A Guide to Portrait Photography Light Modifiers

The apparent size of studio lights control their softness.

Now that you have mastered the Three Laws of Light, it’s time that we talk about “Light Modifiers.” The “Umbrellas” and “softboxes” that I mentioned in A Guide to Portrait Photography: The Laws of Lighting are two types of light modifiers. In The Laws of Lighting you learned that it’s the apparent size of the light that determines the lighting effect and we use light modifiers to control the apparent size of a studio light. Five common types of light modifiers are umbrellas, softboxes, Brolly boxes, reflectors, and scrims.

Umbrellas are popular light modifiers because they are relatively inexpensive, easy to store, easy to transport, and quick to set up and take down. Umbrellas come in a wide range of sizes and colors, such as white, silver, gold, sunshine, etc, so there will be one perfect for every lighting task. Umbrellas cost as little as $20 so they are within every photographer’s budget. Umbrellas are one size fit all light modifiers. Any size umbrella will fit any size light or strobe.

Softboxes, unlike umbrellas, are designed to work with specific size lights and for that reason, they aren’t as flexible. Available in various shapes and sizes, the light from a Softbox is typically softer than that of an umbrella due to multiple diffusion layers inside. Softboxes have the added benefit that you can put them really close to your subject to decrease the light spilling onto the background without any fears of spearing them with the rod in the center like an umbrella. Some softboxes are a bit of a pain to set up, with several pieces to put together. Others open like an umbrella. The downside to a square Softbox is that the catch light in your subject’s eyes is square and not round. Luckily, some more expensive softboxes have an octagonal shape. As a rule, you would buy the Softbox as a kit consisting of the Softbox, studio light, and light stand. Softbox lighting kits are relatively expensive, costing $200 to $2000 or more.

A Brolly Box gives you the best of both worlds. They are relatively inexpensive and produce the soft lighting of a Softbox. It’s simply an umbrella with a piece of diffusion material in the front instead of being open. These provide nice soft lighting while maintaining quick setup and low cost. I use a Brolly box more than umbrellas or softboxes because of their quality look and ease of use.

Reflectors are self-explanatory; they are rectangular devices that reflect light. They can be purchased in a wide range of colors and sizes at reasonable prices but being a do it yourselfer, I prefer to make my own as I need them. They are handy to have around the studio, especially when you come up short a light or two because you can use a reflector to reflect part of the light from one of the other lights into the area where you need it. Reflectors are also handy to have around when you are shooting portraits using natural light. You use them to create fill lighting to reduce shadows when needed.

Scrims, like most reflectors, are rectangular panels. Scrims, unlike rectangular reflectors, are translucent panels that diffuse light passing through them. I use them most when shooting outdoors portraits in bright sunlight. The scrim diffuses and softens the harsh sunlight falling on my subject. Many reflector panel sets include a scrim. For example, a set I have includes a scrim, with interchangeable white, black, silver, and gold surfaces translucent panels.

These are just a sample of the types of light modifiers available today but armed with a few umbrellas, Brolly boxes, reflectors, and Scrims, you will be able to handle just about any lighting situation you are likely to encounter.

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carol roach
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Posted on Sep 12, 2009