On-camera lighting is nothing new, but making light from flash systems beautiful—by modifying it and getting it off the camera—kind of is. It’s easier than ever to create better, more flattering images with a speedlight flash with these accessories and modifiers.
Ask 100 photographers how they most like to modify their flashes, and 99 will answer “diffusion.” Like a thin layer of clouds in the sky, diffusion softens the light, fills in harsh shadows and makes specular flash generally more flattering—especially for portraits. One of the most traditional, popular, versatile and portable light modifiers is the umbrella. Umbrellas can be “shoot through,” made of translucent silk and positioned between the flash and the subject to diffuse the direct light, or “bounce,” lined with white, silver or gold, and backed with opaque black fabric to minimize spill and reflect all of the light back out of the umbrella, diffusing it greatly in the process.
Whichever type you prefer, you can’t use an umbrella when the flash is mounted on the camera. You first need to mount it on a stand, but it must have a baby spud. (The “spud” is the post at the top of a stand, and “baby” is the standard 5/8” size connector in the photo world.) If you prefer things a little more deluxe, check out models with air cushioning, which makes collapsing the stand an easier, more comfortable proposition. The Manfrotto Alu Master Air-Cushioned 12′ Stand is light and durable, extends to 12 feet tall, and folds down flat for portability, thanks to Manfrotto’s Quick Stack System (QSS). It retails for about $125.
You’ll need an adapter bracket with a shoe mount to hold your flash by its hot-shoe base. There are lots of options, and as long as they’re well made and easy to grip, they all work fine—but they must include one key design: a pass-through hole and knob to accommodate the umbrella’s post. Impact‘s Umbrella Bracket is about $20 and attaches securely to a baby spud on one end and grips the flash tight at the other. In between is a hole for holding the umbrella and a tension handle for tilting and swiveling the light—all the better to aim the umbrella exactly where you want it.
Ready to trigger your off-camera flash? You could use a tethered cable, but more convenient is a wireless trigger like the PocketWizard Plus X transceiver, which retails for under $100 and can trigger any flash from up to 500 yards away. It’s the simplest transceiver PocketWizard sells; just attach one to the camera’s hot-shoe and the other to your flash (via an included cable), set them both to the same channel and fire away.
As for the umbrella, consider a deluxe version of this versatile, portable diffuser. The Lastolite Joe McNally signature-series 4 In 1 Umbrella sells for $200 and can be configured for white or silver bounce, shoot through, or shoot through with a square black mask to shape the direction of the light and contain its spill, as well as produce light that’s a little more like a softbox with a square catchlight in the subject’s eyes.
Another way to soften flash is to use handheld diffusion or a bounce card between the flash and subject. Lastolite‘s TriGrip Difflector is a combination diffusion panel and reflector with a molded handle that makes it easy to grip with just one hand. The special fabric allows light to bounce off of one side while passing through the other. Available in silver and gold (for added warmth) and sizes from 18” to 48” for $45 to $100.
For photographers who want diffusion, but don’t always want to remove the flash from the camera, a variety of modifiers fit the bill. In terms of straight softboxes, the Westcott Pocket Box Max is a $20 softbox built exclusively for speedlights. It’s about as big a softbox as you can get on the camera, measuring 8×12” in size. Westcott also offers the Erin Manning Pocket Box Softbox Kit, which includes different sizes and shapes of collapsible Pocket Boxes for $50.
The LumiQuest Softbox III is another small softbox; at $50, this 8×9” diffuser accommodates different flashes and folds flat for convenient storage and travel.
The simplest and least expensive subtle diffusion option is the Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce, which is a compact, translucent, semi-rigid plastic diffuser that slips over a flash to subtly soften and spread the light. They’re made specifically to fit a variety of different flashes, and all of them retail for under $10.
Gary Fong‘s Lightsphere line of modifiers upsizes that approach, in hard plastic and collapsible soft plastic versions with accessories that can be used to bounce, diffuse, focus and even colorize flash output. The original hard plastic Lightsphere Universal for $50 and is a strong on-camera diffuser that works perfectly for indoor photo shoots in which the light is also bounced directionally off of a wall or ceiling. The $60 Collapsible Lightsphere is even better because it folds down to take up less space in the camera bag.
The Lightsphere can accommodate an amber-colored top to warm the output. Normally near daylight, strobes can be modified with gels to change their color for special effects or to match various types of light. For instance, to balance flash with interior tungsten illumination, a Color Temperature Orange (CTO) gel is used to shift the color temperature of the flash down to the color temperature of the tungsten lights. Otherwise, one of them is going to look incorrect; the flash will appear too blue, or the tungsten will appear too orange. Many manufacturers make pre-cut packs of gels that fit perfectly over the face of a flash. Gel-maker Rosco partnered with David Hobby—whose well-regarded blog called Strobist is all about improving flash—to produce the Strobist Collection of gels, which includes 20 1.5×5.5” gels for color matching and special effects for about $20.
ExpoImaging makes Rogue FlashBenders, fabric panels with flexible rods inside that allow them to be bent and shaped into a bounce card, a small softbox or even a snoot (a tube that focuses light into a column). FlashBenders start at $20
, but to purchase a collection of everything Rogue offers, consider the FlashBender 2 Portable Lighting Kit, which, for $200, includes six reflectors and panels, 20 gels, 3-in-1 grids (for focusing light into a tight circle), 20 grid gels and a compact and convenient travel bag.
Speaking of grids, these honeycomb-like modifiers attach to the front of a flash in order to rein light into a focused beam, making a circle of illumination rather than a broad spread. The aforementioned Rogue 3-in-1 Flash Grid uses interchangeable honeycomb inserts to achieve a moderate 45º circle of light down to a tight 16º circle. These grids are ideal for limiting spill, which makes them great when directed back toward the camera—like hair lights and edge lights that create depth and separation between subject and background. The 3-in-1 Flash Grid Starter Set is $40.
Snoots create a tighter spot with a harder edge, largely determined by its length and diameter. Honl Photo’s Speed Snoot is a $30 fabric snoot—white on the inside, black ballistic nylon out—which can unfold into a diffuser/reflector. It affixes to a variety of flashes from any manufacturer via the optional $10 Honl Photo Speed Strap. The Speed Strap can also be used to hold the Honl Photo Speed Grid, a $30 rectangular grid that fits almost any flash.
For something a bit unique, try the Impact Strobros Beauty Dish II. Beauty dishes are popular “big strobe” modifiers in the fashion and beauty world because they soften the output without eliminating all of the specular nature of the light. With the right subject, it can make a portrait really pop. The Strobros beauty dish is small enough to fit on a flash even when mounted on-camera, and it retails for just $30.
If you’re looking for a two-in-one offering, consider the LightSwitch speedlight case from LumoPro. What’s so special about this $30 case? This one does double-duty: It can be unzipped into a flexible bounce card; when it’s not modifying your light, it’s protecting your flash.