Soften The FlashOn the other side of the spectrum are techniques to soften the light. This can be accomplished by bouncing flash or by firing through umbrellas and soft-boxes. Many flashes come with a plastic diffusion dome that fits on the flash head. This will diffuse the light to a degree and is useful in certain situations where you have to shoot fast in large crowds. But here’s the cardinal rule in soft lighting: The larger the light source relative to your subject, the softer the light. Since these diffusion domes are small, they don’t soften the light much.
The next step up in creating soft light is using bounce flash. LumiQuest makes a variety of bounce flash accessories. My favorite is the Quik Bounce. This clever light modifier consists of a white plastic flash card about 5x7 inches that attaches to your flash with Velcro®. What makes this accessory unique is a narrow opening in the middle of the bounce card that can be opened or closed, depending on your situation. If you’re photographing in a room with a white ceiling, you can open this slot on the card to allow your flash to bounce off the ceiling, resulting in pleasant, soft light. If you’re outside with no ceiling for bounce flash, keep this opening closed and all your flash is reflected off the bounce card. Honl Photo makes a simple bounce card that also acts as a gobo; using the black side of this accessory helps shield your lens from flare.
Umbrellas and softboxes have been around a long time, but have been limited in their practical use with TTL flash. This is no longer the case. There’s a variety of umbrella systems and soft-boxes designed specifically for TTL flash, from small single-flash options to solutions for multiple-flash systems.
Some small softbox options are made by LumiQuest. The Softbox III is the largest softbox LumiQuest offers and produces the softest light in its softbox lineup. This softbox is 8x9 inches, attaches directly to the flash head using Velcro®, and is a convenient way to soften light in fast-moving situations. The quality of light from this box is soft, yet edgy—a nice look for portraits. LumiQuest also makes smaller versions of this softbox.
If I really want to soften the light, I use the 24-inch Lastolite Ezybox. This softbox comes with a TTL bracket that holds the flash and a softbox that pops open when you take it out of the bag (similar to a collapsible reflector). Triggering the flash is done using a wireless transmitter. As do traditional large softboxes, the Ezybox has an internal diffusion panel and an outside panel, diffusing the light significantly. And being 24x24 inches, this large light source dramatically softens the light. Also, the Ezybox comes with diffusers that attach to the front, opening up new possibilities for controlling the light. I’ve used the Ezybox in remote areas, from Africa to Patagonia, resulting in stunning portraits in the middle of nowhere!
Umbrellas are a popular way to soften light. As with softboxes, umbrellas come in a variety of sizes. Some locations require using a small umbrella for quick shooting in tight spaces. But what if you want to soften light and use a three-foot-diameter umbrella? The limitation in the past has been that one TTL flash uses a lot of power to shoot light into this large surface, and flash recycle times are slow. Lastolite has introduced an exciting tool to eliminate this problem: the TriFlash bracket. This bracket holds up to three TTL flashes and has a standard umbrella-rod opening to mount umbrellas. The bracket can be mounted onto a standard light stand. When using three TTL flashes, recycle times are dramatically reduced, and the light is more evenly spread in the umbrella. Flashes are triggered using a wireless transmitter. Using three flashes with this bracket, I found the recycle time very fast, similar to a studio strobe pack.