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.

 you may want to check this video out before you continue. Linsday Adler does a great job of explaining it all there.

Model: Kita St. Cyr

Model: Kita St. Cyr

So let’s analyze what we’re talking about here. Years ago, it used to be that softboxes were known to be very efficient at spreading light out and also making the light very directional. If you wanted more spread to your light, you bought an umbrella. If you wanted a punchier look, you went for a beauty dish. Then when a photographer wanted something like a softbox but with a bit harder edge and spotlight styled look, then went for an octabank.

Still with me here? It all makes sense once you process it. For what it’s worth though, we highly doubt that most people will ever be able to tell what lighting modifiers are used in most photos. We say this fact for both brand name and types. Only the most advanced strobists can probably tell when something was lit with a softbox over an umbrella. But many probably won’t be able to tell an umbrella with a diffusion cloth over an uctabank–it’s just way too tough to do that.

Now fast forward to today and you’ll be very confused by the newest generation of light modifiers. A great example is Elinchrom’s new LiteMotiv. It’s a souped up Octabank with 16 sides, can function as a beauty dish, and has two layers of optional diffusion surfaces. That means that it can function as an octabank, a softbox and a beauty dish.

But they’re not alone–years ago Profoto introduced brand new super large umbrellas. I’ve tested them and played with them in the studio. They’re massive and do an incredible job of illuminating a subject. But if you don’t like that look, then you can add diffusion layers to soften the light–making it a softbox in some ways or like a beauty dish/octabank because of the fact that there are so many sides to the umbrella.

So what do we have here?

Essentially, you’ve got lots more configurations out of one product–which helps to explain their high prices. Need something to be a softbox one second and then a beauty dish the other moment? It’s all possible–and maybe that’s what many of the more savvy companies have talked more about their products being light shaping tools rather than light modifiers as the retailers call them.