How to Figure Out What Light Modifier To Use

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.

Creative Vision

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer iPad Mood board pinterest inspiration (1 of 1)ISO 10001-250 sec at f - 2.8

What I often tell a lot of photographers is to have their specific creative vision involved and on their mind to begin with. Some folks call these mood boards, but otherwise lots of photographers just use Pinterest to pin ideas in an easily organizable spot. It works well and I love it.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Tamron 90mm f2.8 Di VC USD review samples extras (17 of 17)ISO 1001-160 sec at f - 5.6

When you’ve got these pieces pinned, you should carefully observe the lighting accordingly in each photo. For example, if you look at the image above of Justin, you can see that there is Rembrandt lighting. We can also see that the shadows are pretty soft, so we know that we’re working with a light modifier that’s larger than this section of him. More on that in a bit.

Looking at your images and studying what type of lighting there is will help you identify what modifiers you need to use. Here are a few other examples:

Approximately the same side due to how soft the lighting is

Approximately the same side due to how soft the lighting is. It’s leaning more towards the harder side according to the shadows we see.

Extremely soft light.

Extremely soft light. So it needs to be larger.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Tamron 90mm f2.8 Di Vc USD portraits of Erica (1 of 2)ISO 1001-180 sec at f - 2.8

Soft lighting blended into the natural light. It’s very soft and so the modifier need to be larger than what we see here or approximately as large

Size

Let’s review one of the biggest rules about light modifiers: the larger the light source is the softer the lighting will be accordingly. The closer the light source is, the softer it will be because it will be larger appropriately with the subject.

So let’s apply this to real life when looking at portraits:

Model: Asta Peredes.

Model: Asta Peredes.

The beauty dish used here gives you a pretty specular light that isn’t that hard which you can tell by the shadows. So if you consider the size of Asta’s head and torso, it probably is large but not incredibly unwieldy.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Roundflash dish review images with Asta extras (5 of 5)ISO 4001-125 sec at f - 2.8

This is what that light modifier looks like: it’s wider than Asta but not longer than her. The wider side gives enough softness to the scene. It also has to do with how I posed her here.

Now here’s another example:

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Profoto B2 first impressions review portraits of Megan (3 of 5)ISO 4001-50 sec at f - 4.0

This is the light source, and as you can see it’s much smaller than Megan.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Profoto B2 first impressions review portraits of Megan (2 of 5)ISO 4001-50 sec at f - 4.0

Now here’s the result: because of the way Megan is posed the light modifier is approximately taller or the same height as Megan in this image, but it isn’t wider. The fact that it’s taller or around the same height makes it soft enough.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Profoto B2 first impressions review portraits of Megan (1 of 5)ISO 4001-100 sec at f - 2.0

Here’s the same light modifier shooting a smaller area of Megan. It’s both larger and wider this time around and so the light is pretty soft.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Profoto B1 First Impressions sample photos (2 of 10)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 2.5

As for the above photo, look at how large the softbox is in comparison to Grace. It’s pretty large and she’s pretty tiny.

Pro Tip: For this image we placed Grace's back towards the sun so that it would give us a natural hair light. The softbox was then placed camera left as you see it in the image above this one.

Pro Tip: For this image we placed Grace’s back towards the sun so that it would give us a natural hair light. The softbox was then placed camera left as you see it in the image above this one.

As you can see here, because of the very large light modifier the light is soft.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Flashpoint Zoom Li-on review photos (2 of 4)ISO 2001-100 sec at f - 2.8

Here’s another setup with another beauty dish. It’s quite small and it’s not wider than Raiyan’s shoulders at all.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Flashpoint Zoom Li-on review photos (1 of 4)ISO 2001-160 sec at f - 2.8

Now here’s the image. The light is really highlighting his upper torso and face–therefore creating the harder shadows around the arms. But in this case it looks good.

Pro Tip: to be honest, all you sometimes need to make this process work out for you is a flash with a zoom head or a nicely diffused umbrella reflector. If you're using a flash with a zoom head, set it to its widest zoom range--which is typically 14mm. Then move the flash back and forth accordingly.

Pro Tip: to be honest, all you sometimes need to make this process work out for you is a flash with a zoom head or a nicely diffused umbrella reflector. If you’re using a flash with a zoom head, set it to its widest zoom range–which is typically 14mm. Then move the flash back and forth accordingly.

See how large the umbrella reflector attached to the flash is? It’s not that large. You can also see just how much coverage there is. See how it’s casting a shadow on Natalie’s chest?

Model: Natalie Margiotta

Model: Natalie Margiotta

Coming in and focusing on a smaller area though we see the flash hitting the tree branch with then wraps around the subject and outputs it into a larger area. This photo blends just bits of light with shadows and diffusion.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Phottix Indra500TTL Images portraits with Amanda (6 of 11)ISO 1001-4000 sec at f - 1.6

Now consider this one light with the umbrella reflector. See how small it is in comparison to Amanda? However, it’s going to cover a wide area and this is one one of the reasons why I love using a wide angle diffuser on a flash.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Phottix Indra500TTL Images portraits with Amanda (9 of 11)ISO 1001-2500 sec at f - 1.4

Here’s the photo: the shadows aren’t incredibly hard, but they surely could be softer.

So in summation: the larger the light source (light modifier) the larger an area you can cover with a person and get soft lighting. The smaller the light source, the less you can cover. So consider both the length and the width accordingly.

Type

Westcott Apollo Orb

So what type of light modifier should you use? You may want to look at the Phoblographer’s Introduction to Light Modifiers, our list for portrait photographers, and how light modifiers actually effect a scene. We also have guides on umbrellas, umbrella reflectors, and softboxes. These guides are much more in-depth than I could go into here and more fine tailored towards what you’ll want specifically if you’re genuinely interested.