How to Figure Out What Light Modifier To Use

Chris Gampat Bec Fordyce january 2015 portraits others (1 of 1)ISO 4001-250 sec at f - 2.5

Many photographers just getting into working with light specifically are often very confused about what light modifiers to use. But they’re also never quite sure what they should use for the type of work that they’re doing. The true answer is that everyone is making good stuff these days and that very few people will be able to look at an image and immediately tell what light modifiers you’re using in the same way that they won’t be able to tell your camera, lens, etc for the most part.

Instead, it’s all about the type of photo that you’re trying to create.

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The Confusion Behind Modern Light Modifiers for Strobists

ISO 400, 1/100th f2.8

ISO 400, 1/100th f2.8

What do you get when you cross an umbrella, a parabolic umbrella, a softbox, a beauty dish, and an octabank together? You get pretty much every well marketed light modifier that have been coming out in the past couple of years. Yes, there are some traditional softboxes or beauty dish, but they’re not looked at as the best of the best. Those modifiers instead are a cross between so many things.

This makes it so much tougher for the introductory strobists trying to understand how light works and how it falls, but it makes the understanding of it confusing for the experienced shooter too. Many of the more experienced strobists probably have an arsenal of light modifiers–umbrellas, softboxes, etc. They work well and have for years, but there is a very new generation of light modifiers out there that almost promise to be an all-in-one solution.

And for serious lack of better terminology, we’re going to call it the Light Source.

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DIY: Hack an Umbrella Reflector Onto a Flash

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Umbrella Reflector Hack (7 of 7)ISO 4001-50 sec at f - 2.0

One of the absolutely most underrated light modifiers is the Umbrella Reflector. Typically used to hold an umbrella in place and provide more stability when attached to a monolight, they can also take the light output from strobes and monolights, give it a specific conical direction and soften it. For many years, however, these flash modifiers were limited to monolights and hot shoe flashes couldn’t really enjoy the benefits. But for what it’s worth, many hot shoe flashes have been designed with radio transmission as of late and were primarily intended for off-camera use.

Using a bit of tinkering at home combined with some inspiration from a beauty dish hack I did along with the Impact Strobos, I created an umbrella reflector that works well with a hot shoe flash.

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Useful Photography Tip #145: Creating Wrap Around Light With One Light Source

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer New York Comic Con 2012 Photos (6 of 33)ISO 200

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Wrap around light: what this means is light that literally wraps around a subject and gives the illusion of two lights. Traditionally, photographers needed two or more lights to do it, but the effect can be created in camera with one light.

There are two components to this: One massive light modifier in relation to the subject and and one light.

First off, face your subject and place the light (inside the light modifier) in front of your subject and slightly above the camera. Angle the light modifier to be flat against the subject though you can also place it a bit higher and angled downward a bit.

How big of a modifier are we talking? Generally it should be larger than your subject. If you’re photographing a mango as a still life, then a 24 inch softbox or some sort should be more than enough. If you’re photographing a person, then you’ll need something like a six or seven foot umbrella or softbox.

Then what you’ll need to do is meter the subject for the flash/strobe output and then meter accordingly on your camera to the ambient light. When you’ve metered for the ambient, underexpose by around 2/3rds of a stop.

If the shutter speed is too slow for you to handhold, use a tripod or crank up the ISO and re-meter for the flash output.

If you don’t want to raise the ISO any higher, then what you’re going to need to do is use a tripod to avoid any camera shake.

When a flash and strobe are involved in the creation of an exposure, the flash output exposure is dictated by the aperture while the ambient light is dictated by the shutter speed. ISO controls the overall sensitivity of the scene.

As long as your positioning of the light covers and wraps around the subject and the ambient light is accordingly exposed for you’ll be able to create a beautiful wrap around light effect.

The other alternative: Place the light on one side of a subject and then place the subject by a wall and have the light bounce off the wall and fill in the other side of the person. The wall will act like a natural reflector.

The Convertible Umbrella: The Most Versatile Light Modifier

ISO 400, 1/100th f2.8

ISO 400, 1/100th f2.8

While many photographers love to work with softboxes, there are many other light modifiers out there. But the single most versatile light modifier out there is the umbrella–and more specifically the convertible umbrella. An umbrella can function as many different light modifiers and the right one can be all you need in your lighting kit. Indeed, it’s a simple to use and very effective light modifier that gives you the most bang for your buck.

To understand why, you’ll need to understand more about how the umbrella works.

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Useful Photography Tip #134: How to Shoot With Your Lens Wide Open in Bright Sunlight

Pro Tip: The larger the light modifier is, the softer the light will be on your subject in relation to distance from them.

Pro Tip: The larger the light modifier is, the softer the light will be on your subject in relation to distance from them.

Want more Useful Photography Tips? Click here.

Your camera is at the lowest ISO setting it could possibly organically be at, your shutter speed has hit the maximum setting, and you still want to shoot an image with the lens wide open. The challenge: the sun is way too bright and giving off too much light to let you get anything near a correct exposure.

So how do you shoot the photo? There are three different ways.

The first one is the simplest and least expensive. Try to backlight the subject. Of course, this is tougher if your subject is a flower or your children running around because it means you need to get very low to the ground. But otherwise it’s a solid option.

The second option: use a shoot through umbrella or a translucent reflector to diffuse the sunlight. This will usually kill enough of it to let you get a more balanced exposure. In the case of the umbrella, it can also be used as a fun prop.

The final option: try a variable ND filter–which is what film photographers used to use. These filters let you cut out a specific amount of like that you set them to just by turning them. The quality of these filters has improved so much that it’s bound to not ruin the quality of your image.

Taming Mid Day Natural Light for Portrait Photos

Most photographers would prefer to shoot in natural light–but the inherent problem with it has to do with making it look better when taking photos. More often than not, the sun can create lots of harsh shadows unless it’s being diffused by a cloud.

So how do you tame it? Photographer Craig Beckta suggests using a five-in-one reflector and a shoot through umbrella, two of the same items that we strongly recommend. His video below the jump illustrates what shooting with regular sunlight looks like, using tree shadows, a shoot through reflector, golden, white, silver and a shoot through umbrella.

The biggest advantage that Craig doesn’t mention though is that by using a five in one reflector, you make the most of the time available to you and your subject. There are many of photographers who will specifically wait until the golden hour or for a cloudy day. But that means that you only have such a narrow shooting time, which can limit you when a possible schedule conflict arises.

Craig’s video on Natural Light for Portrait Photos is after the jump. But also be sure to check out our tips on taking the best advantage of natural light, backlighting your portraits, and how to use it during weddings.

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Joel Grimes Shows You How to Make One Light Look Like Two

Screenshot taken from the YouTube Video

Screenshot taken from the YouTube Video

Photographer Joel Grimes is really one of the best in the business and he recently teamed up with Westcott to create a special tutorial video on making one light look like two. Joel uses a giant Westcott parabolic umbrella with a front diffusion panel (one of our favorite modifiers to use in our reviews). The interior is silver so it gives off a very punchy light.

Granted, that is a single light, but Joel positions his model against a big white wall and positions the light camera right with the wall camera left. The white wall acts like a giant bounce card that takes the existing light and bounces it back onto the subject to fill in most of the shadows.

It’s a very clever trick–but the positioning of all the elements is key to making it work.

The video on how to make one light look like two is after the jump.

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