Whether artificial or natural, light that comes from a single source is directional and harsh, which results in images that have a lot of contrast and heavy shadows. Generally, this is unflattering to a subject, especially when working with people. Even with limited swiveling abilities and wireless control over multiple flash units, this unfortunate fact makes on-camera flash a very limited lighting solution when used on its own.
Adding any of several very affordable accessories, however, can turn your single flash into a much more versatile lighting solution while gaining you a lot of control over existing ambient lighting. Many of these compact accessories are great for working off-camera, as well, which can give you an extensive amount of lighting options when working wirelessly with multiple flash units.
Keep in mind that the automatic TTL (through-the-lens) metering of your camera will be affected greatly by light-modification tools. Learn the manual functions of your camera and flash so you can accommodate for this, but even if working in TTL mode, you’ll get better light if you learn how to adjust basic exposure levels by adding or subtracting exposure value through the flash.
ENHANCING LIGHT: REFLECTORS AND UMBRELLAS
Many flashes include swiveling or rotating heads for bouncing light from nearby walls or ceilings to reduce shadows and contrast by spreading out the light. This is the same reason why flashes incorporate diffusion or bounce panels for refracting light at a 90° angle. Pointing the flash away from your subject, of course, reduces illumination a great deal.
Reflectors work in the same way to give you control over the strong directional light coming from your flash, as well as any other more powerful ambient light sources like the sun. They’re used to diffuse or enhance directional light by reflecting the light rays of your flash or ambient source into a more even spread. They also can be used as a mirror to reflect light into a scene for key lighting, highlights, fill-flash and other unique properties like image warmth or reflected catchlights for adding life to a subject’s eyes. Reflectors are available in a variety of materials and textures that can be as simple as a white bounce board. Most common reflector solutions are available in silver, gold and several types of white, as well as mixed or switchable combinations of these surfaces. Silver will give a specular pop to a subject, while gold adds a warm, "late-afternoon" glow. White will reflect or diffuse light that’s true to the output of the flash.
Umbrellas are another great choice for spreading out directional light. Just as with reflectors, they’re often available in gold, silver or white. The spread of light is very soft and flattering, similar to a softbox, but with less control over the side spill of light than a forward-facing paneled softbox can provide. Most lighting companies offer a number of umbrella solutions.
ExpoImaging’s versatile Rogue series of FlashBenders and Diffusion Panels are a perfect example of what you can do with a flash when you combine it with a simple light modifier. There are three sizes in the line, each malleable with plain white material for shaping reflected light into tight spots or for bouncing to gain a more natural spread. The Rogue FlashBender Bendable Bounce Card/Flag can bounce light and can restrict or shape light as a "flag" via the black fabric attachment, or by bending the white surface toward the flash. The Rogue FlashBender Small Positionable Reflector can be used as a reflector, a flag or as a smaller snoot by shaping the material into a tunnel-like enclosure. The Large Positionable Reflector bumps up the 10×7-inch dimensions to a larger 10×11-inch solution, and all three are available together as a kit. Estimated Street Price: $29 (Bendable Bounce Card/Flag); $34 (Small Positionable Reflector); $39 (Large Positionable Reflector); $99 (Rogue FlashBender Kit).
Interfit’s Strobies are studio lighting tools for portable flashes that are available in a Portrait Kit or an EFX Kit better suited to background and product photography. The Portrait Kit includes a beauty dish (often used for soft high-glamour portraiture), globe diffuser, softbox, barndoor set for controlling light spread, snoot and honeycomb grid. Each item is available separately. Strobies require a separate, but inexpensive Flex Mount to secure the items to the flashgun, which are available in sizes to accommodate popular flash types. The tools also can be used with a new or alternate flash by purchasing another fitted Flex Mount. Estimated Street Price: $129 (Portrait Kit); $8 (Flex Mount).
LumiQuest’s Ready for Anything Kit includes everything offered in their complete ProMax System of flash-modification tools, as well as the FXtra gel holder with eight Rosco gels and the nonadhesive UltraStrap for attaching LumiQuest accessories. The ProMax six-piece system offers an 80-20 ceiling bounce (with a 20% fill spread) and interchangeable white, gold and silver inserts. There’s also a frosted diffusion screen. LumiQuest’s Strobist Kit is a similar set with an extra gel and the on-flash SoftBox III solution instead of the ProMax reflectors. Estimated Street Price: $79 (Ready for Anything Kit); $65 (Strobist Kit).
For bigger bouncing needs, California Sunbounce makes highly regarded, professional light-modification equipment. What makes their SUN-MOVER reflector so nice is that, with its comparatively stiff PermaTense construction, just one person can hold it, and it will stay flat, even in high wind. The oval shape and tensile strength of the reflector give it the ability to focus the reflected light into a tight spotlight by bending inward, or a wider diffuse spread by turning outward. The 32-inch reflector system is available in Zebra/White for a subtle warm feel and Silver/White for a more neutral reflection. List Price: $109 (Silver/White 32-inch); $122 (Zebra/White 32-inch).
SOFTENING LIGHT: SOFTBOXES, DOMES, SILKS
Diffusion spreads light rays out for more even—but less powerful—coverage. There are a variety of different tools for performing diffusion, such as silks, softboxes, domes and panels. All of them work by passing light through a semi-opaque material. The light quality is soft and flattering, and gels or reflective surfaces can be added to influence the feel and color temperature of the light.
The Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce is an affordable and simple little flash dome that secures to the front of a flash for spreading light evenly to the front and the sides. (The distribution of light is especially effective around reflective walls that w
ill return the light.) It’s also available in green for working with fluorescent lighting and gold for warming skin tone and flash output. List Price: $19.
Harbor Digital Design’s Ultimate Light Box Diffuser ProPack acts as a large softbox for your flash by sliding over the front of the unit, with interchangeable tools in the kit that help to diffuse and shape light. The system includes a large Ultimate Light Box, a smaller Diffuser Dome and a Black Box that channels light directionally for snoot-like performance. A large reflector and Sensor/Lens Shield are also offered, and there are fitted color gel filters in red, blue, green, yellow and pink, as well as a 1/2 CTO gel for correcting white balance under fluorescents. Estimated Street Price: $104.
Known for their studio lighting solutions, Photoflex also produces a selection of smaller softboxes that are compatible with shoe-mount flashes, including three sizes of their LiteDome softbox. Additionally, the 1.5-foot OctoDome nxt and larger, but still quite portable 3-foot OctoDome are eight-sided softboxes with a much larger light spread and, hence, even subtler, softer light. Rather than the rectangular shape that you get with a typical softbox, with an octabox you also gain more natural circular highlights and catchlights. Both OctoDomes include removable faces and baffles for two levels of control over diffusion, and they’re available in kits with stands and other features. List Price: From $165.
Honl Photo’s traveller8 and traveller16 softboxes replicate the traditional softbox design and miniaturize it for use with shoe-mount flashes. The larger 16-inch front diffuser of the traveller16 features a removable interior light baffle for reducing light further, and a stabilizer cord keeps the system from weighing down the flash. The smaller traveller8 weighs less than four ounces. Both models include a Speed Strap for attachment to the unit, and they will fold flat for stowing in camera bags. List Price: $69 (traveller8); $149 (traveller16).
F.J. Westcott produces a lineup of Speedlite Kits for on-camera and off-camera flashes. The 12-inch Micro Apollo softbox with silver reflective interior will fit right over your flash, while the 16-inch Mini-Apollo and 28-inch Recessed Front Apollo models provide a wider spread of light at 140° and 104°, respectively. All three models feature an umbrella-like design for fast setup, and the Micro Apollo folds flat for better portability. Westcott also offers a number of kits that allow you to mount flashes and radio receivers to the setup for working with slave units. Estimated Street Price: $25 (Micro Apollo); $129 (28-inch Recessed Front Apollo); $64 (Mini-Apollo).
The Ezybox Speed-Lite softbox is a smaller, on-camera, 8.6×8.6-inch version of the larger line of Lastolite Ezybox softbox models. A number of the larger Ezybox softboxes can be used with flashes, as well, including kits like the Ezybox Hotshoe Softbox Kit with Case, which includes a four-section stand, tilt-head bracket, handle and Ezybox Hotshoe plate for mounting the flash in a studio setup. For those with multiple flash units, there are three Quad Flash Kits available for adding a bracket that can mount up to four on-camera flashes for a very powerful lighting solution in a single softbox. Estimated Street Price: $71 (Ezybox Speed-Lite); $299 (Ezybox Hotshoe Softbox Kit with Case); From $265 (18×18-inch Quad Flash Kit).
FOCUSING LIGHT: SNOOTS + GRIDS
A grid narrows the spread of light by channeling light rays through cell-like structures near the surface of the light. It’s ideal as a highlight, rim or background light. Much like a theater spotlight, this results in a strong spot of light with gradual light falloff. The tighter the angle, the more that the beam will be narrow and focused. Grids are often used with a snoot, which is another highly effective tool for collimating light forward into a tight spotlight. Snoots are available in a variety of diameters and materials for affecting the nature and strength of the light, and they’re primarily used to isolate a subject from the rest of the scene with substantial contrast and very strong vignetting.
The ExpoImaging Rogue 3-in-1 Honeycomb Grid uses stacking for a lightweight add-on with your choice of angles at 25°, 45° or a tight 16° when stacked. Stacked filters are aligned to minimize unnecessary shadows and light blocking, and an included adjustable strap makes it compatible with most standard shoe-mount flashes. The Lighting Filter Kit for the grid adds to the possibilities with 20 perfectly sized color gels for theatrical lighting effects. Estimated Street Price: $49 (Rogue 3-in-1 Honeycomb Grid); $27 (Lighting Filter Kit for Rogue Grid); $74 (Rogue 3-in-1 Grid and Color Correction Filters Kit). Honl Photo makes a grid nicely sized for on-camera flashes, the Speed Grid, which is available in 1?4-inch and 1?8-inch sizes with a wider and narrower beam, respectively. The no-frills solution very quickly mounts to the head of the flash with Velcro®. Available in 8-inch or 15-inch sizes, Honl also offers the Speed Snoot with three interior materials to choose from: gray for a soft, more neutral appeal; white for more contrast; and gold/silver for enhancing skin tone. A Speed Strap is needed to mount the tools to the flash. Estimated Street Price: $29 (Speed Grid); $29 (Speed Snoot); $9 (Speed Strap).
Gary Fong’s PowerSnoot is so named because it incorporates chrome plating and a grid into the design for a superpowered forward burst of light. The highly focused beam makes it a great choice for working with long telephoto lenses, and the grid can be removed for less impact. The PowerSnoot is also available as a set with the Lightsphere Collapsible Pro Kit, which includes the Lightsphere Collapsible diffuser system, a White Dome diffuser, a ChromeDome reflective light booster, an AmberDome warming diffusion dome and the four-color Color Filter Kit for adding color to any highlights, backgrounds or the entire scene. List Price: $64 (PowerSnoot); $169 (Lightsphere Collapsible Pro Kit).
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