Use softboxes to create even, flattering light without harsh shadows. You can see the softbox in this portrait reflected in the subject’s sunglasses.
Considering that, as photographers, we’re essentially capturing light in a box, modifying how that light gets captured is a key to creativity. When you’re working with artificial light sources, light modifiers like those discussed here can help you shape and color the light to achieve the precise look you’re trying to achieve.
Softboxes essentially enlarge and diffuse a flash. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The bigger the softbox, the more diffused your light will be.
The Lastolite Ezybox Speed-Lite 2 is top-rated, compact softbox that folds flat and opens into an 8.6-inch square. The killer feature of the Lastolite is the two layers of diffusion fabric. The rubberized ratchet fitment is secure and small enough to not interfere with AF sensors. Estimated street price: $69. Contact: Lastolite (Manfrotto), manfrotto.us/lastolite.
As the name implies, a beauty dish is for portraits, and it produces contrasting light for highlighting details of the face and skin. Resembling a large serving plate, the light enters through the back, hits a deflector, bounces off the edges of the dish, and then heads toward the subject with a lively and vibrant effect. What you’re doing with a beauty dish is avoiding harsh, unflattering shadows and keeping the eyes sharp and well-lit. Pro tip: Practice assembling the light a few times before arriving on location. Once you learn the technique, it’s easy. If you don’t learn it first, the rods that expand the dish can break.
Most beauty dishes are rigid. The Profoto OCF Beauty Dish is collapsible and packs into a carry bag. It’s not inexpensive, but the creamy and crisp light is worth the spend. Estimated street price: $199. Contact: Profoto, profoto.com.
A ring light fills in shadows and makes subjects glow. Used up close, it creates a catchlight in your subject’s eyes. When used with a wide-angle lens, a ring light will bring out the character of a subject and is super fun in a photo booth setting. A ring light is also where the benefits of LEDs have been most realized.
“Diva” or selfie rings are also popular with YouTubers, and the Go Diva line from Stellar Lighting Systems attaches to a cell phone for Instagrammers. Designed for social media sharing, these ring lights are inexpensive, starting as low as $18, while studio kits can cost hundreds of dollars. Contact: Stellar Lighting Systems, stellarlightingsystems.com.
Sounding like a “Star Wars” cantina character with ulterior motives, a snoot is a conical-shaped spotlight. It directs a tight beam on your subject, and a screw-in grid will narrow the beam even further. Underwater photographers use snoots with fiber optics embedded in them to take photographs that would be otherwise impossible.
The Gary Fong Speed Snoot Collapsible cinches onto a flash and packs down tight for travel. Estimated street price: $59. Contact: Gary Fong, garyfong.com.
Working like a snoot, a grid focuses light in a specific direction. In the smaller diameters, grids are easy to toss into your camera pack. Use them to control the light in circumstances such as when you want a dim background but bright foreground. Grids are stackable and can be attached directly to a light or snoot. Because the grids are more precise, setting them up will take patience and time.
I could, and probably should, write an entire story on color temperature and control mixed light with gels. I’m sharing them here because they’re another travel-friendly way to modify light when you want to add colorful effects. Countering the ugly cast from fluorescent lights is the well-known usage for gels. They’ll get rid of the unattractive purples and greens. You can combine gels with grids for effects in portraiture or in product photography to add a pop of color.
A diffuser attached to an external flash spreads the flash output for a softer, even light. You can DIY a diffuser with a coffee filter, a plastic container and even a note card in a pinch, but for best results, choose a product designed for the purpose. MagMod’s MagSphere resembles the Pillsbury Doughboy’s hat and attaches to your flash with a convenient magnetic assembly. Estimated street price: $50. Contact: MagMod, magnetmod.com.
The most versatile light modifier when shooting on location is a flash bender. You can shape the light into a tight spot, bounce, use a stencil, or fold it into a snoot. By bending the reflective surface toward the flash, it’s also used as a card or flag. A bender is how party photographers can get great-looking, in-the-moment photos at events. They attach the benders to a flash and get pleasing light on attendees’ faces. The best part is a bender packs flat in your camera pack. I’ve used them at bike races when the natural light isn’t optimal.
The Rogue FlashBender 2 fits all typical flashes. The new-version Rogue is lighter and includes an improved design for a secure, quick fit. Estimated street price: About $39 (depending on size). Contact: Rogue Photographic Design, rogueflash.com.
What’s great about any of these light-modifying methods is that they’re all compact enough for traveling to a location shoot and will fit inside your hardcase or backpack. Using a modifier means you’re gonna get the shot, even if the natural light doesn’t cooperate.