Camera flashes are highly directional light sources. This means that the burst of light is coming from a single light source, the bulb, resulting in an uneven style of lighting with a brightly lit subject in the foreground and a lot of heavy shadows surrounding the subject. This effect is especially unappealing when working with portraiture, which, of course, is the majority of situations in which you’ll find yourself working with a flash. Just as with professional studio lighting setups, however, there are a number of tools and accessories available for enhancing the output of a flash while adding powerful effects.
Most flashes include a built-in diffusion panel that flips out to cover the flash. This translucent panel softens the harsh light output by spreading the light rays produced by the bare flash bulb along the surface of the panel to more evenly distribute illumination as light rays move forward. Although the amount of overall light is reduced, as is the case with all light-modification tools, this results in better overall illumination, less contrast and reduced shadows. In essence, all diffusion solutions work in the same way as a diffusion panel, only more advanced diffusion solutions like softboxes, domes and hanging fabrics or silks give more advanced possibilities.
The Interfit Strobies Portrait Kit of accessories includes a variety of tools useful for creating high-impact portraiture from just a single flash. Requiring an optional Flex Mount to secure the system to a speedlight, the package offers an introductory assembly of the most popular tools for flash photography, including a small beauty dish, softbox, snoot, diffusion globe, barn door setup and 30-degree honeycomb grid. Estimated Street Price: $129 (Interfit Strobies Portrait Kit); $7 (Interfit Flex Mount).
LumiQuest provides several dedicated kits for flash photography, including the Location/Portrait Kit, Strobist Kit, Wedding/Event Kit and the LumiQuest Bounce Kit. The Ready For Anything Kit includes the FXtra color gel system and the LumiQuest ProMax, which offers an 80-20 reflective ceiling bounce with interchangeable white, gold and silver inserts, as well as a removable frosted diffusion screen. LumiQuest also manufactures several miniature softboxes for flashes: the LumiQuest SoftBox, SoftBox LTp, SoftBox III and Mini SoftBox. Estimated Street Price: From $21 (LumiQuest Mini SoftBox); $75 (LumiQuest Ready For Anything Kit).
Available in a variety of shapes and sizes, including strip lights, rectangular panels and larger studio models with a lot of surface area like octaboxes, softboxes are the most popular diffusion accessory in photography because they soften light through a large front panel to achieve especially flattering light similar to the natural diffusion that you find on a cloudy day. Miniaturized softbox solutions for working directly with a speedlight are available whether shooting from the camera or mounting your flash to a stand.
The Apollo softbox line from F.J. Westcott features umbrella-like construction that makes the softboxes fast to set up and tear down. There are several models and accessories throughout the line, including the compact 16-inch Mini Apollo and 28-inch Medium Apollo models, a 43-inch Octagonal Apollo Orb octabox, a 16×30-inch Apollo Strip light unit and the largest 50-inch Recessed Mega JS Apollo softbox. The Micro Apollo will fit right over your flash, and many of the Apollo softboxes are available in kits with a flash mount. Estimated Street Price: From $29 (Micro Apollo).
Domes are very compact because they’re sized to snap over a flash, making them a much more convenient diffusion solution over many other tools. A dome diffuses light in an omnidirectional light spread that’s similar to the overall room illumination that you can get when bouncing your flash from a ceiling or wall. With models sized to the specific dimensions of most available flashes, the Sto-Fen Omni is a basic, but affordable slip-over diffusion panel that fits to the face of your flash. Gold and Green Omni-Bounces are also available for warmth and color correction with fluorescents. List Price: $19 (Omni-Bounce); $29 (Green and Gold Set).
The Ultimate Light Box Pro Pack of accessories offers Harbor Digital Design’s complete line of light-modification tools. With both large and small domes, large and small reflectors, and a colored filter kit, this includes the Ultimate Light Box diffusion kit, small Half Dome diffuser, the unique Black Box and six colored gels in red, blue, green, yellow, pink and ½ CTO. The gels are oversized for heightened color effects, and the Black Box can be used with or without diffusion as an oversized snoot to position the flash as a high-contrast background or rim light. Estimated Street Price: $104.
Most flashes include a built-in white bounce card that flips out to aim reflected light toward a subject while the speedlight itself is pointed in a different direction (typically, a wall or ceiling, which can also act as a bounce to help light up a large room or space). By bouncing light, you reduce highly directional light rays, and by using reflectors in a variety of shapes, textures and tensile strengths, you can also shape and change the nature of the light as it’s reflected.
At the most basic, a bounce can be a simple plain white bounce board or a mirror, while more advanced reflectors and bounces are available in a number of materials and different color combinations for adding qualities like bright specular contrast or a feeling of warmth.
Reflectors like the Lastolite TriGrip reflector solutions are often bendable for best catching light rays. The TriGrip comes in 18-inch Mini TriGrip, 33-inch TriGrip and 48-inch Large TriGrip models with a rigid molded handle that makes it easy to hold with one hand while shooting or controlling bounced light with the other. The line includes one- or two-stop diffusers and color combinations like silver/white, gold/white, sunfire/silver and sunlite/softsilver. Estimated Street Price: From $49.
The Photoflex MultiDisc 42-inch 7-in-1 reflector has reversible fabrics and an easily bendable shape for folding it away into an included storage bag. Swappable surfaces include white for a natural daylight bounce, silver for stronger contrast, gold for a warming effect, soft gold for a combination of warm and diffuse light, a translucent panel for diffusion, SunLite for a gentle, but warm bounce, and black for reducing spill and adding shadows. (This can help to contour a face or body when lighting is too flat.) The MultiDisc 7-in-1 is also available in 22-inch and 32-inch models. Estimated Street Price: $179.
Umbrellas and beauty dishes diffuse light by reflecting it toward the subject from an inversely curved surface behind the bulb. This b
ounces light forward in an even, uniform spread of light that’s accompanied by round catchlights in the eyes of subjects. Both types are popular in portraiture for their fast setup times, but umbrellas and beauty dishes lose a lot of light from side spill, however, and they must be used fairly close to the subject.
Umbrellas are available from most manufacturers in a variety of materials, usually silver, white and gold. Flashpoint’s Umbrella Lighting Outfit (FPOUT) is an ideal starter kit for speedlight photography with two lightweight, 6.5-foot flash stands and two 33-inch umbrellas with tilt adapters and umbrella holder. Estimated Street Price: $65.
Beauty dishes are most often found in silver and white. The Impact Strobros Beauty Dish Version II is a very affordable 6-inch beauty dish that will attach directly to most on-camera speedlights. It includes three colored reflection discs for the interior in silver, soft silver and soft gold. An accessory set of honeycomb grids, color filters and a neutral filter is also available separately. Estimated Street Price: $24 (Impact Strobros Beauty Dish Version II); $28 (Impact Strobros Diffusion/Grid Set for On-Camera Flash Beauty Dish).
Accessories like grids and snoots channel light, while other light-shaping tools like barndoors, flags, scrims and cutters reduce illumination by blocking it or absorbing light spill through black fabrics or metals. Grids can be affixed to the front of a light, and they add power and throw because they gather light rays and move them forward through the right angles of the grid, reducing side spill while focusing the light. (Be leery of cheaper models, however, as shadows from the grid can be seen in the light pattern.)
The Honl Speed Grid is available in two versions, the 1?8-inch Speed Grid and 1?4-inch Speed Grid with a slightly wider spotlight. Both require an additional Speed Strap to mount the Speed System set of Honl accessories—Speed Grids, Gobos, Speed Snoots and Honl Gels—to a flash. List Price: $29 (Honl Photo 1?8-inch Speed Grid); $29 (1?4-inch Speed Grid); $9 (Speed Strap for Speed System).
Snoots are versatile for shaping and focusing light. Much like a spotlight, the effect is very strong contrast with vignetting shadows that surround your subject. Some snoots can even boost light output. Gary Fong offers the LSC Lightsphere Collapsible High PowerSnoot with or without the PowerGrid and the more powerful chrome-plated Gary Fong PowerSnoot with grid for a high-energy burst of light that makes it effective for using telephoto lenses. The Lightsphere Collapsible Pro Kit gives you the PowerSnoot alongside color-correction tools and the Lightsphere Collapsible Inverted Dome Diffuser. Estimated Street Price: $169 (Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible Pro Kit); $64 (Lightsphere Universal PowerSnoot); $59 (Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible Snoot With PowerGrid); $49 (Gary Fong Lightsphere Collapsible Snoot).
Several tools are available for magnifying flash output when needing to light a faraway subject or requiring flash output that can match the distance of a telephoto lens.
The new Rogue Safari Pop-Up Flash Booster will provide DSLR cameras that include pop-up flashes with up to 8x more light over the modest output that’s provided by most built-in flashes. List Price: $34.
For models that have been sized to the dimensions of speedlights, the line of Better Beamer Flash Extenders from Visual Echoes and Harbor Digital Design’s XT Flash Extender Kits offer models that will enhance the light output of popular speedlight models for every major manufacturer. Estimated Street Price: Begins at $35.