admit that the right modifier in the right place can make your life very easy, and allow you to get the perfect shot, but I’ll also happily admit that I’ve spent a small fortune over the years on modifiers that I think will be the magic bullet that will transform my photography.

Always remember that all a modifier will do is make your light source harder or softer – it will change the quality of that light. The quality of light exists on a curve from a very hard pinpoint, to a huge soft source, and modifiers simply let you pick a point on that curve. They offer a neat, packaged, convenient way of doing this. They’re great for making life easy on shoots, and giving you more control, but it’s totally up to you how much you spend, and how much kit you collect. I shoot lots of jobs with no lights or modifiers at all, and lots of jobs with several lights, and huge modifiers. Having lots of lights and modifiers can allow you to create some impressive imagery, but don’t forget that the more complex your setup gets, the more things you need to look out for, and the more things there are to go wrong. A lot of the time, simple is best.

As with everything else in photography, there’s often a trade off. For example, usually when you make a light source softer, you’ll also reduce the quantity of it. Any fabric used to diffuse light may not be perfectly white and neutral, so you may even find that your shots end up warmer or cooler than you wanted. You’ll also find that adding things like softboxes or brollies to your lights will make them into giant sails that are just itching to catch the wind, so they’ll need to be held or weighted down, otherwise you’re looking at an expensive repair bill.

Now let’s dive in and look at some of the more common types of modifier out there.

Modifiers to soften light – Umbrellas

First, let’s talk about modifiers that make the light softer. Since most light sources are small – to make them convenient to pack, carry and setup, making a light source larger and therefore softer is big business, and there are a lot of choices.

One of the main reasons for using modifiers to soften your light is convenience. We know that light can be made softer in all sorts of ways, such as bouncing it off a wall or reflector, or shooting through a diffusion panel. All of these solutions are fine, but moving something like a light + reflector, or a light and a diffusion panel can get fiddly, and can result in inconsistent results from shot to shot. By using a softbox, or umbrella, or similar, you can keep the light as one piece, and things should be simpler, and more consistent from shot to shot.

Probably the two main modifiers that soften light are umbrellas (which I tend to refer to as brollies) and softboxes.

Let’s start with brollies. It’s pretty easy to grasp what goes on with them – you open the brolly out and then slide the shaft of the brolly either into your light, or into the hole in a mount. There are two main types of umbrella – a shoot through – where you aim the lights through the fabric of the umbrella (usually white) – and a bounce, or reflective umbrella where you aim the light into the inner curve of the brolly, and the light is bounced around before heading out to your subject. You can buy brollies that have removable fabric like the one in the video, which will allow you to use them both ways.

In my experience, the biggest difference between reflecting the light, and shooting through, is in terms of how the light falls onto the subject. Shooting through the diffusion material generally means the light spills in all directions, whereas, reflecting it allows you more control over where the light falls. Reflecting the light into a brolly gives you some control over feathering (remember – we talked about this earlier) which can be useful. The wider spread from a shoot through can also be useful too though – if you need a light to fill a large area, a shoot through is ideal.

The other difference between reflecting and shooting through is efficiency, by which I mean the amount of light that ends up hitting the subject, rather than being wasted by spilling off in different directions, or being absorbed and bounced as part of the softening process. By this measure, a silver bounce umbrella is the most efficient – silver is more reflective than white, so you’ll get more bang for your buck, and be able to use your flashes at a lower power – this will of course reduce your recycling time as well as saving any batteries you’re using.

At the opposite end of the scale for efficiency is a white shoot through. A significant chunk of the light will actually bounce back from the white fabric, and just head off into space, rather than towards your subject. This may not be a concern, but if you think back to those four facets of light, quantity always plays a part. You may find yourself using something fairly weak like a flashgun to try and fill-in or overpower the midday sun, and as such, the efficiency of your modifier will be an important factor to consider.

Brollies are really cheap – you can pick them up for as little as £20, although bigger ones can cost several times that. They’re also very lightweight and portable – packed down they take up very little space. On the downside, they’re quite fragile – I’ve bent and broken many of them over the years, and they’re notorious for catching the wind out on location.

Modifiers to soften light – Softboxes

The next common light modifier that softens is a softbox. Again, these come in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes, from ones a few centimetres wide that fit flashguns, to huge ones that fit cinema lights, and they all have a price tag to match, naturally.

They usually function a bit like a tent – there will be rods that hold fabric under tension to create a box. The rods are generally inserted into something called a speedring, which is then mounted onto your light. One neat trick is that you can easily get different speedrings for different lights, and they’re pretty inexpensive. So if you change your lighting system over time, you won’t need to buy a whole new softbox, just a new speedring. Speedrings also allow any rectangular softboxes to be rotated from portrait to landscape format without having to remove the box altogether

The front of a softbox will be made up of diffusion fabric, and you may be able to add more layers of diffusion to the interior to further diffuse the light. The light from your light source (usually a flash, but they do come in versions for continuous light) bounces around inside the softbox, and then is diffused by any interior fabrics, and the front fabric. There’s an obvious quantity fall off as the light passes through these fabric, so don’t forget to allow for that.

A softbox will allow you more control over feathering than an umbrella, even one that’s reflecting. The black side of the softbox, and the back baffle, plus the clearly defined edges, all help you to control where the light falls. As we know from our understanding of distance and direction, controlling the fall of light, particularly in a small area, can be really important.

Softboxes are great little tools, although they tend to be a bit more expensive than brollies, and are a bit less portable since you need a speedring too. Their only main drawbacks are that quite a lot of quantity can be removed by all the diffusion panels, they’re nearly as bad as brollies at catching the wind on location, and you may see a small colour shift depending on how neutral the diffusion fabric in your softbox is

Those are the two main types of softening modifiers. Don’t forget, all they do is just make the light source bigger, and therefore softer. It’s also important to bear in mind the underlying rule that a light is only “soft” if it is large in relation to the subject. Just adding a brolly or softbox won’t have much effect if you then place it a long way away from the subject. If you’re lighting someone’s face for example, and you take a small softbox like a 60cm square one, but place it 10m away, it’s not really a soft light at all any more. Bring it much closer in, and it’ll do a better job.

There are a few other softening modifiers out there – beauty dishes, and parabolic umbrellas being the most common. You can think of a beauty dish as being a bit like a cross between a softbox and an umbrella – the light is directional and great for feathering, just like a softbox, but it works by bouncing around, just like a reflective brolly. You can add diffusion to the front of a beauty dish to soften the light further, or add a grid to channel the fall of light.

Parabolic umbrellas are wonderful things, but very expensive – the cheapest start at about £1000, so you’re more likely to rent rather than own them. As such, there’s not much point going into too much detail here, but essentially they’re umbrella style reflectors that can change shape, and as such are very efficient whilst still remaining soft. I wouldn’t worry about them for now though!

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