7 Techniques For Modifying Light

Behind the scenes on a photo shoot using a Lastolite Skylite. Nikon D3, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm F2.8G ED, 1/600 sec. at ƒ.8, ISO 400

Every photographer knows light is what makes or breaks an image. One of my favorite quotes about photography is, “You’re not photographing the subject; you’re photographing the light on the subject.” Photograph a supermodel in flat light, and you get a nice shot. After all, that’s why she’s a supermodel. But add some edgy, focused light in the right place, and you have a stunning portrait. The right light brings any subject to life.

I teach a lot of lighting workshops, and a primary goal is learning how to modify the light. Participants start off figuring out how the lights work, what a reflector does, and how to set up a softbox. Then they start to master lighting concepts like direction, quality and color. After three days of shooting, they’re getting a good handle on available light and using flash.

But how can you elevate your lighting technique to a higher level? What really separates the photographer masses is modifying the light to bring your creative vision to life. Everyone can blast strobes at a subject or use a soft gold reflector for fill light. Similar to graduating from Program mode on your camera, modifying the light quality results in much better images. You’re not taking a snapshot but rather creating an image. Try out some of the techniques below on your next shoot, and get ready to go to the next level.

1. Use A Reflector

I’m a big believer in keeping things simple, and using a reflector is about as simple as it gets. Reflectors are inexpensive light modifiers that can save the day and add a nice touch to a portrait. I almost always have a small reflector in my photo backpack, and on some shoots, I bring a wide selection for modifying the light.

What seems to cause confusion with reflectors is how to use them. Let’s clarify some basic reflector technique so you can avoid embarrassment on your next shoot. (Yes, I had these moments, too.) Reflectors can use both flash and available light, but outside available light is where many photographers use reflectors. Rule No. 1: Don’t make your subject cry. Holding a silver reflector 2 feet away from your subject on a sunny day is going to make them melt. Instead, try moving 10 feet away or even further and reflecting the light back at your subject. Moving the reflector away will reduce the fill intensity and produce a much more flattering portrait. Also, only bring the reflector into position when you’re ready to shoot. Reflected light can make your subject squint, so give them breaks in between your shots.

7 Techniques For Modifying Light
A soft gold reflector was used for this outdoor portrait. Nikon D500, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F2.8G ED, 1/2500 sec. at ƒ/2.8, ISO 100

2. Use The Edge Of Your Softbox

When photographers first start using softboxes, they line up their subject dead-center to the softbox. This isn’t a bad thing, since the light should be nice and soft on their subject. Remember a cardinal rule of lighting: The softness of the light is determined by the size of the light source relative to the subject. A big softbox right beside a person will produce very soft light. Move that same softbox 20 feet away from your subject, and its size diminishes relative to the subject and the light will be more directional and less soft.

Using the edge of your softbox allows you to feather the light hitting your subject. Light coming from a square softbox has an edge to it, and feathering the flash controls shadow and spill. To feather your light, line up your softbox so the edge of light is illuminating the subject. This allows you to control shadows on their face. Feathering your softbox using the back edge enables you to aim the light on the subject, instead of illuminating the background. When I shoot portraits in small rooms, the softbox looks like it’s aimed in front of my subject. This is because I’m using the edge of light and preventing light spilling into my background.

7 Techniques For Modifying Light
Using a softbox and feathering the light. Nikon D3, AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm F2.8G ED, 1/250 sec. at ƒ/14, ISO 200

3. Use A Grid

When most photographers think about grids, they envision the classic 7-inch circular honeycomb grid. These grids fit on studio strobe heads and often come in sizes of 10, 20, 30 and 40 degrees. Grids do a terrific job in controlling the angle of light coming from your flash. If you use a 10-degree grid, it’s like using a laser beam; the light is very narrow and focused. I use grids on almost all my shoots. If I want to put a “kiss of light” on a background element, I’ll use a 10- or 20-degree gridded flash for the job. My goal is to light the shot, not illuminate it. Don’t blast light everywhere; pick areas you want to direct the viewer to and add light there.

Speedlights can also use grids. A number of companies produce grids, including Rogue, Lastolite and Honl. These grids attach to the flash head and control the spread of light. Also, TTL flashes have the ability to “zoom” in and narrow the beam of light. My Nikon SB-5000 can zoom out to 200mm. This is a very handy feature for adding flash just where I need it in an image.

I also grid my softboxes. Soft, flexible egg crate grids attach to the front of most softboxes, radically reducing the spread of light but still maintaining the nice soft light. Any photographer who has used a softbox in a small room swears by using grids. Softboxes send light everywhere in a small room and don’t allow much separation from the background. Add a grid to the softbox, and now you can put light on your subject but not have it spill all over the room. This allows you to add another gridded light to separately illuminate the background.

7 Techniques For Modifying Light
Using a snoot to place light just on the deer’s head. Nikon D3, AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F2.8G ED, 1/250 sec. at ƒ/8, ISO 400

4. Use High-Speed Sync

Today high-speed sync is the norm, not the exception, in most flash systems. High-speed-sync flash photography allows you to use a faster shutter speed than your flash sync speed, normally around 1/250. Many photographers think high-speed-sync flash photography is all about freezing the action, but it also allows you to modify the light. Imagine you’re shooting in bright midday sun. You would like to use a shallow depth of field, say ƒ/2.8, in your portrait. Since the subject is slightly backlit, you need to add some fill-flash. When you determine your exposure using ƒ/2.8, you find that 1/2000 is the right shutter speed to use. And since you want to darken the background exposure from your flash exposure, you decide to shoot at 1/4000. Since you’re using high-speed sync, you can use these fast shutter speeds and modify (underexpose) the daylight exposure. Without high-speed sync, you would be stuck using 1/250.

Thankfully, larger flash systems have started to incorporate high-speed sync capabilities. Some strobe systems use a very fast strobic mode similar to speedlights to achieve high-speed sync, while other systems like Elinchrom retime the shutter and flash burst to enable high-speed sync. Whatever strobe you use, the benefit for photographers is more power. Strobes using high-speed sync can illuminate distant subjects and overpower midday sun.

7 Techniques For Modifying Light
Using high-speed-sync flash for a dark background and shallow depth of field. Nikon D300S, AF-S NIKKOR 85mm F/1.4G, 1/4000 sec. at ƒ/5, ISO 100

5. Use A Vari-ND Filter

What if you want to modify the ambient light by underexposing it, but you don’t have high-speed sync available? Another way to darken the daylight exposure is using a Vari-ND filter. These filters work by reducing the light evenly as you rotate the filter. These filters reduce light from two to eight stops, easily underexposing even a sunny midday scene. A polarizer could also be used to reduce light, but they generally only reduce one to two stops of light.

But here’s the trick if you’re using flash in this image. The daylight exposure will be reduced but so will any flash added to the shot. Expect to increase your flash exposure to counter the Vari-ND’s effect. If you’re only reducing the ambient exposure by one to two stops, then your speedlight or studio flash system shouldn’t have much trouble adding enough light. This allows you to underexpose the ambient exposure another one to two stops if you want a dark background for your shot.

Sometimes this can be taken to the extreme. I did a fly-fishing shoot where we wanted the river water to be silky flowing around a fisherman in the river. Since we were shooting in bright sun, I used a Vari-ND filter to get the 20-second exposure needed for the silky water. But since I reduced the light by six stops, my 1100-watt pack couldn’t produce enough power to light the fisherman, even shooting multiple full-power flash pops during the 20-second exposure. To solve this problem, I did a double exposure. My first exposure was with the Vari-ND attached to create the silky water at 20 seconds. For the second exposure, I took off the Vari-ND and shot one flash burst on my fisherman. The final shot had silky water and a lit fisherman.

7 Techniques For Modifying Light
A Vari-ND filter darkened the background of the first exposure in this double exposure. Nikon D3, AF-S NIKKOR 24- 70mm F2.8G ED, 15 sec. at ƒ/22, ISO 100

6. Attach A Snoot

Snoots are similar to grids with a couple of exceptions. They narrow the angle of light even more, and some are flexible, allowing you to mold the light into different patterns. Rogue and LumiQuest both make simple snoots for speedlights. I really like the Rogue FlashBender 2 snoot. This snoot has a built-in Velcro® band to attach to your flash head, and it has flexible metal bars that form the snoot. These can be bent to change the spread of light.

Of all the methods mentioned to modify the light, a snoot offers the most precise lighting. One of my favorite techniques using a snoot is shooting a tiny beam of light across a subject’s eyes. This beam draws attention to the eyes and gives them a nice sparkle. Snoots are also great for adding a touch of light to a flower in the foreground of a landscape shot.

7 Techniques For Modifying Light
Using a snoot and speedlight to illuminate a subject. Nikon D300S, AF-S NIKKOR 85mm F/1.4G, 1/100 sec. at ƒ/4, ISO 100


Light Modifiers

Reflectors/Overhead Scrims
Reflectors come is a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors. My favorite colors are soft gold, silver and white. As you would expect, the color of the reflector will be shown in the light on the subject. If I want to warm up skin tones for a healthy outdoor look, then I’ll use soft gold. To keep colors neutral, I use a basic white reflector. For bright eye catchlights and edgy contrast, I use a silver reflector.Shape and size are also big considerations. When I travel, I like to carry a very small soft gold circular reflector in my bag, but on bigger shoots I bring 3- to 6-foot reflectors to illuminate large areas in the shot. Small and mid-sized reflectors are often collapsible, while larger reflectors require a metal frame. The more rigid the reflector, the less light flicker in windy conditions, important for video shooters who rely on continuous light.

My favorite reflectors include small, circular and flexible ones from Photoflex, which fit right into my photo backpack. For mid- and large-sized reflectors, I use Lastolite reflectors. Lastolite 30” TriGrip reflectors have a handle allowing convenient one-handed use. They come in a variety of colors and collapse down into a small package. Lastolite Skylites can double as a reflector or overhead scrim. Skylites consist of a metal frame, quick-loop attachments for reflective/translucent fabrics and sturdy construction. These reflectors can be as large as 6×6 feet, great for an overhead scrim or large reflector. Westcott Scrim Jim also makes large reflectors and diffusers using a collapsible frame. Scrim Jims are lightweight and very portable.

Similar to reflectors, softboxes come in a variety of shapes, sizes and reflective materials. Since many strobe systems have dedicated speed rings (the metal bracket that connects the softbox to the flash head) specific to their softboxes, photographers often use the same brand of softbox as their strobe system. I work closely with Elinchrom, so I use their softboxes and strobes on my shoots. My favorite softbox is the Elinchrom 39” Rotalux Deep Octabox. This softbox creates a soft but edgy light, great for portraits. I prefer octagonal boxes for portraits because the catchlights in eyes look great. Traditional square softboxes also work well and give you a nice long edge to use in feathering the light.

Speedlights can also use softboxes, and there are many choices. My go-to portable softbox is the Lastolite 24” Ezybox. This softbox pops open and can be set up in under a minute. The Ezybox also has an interior and exterior baffle, similar to a traditional softbox, and creates beautiful soft light. If I need to use 3 to 4 speedlights in one softbox for more power, I use a 30’ FourSquare. These softboxes have a durable bracket-mounting system allowing the use of up to four speedlights in one softbox. For really small portable softboxes, check out the LumiQuest Softbox III.

Grids and snoots both modify the light in a similar fashion; they narrow the spread of light. A 10-degree grid will narrow the light to a beam, while a snoot can narrow the flash even further to a sliver of light. Studio strobe systems often have dedicated grid and snoots for their flash heads. I also use softbox grids made by Lighttools. These grids will fit most flash brands and come in a variety of patterns for varying degrees of narrowing the spread of light. They have bracket and Velcro attachment systems to quickly attach to your softboxes.

Speedlights offer more choices when it comes to snoots and grids. My favorite grid and snoot systems are made by Rogue. The Rogue 3-in-1 Flash Grid uses a 25-and 45-degree grid that can be combined to create a 16-degree grid. For snoots, I use a Rogue FlashBender 2. The FlashBender can be used as a bounce card or molded into a snoot for precise flash illumination. What’s great about the Rogue system is the Velcro® fastening strap, an integral part of the flash accessory. You never have to worry about losing the strap. Honl Photo also makes snoots and grids for speedlights.

Vari-ND Filters
Vari-ND filters have become a staple for photographers and video producers alike. Being able to reduce the light permits darkening the background and also shooting at wide-open apertures for stunning bokeh.

I use the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter to reduce light in my images. This filter can reduce light by two to eight stops, allowing you to adjust ambient exposure. I also use the Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo filter, which combines a polarizing and Vari-ND filter into one. Singh-Ray also offers this filter combined with a polarizer and color intensifier for dramatic color saturation. Many other brands, including Cokin, Formatt-Hitech and Tiffen, make Vari-ND filters.

7. Use An Overhead Silk

Overhead silks modify the light by diffusing the direct sun and producing soft light. I think of an overhead silk as nature’s softbox. You’re using the sun as your light, just modifying it to fit your needs. You can’t control a silk like a softbox, but it does a great job of reducing the exposure of what it shades and reducing contrast.

But overhead silks can produce another effect. Instead of darkening a background, they can lighten it. Imagine placing your subject under an overhead silk that reduces the light by one stop. In essence, your subject is in the shade. But the sunlit background behind isn’t in the shade under the overhead silk. If you expose properly for your shaded subject, the background will be around one stop brighter. This can be a nice technique in creating a high-key shot.

I use Lastolite Skylites for my overhead silks. These panels come in a variety of sizes and have collapsible metal frames. They use white translucent fabric or can use reflective fabrics like gold, white and silver. I attach the overhead silk to heavy-duty Manfrotto stands and position it to produce soft light on my subject. Make sure to weight down the stands; a little wind can turn your overhead silk into a sail.

The next time you have a shoot planned, think through your lighting. Are you using available light, flash or both? What are you really trying to accomplish with the shot? Add light to the areas you want the viewer to look at, and leave other areas in shadow. In the end, it’s all about modifying the light. DP

See more of Tom Bol’s photography and learn about workshop opportunities at tombolphoto.com.

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