Using Lighting Modifiers

Studio Lighting Basics, Part IV

There's an old rule of lighting to keep in mind when working with the lighting equipment featured in this series: The closer and larger a light source is to a subject, the softer quality of that light becomes.

Conversely, the further away and smaller it is, the harder it becomes. Most studio lighting devices have a reflector that's either built-in or optional, and whose job is to focus the light on the subject. The size and shape of that reflector and where you place the light will determine the quality of the lighting.

The Norman 5WW 16 inch Portrait Reflector has a neutral white finish and provides a nice blend of high output and lighting softness. It is a broad light source that when placed close to a portrait subject it produces soft light.


That reflector on your monolight or flash head often has another job and that's as a way of attaching an umbrella. Photographic umbrellas are used to produce a broad, soft light source and their construction is not all that different from umbrellas that keep "raindrops from falling on your head." Umbrellas are available in plenty of different kinds of fabrics and sizes and some are even available as a collapsible model that let you to create a compact lighting kit to take on the road.

Just because you use an umbrella doesn't mean you don't need a reflector on your studio flash. Because of the design of some flash units, you'll need an umbrella reflector if only to be able to attach the umbrella to the light. This Bowens silver reflector with umbrella bracket focuses the light so that it fills the umbrella with light while providing a way to conveniently attach the umbrella to the flash unit.

Size matters, and umbrellas come in various sizes from small to large with a corresponding amount of softness or hardness based on the rule quoted above. The color of the fabric has a bearing on the color temperature of the output; in addition to neutral-colored white umbrellas, there are gold umbrellas that can be used to warm up a portrait subject. There are even "zebra" umbrellas that alternate stripes of gold and silver to give some warmth but no too much. Shiny silver fabrics create sparkly looks and soft white does just what it sounds like.

Umbrellas, such as this Westcott 45" Soft Silver Umbrella, provide quick and easy light diffusion. Silver or gold interiors modify color of light and Optical White Satin umbrellas can be positioned close to the subject for a shoot-through diffuser.

Some of the softer fabrics even allow you to reverse the umbrella and use it in "shoot through" mode to soften light but produce a light narrower than the broad source created by umbrellas. I am a fan of umbrellas that have a black fabric backing so the light fired into it doesn't leak out the back. Some umbrellas have a removable black cover so you can use them in shoot-through mode.


One way to think of lightbank is as much more directional umbrella. A lightbank is basically a black box with one side covered in diffusion material that lets light pass through. That's why you will occasionally hear them called "light box" and even soft box. ("Soff Box" is a trademark of Larson Enterprises.) The light inside the lightbank can be aimed to shoot through, or to bounce into the back of the box before exiting the front. Some lightbanks let you use them either way so you can have more powerfully direct yet softened light.

One of the quickest and easiest ways to see how diffused light works (and believe me, it does!) even with a small portable, shoe-mount flash is to install one of LumiQuest's Soft Boxes and watch the quality of your flash-on camera portraits get better right before your eyes. The LumiQuest ProMax SoftBox enlarges and diffuses the light from the flash and the light is softened and evenly distributed as it passes through a center-weighted diffuser. The design does not block exposure sensors or autofocus assist beams on most flashes. The LumiQuest ProMax Mini Softbox works with smaller electronic flash units.

There are lots of reasons to use a lightbank to diffuse the raw light produced by an electronic flash or other light source. One is the clean, unobstructed highlight that's reflected in the subject whether it's a reflective subject like a product or a portrait subject's eyes. The other is the ability to use a shorter distance between the light and the subject, maximizing the lightbank's broad modeling of light. You also get improved control of the light because a lightbank's flat, two-dimensional diffuser and opaque shell keeps light from spilling onto surrounding objects or creating flare back into the camera.

The Interfit 39x39-inch softbox is the very model of what a lightbank looks like. It's a black fabric box that has a single side covered in diffusion material to allow light to pass through. Interfit makes models that work with electronic flash as well as continuous light sources.

Lightbanks come in different sizes that are based on the kind of lighting hardware used and the specific photographic application. Although lightbanks work equally well with monolights or electronic flash with separate power pack and heads, they can also be used with continuous light sources, including tungsten "hot" lights.

Lightbanks come in various sizes and shapes from square to rectangular window-shaped models whose reflection in a subject's make it look like window light to strip lights whose long skinny shape produces dramatic lighting with more emphasis on shadows than highlights. Lightbanks don't have to be rectangular. They can even be round or octagonal! A round diffuser creates perfectly round catchlights for portraiture or even round reflections for everything else.

Sometimes you need more directional control over your light without sacrificing the broad, window-like quality of light that a lightbank produces. Chimera's strip light lightbank uses a fabric grid that does a great job of keeping soft light on the subject and off the background.

The Bowens Octo Box 150 Umbrella Reflector s a reverse-firing soft box. The head is mounted inside the box and pointed away from the subject towards the rear reflecting cloth. This placement scatters the light so that by the time it reaches the front diffusion cloth the light's distribution is even.

One of the downsides of using lightbanks is as they get bigger they also get deeper. Noted lighting innovator Gary Regester decided to create a lightbank that had a thinner-than-normal profile and produced the Plume Wafer. The narrow profile, silver-with-white interior and graduated inner baffles create efficiencies with a choice of light contrast across the front diffuser panel. The narrow Wafer profile results from using a combination of an aluminum tent tube with a fiberglass fishing rod (no kidding.) Special pole pockets reinforce the corners. Inner baffles, rear closures and flash ring adapters are interchangeable.

The Plume Wafer Rectangle is a 3:4 proportioned diffusion lightbank for general use and is my personal favorite. It creates the artificial lighting equivalent of a broad "window" making it idea for use as a classic portrait and product light used off-camera or overhead on a boom.


A reflector is a flat surface that "reflects" light from a light source no matter if it's electronic flash or any continuous light source, including daylight. Usually reflectors are made of some kind of reflective fabric and are available in different colors to change the color of the reflected light. More often them not, these reflectors collapse into a more portable format for travel. Reflectors follow the same rules as all lighting devices: Bigger sources close to the subject produce soft light; smaller sources further away produce harder light. Collapsible reflectors come in many shapes, sizes, and variations on a theme.

Lastolite's 32-inch Tri Grip Collapsible Triangular Reflector uses a triangular shape because it combines the ability to collapse the product and the ability to keep itself rigid. The Tri-Grip measures approximately 33" on each side, and is also available in Gold/White, Sunfire/Silver, and Silver/White.

Because of its versatility my favorite cloth reflector is Flashpoint's 32-inch 5-in-1 Collapsible Disc Reflector

Most times reflectors are held by an assistant. When photographing models that bring their husbands or boyfriends to a shoot I always get them to hold a reflector. It gives them something to do and keeps them out of my hair and from disrupting the session. If you shoot alone or don't have an assistant to hold that reflector at just the right angle, you're gonna need a way to mount the reflector on a light stand. Tip: You can never have too many lightstands.



The Bowens Universal Telescopic Collapsible Disc Holder is perfect if you shoot alone or don't have an assistant to hold the reflector at the right angle. It accommodates a wide range of portable reflectors up to 60 inches and will attach to the top of most light stands and hold the reflector in almost any position.

When it comes to reflectors, bigger is better. Photoflex's 41" x 74" LiteDisc Collapsible Disc Reflector has white and gold (for sunsets outdoors?) sides to match your photographic situation. The reflector is shown here attached to Photoflex's LiteDisc Holder that provides the support to hold and position all sizes of LiteDiscs. It's adjustable from 30" to 67" and can be rotated and swiveled for precise positioning.

Mix 'n Match

You can use a reflector with a lightbank and an umbrella. An umbrella and a lightbank can work together or you can light a subject with nothing but lightbanks. Ya see, the choice is yours. Each of these light modifiers has its own characteristics and once you get past the "throw every possible kind of light at a subject" phase of your lighting curve and decide to create a mood you'll want to select light modifiers that create or enhance that mood.

Lighting is more art that science. You have to make sure that the exposure is correct, but after that there is considerable latitude and number of choices to create an image that makes a statement. In the past four installments I've introduced you to the tools, now it's your turn to use them and have some fun.

Joe Farace is the author of "Getting Started in Digital Imaging" published by Focal Press (ISBN 024080838X.) It's available in all the best bookstores.



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