Light modifiers are a powerful way to shape or control light.
And with the right approach, you can use modifiers to achieve beautifully lit, gorgeous portraits.
In this article, I’m going to share everything you need to know about modifiers. I’ll take you through all the most popular modifiers – and I’ll explain precisely what they do and why you might want to use them.
By the time you’re done, you’ll be a light modification expert!
Let’s get started.
Technically, you can do portrait photography without modifiers. You can shoot with a subject and an unmodified flash.
However, a naked flash produces hard light and harsh shadows, which I think look really unflattering.
That’s why I rarely work without some sort of diffusion modifier. It softens the light, softens the shadows, and gives you a flattering end result.
Nobody is ever going to tell you, “Wow, I love the way your hard lighting has captured and enhanced every single pore, line, and blemish on my skin. I actually look ten years older. Thanks!”
Hence, it’s often a good idea to start with soft, carefully modified lighting.
There are, of course, many really cool uses for hard lighting, and some photographers can make it look brilliant. I’m just not one of them. I like to control the light and only illuminate certain areas of my shot.
Therefore, for me, modifiers are absolutely essential.
Every kind of light modifier will have a top-of-the-line version and a really cheap version.
The main difference is that the cheaper versions won’t be as durable. This becomes important when you’re using them every single day.
So once you become an experienced studio photographer, it makes sense to invest in high-quality modifiers.
When you’re learning to use modifiers, however, I recommend choosing cheap versions. They’ll perform just fine, and you’ll save yourself a lot of money.
Different modifiers affect the light in different ways.
Some modifiers broaden the beam to soften the light. Other modifiers narrow the beam to harden the light.
So when selecting a modifier, ask yourself:
What kind of lighting am I trying to create?
If you’re after the soft, diffused effect you’d get from an overcast sky, you might want to consider one of these modifiers:
But if you want a harder light source like the sun on a cloudless day, try one of these modifiers instead:
Note that, if you’re shooting outside or near windows, your choice of modifier should depend on the ambient light. Harsh sunlight should be combined with hard modifiers, and cloudy light should be combined with soft modifiers.
When picking a modifier, it’s also important to consider the mood you’re after. Soft light gives ethereal, beautiful portraits, whereas hard light tends to be more intense, in-your-face, and dramatic.
Now let’s take a look at the different light modifiers in much greater detail, starting with:
An umbrella creates a quality of light that is soft, abundant, and very forgiving.
Umbrellas are a great choice if you want to light a large area with flat, even lighting. Because umbrellas are easy to use and relatively cheap, they are a good beginner’s light modifier.
On the other hand, umbrellas tend to over-light scenes, spreading lots of light around.
Lots of light. All over the place. Like a hose with its spray nozzle set to “everywhere.”
So think of umbrellas as an only-use-in-case-of-emergency style of lighting. If you overuse them, things tend to get a bit ugly.
There are a few types of umbrellas you should consider:
When my children were young, I taught them how to ride bikes using training wheels. The wheels boosted their confidence. After a while, I took the training wheels off, and they rode on two wheels as if they’d been doing it all their lives.
I think using flash with an umbrella is the same. Use an umbrella as a learning tool until you get your balance, then move on to a better bike.
Umbrellas are great for indoor lighting.
But they’re tricky – and even downright dangerous – to use outside.
I’ve had countless (expensive) lights blown over when using umbrellas. So if you must use them outdoors, then please make sure you have somebody holding them or sandbags to keep them in place.
After you’ve ditched your umbrella training wheels, the next step is to work with a scrim panel.
A scrim is a square or rectangular frame with a fabric diffusion material stretched across, like this:
Scrims are a really cool way to create large areas of soft, diffused light as if you’re shooting next to a large window or have clouds over the sun. And they’re great for diffusing flash, continuous light, and sunshine.
Remember: The larger the light source, the softer the light.
In fact, of all the light modifiers, a scrim is probably the most versatile and a must have in your kit.
This is a piece of equipment that you can easily make yourself. I used a DIY scrim for my first 10 years as a photographer.
Softboxes are low-cost and versatile modifiers that create a beautiful, soft, easily controllable light source.
If I could only pick one light modifier to take to a deserted island, it would have to be the softbox. Small, medium, or large, this little puppy is my go-to light source for 80% of my shoots.
Why? The quality of light is soft, flattering, and malleable. Changing the angle and proximity of the softbox to the sitter easily changes the hardness of the light and the direction of the shadow.
It’s one of the light modifiers that most accurately recreates the effect of soft daylight coming through a window. I think what I like most about this light modifier is that it’s subtle. Highlights gently merge into shadows.
This image of a racecar driver, Glauco Junior Solleri, was taken using a speedlight and a small Lumiquest softbox: